The Great Migration was a deeply political act that marked a shift in African American consciousness. The migration itself reflected African American refusal to live by southern social practices. The effect on northern cities was dramatic.
While black migrants enjoyed significantly greater freedom in the North, their life was far from easy. In many instances, blacks were employed to break a local union. There was a shortage of housing since de facto segregation determined who lived where. Apartment buildings originally designed for five families would be changed to hold five times as many people, leading to sanitation and public health risks. Earlier black migrants sometimes resented the newcomers who degraded current conditions.
There was rapidly rising racial violence. The Ku Klux Klan reappeared and grew. There were acts of violence in cities across the country. For example, in 1917 in East St. Louis, striking white laborers assaulted black scab workers at area aluminum factories. Police watched as the black workers were attacked. Nearly fifty people died in the violence. Thousands of black families were left homeless. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized a silent protest march in New York City. Two years later, black neighborhoods came under attack in Chicago due to housing shortages.
The changing demographics of the black population led to new ways of understanding “blackness.” Migrating African Americans brought their culture with them. New combinations of religious practice, music, folklore, and the arts emerged. There was an African American cultural renaissance in black communities.
The New Negro mentality was about more than the arts, however. The NAACP worked for legal remedies to blacks’ second-class status. The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) advocated a self-help economic philosophy. Membership in UNIA groups such as uniformed marching bands and the Black Star Nurses gave its members purpose and a sense of belonging.
The pace of northern migration slowed following the stock market crash of 1929. And even though many of the social and political challenges that led to the black exodus from the South remained in place, there was no doubt that a new way of seeing the present world and imagining its future had emerged. The black radical politics of the 1930s, the Second Great Migration (beginning in the 1940s), and the legal triumphs of the civil rights era (1960s) all emerged from the changing political, social, and cultural sensibilities of the Great Migration.
Source: Jim Crow and the Great Migration
Copyright © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 2009-2019.