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The Great Migration

African American welders at the Marinship yard in 1943.
African American welders at the Marinship yard in 1943. (Credit: NPS)
Between 1915 and 1970, more than 6 million African-Americans left the South and moved to cities across the country during a period known as the Great Migration. Black populations in New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia and other cities increased by about 40 percent, and the number of African-Americans employed in industrial jobs nearly doubled.

According to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, several factors were responsible for the migration including the devastation of crops by the tiny boll weevil; widespread racial violence in the South; and the potential for better jobs and education opportunities in the North.

At times during the 1900s, more than 20 percent of American seamen have been African Americans.
At times during the 1900s, more than 20 percent of American seamen have been African Americans. (Credit: Courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum, Palmer Collection)

“Every conceivable method was used to draw the black labor supply from the South,” according to a Shomberg Center analysis. “Labor agents from northern companies stood on street corners offering train passes to the young, male, and strong. It soon sparked a migration fever. Black newspapers carried job advertisements touting good wages and other advantages of living in the North. They also published success stories about recent migrants already making more money than they had ever dreamed possible.”

The Great Migration was the first step in the nationalization of the African-American population. Between 1916 and 1918 alone, nearly 400,000 African Americans – 500 each day – took what they prayed was a journey to freedom and economic prosperity.

Chicago attracted more than 500,000 African-Americans from the South. Before this migration, African-Americans comprised two percent of Chicago's population; by 1970, they were 33 percent.

As in other cities, the new arrivals transformed Chicago and created the foundation for African-American political power, black entrepreneurship and union activism.

Orchestra on board the USS Wyoming (BB-32).
Orchestra on board the USS Wyoming (BB-32).(Credit: Photo ID NH-95226, U.S. NHHC, Courtesy of USN Commander Donald J. Robinson.)

“Indeed, the new arrivals from the South changed the face of America,” says Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, which chronicles the mass exodus of African-Americans from the South "[The Great Migration] had such an effect on almost every aspect of our lives — from the music that we listen to, to the politics of our country, to the ways the cities even look and feel, even today," Wilkerson told National Public Radio. "The suburbanization and the ghettos that were created as a result of the limits of where [African-Americans] could live in the North [still exist today.] And ... the South was forced to change, in part because they were losing such a large part of their workforce through the Great Migration."




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