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The Great Migration

Written by: Glenda Gilmore, Yale University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of international and internal migration patterns over time

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative after the Jim Crow and Progressivism Narrative to have students explore how Jim Crow laws encouraged African Americans to migrate away from the South.

In the summer of 1901, two young, black, southern women debated the question, “Is the South the Best Place for the Negro?” Addie Sagers, born in Alabama, took the affirmative side of the debate. The South, she argued, gave African Americans the opportunity to succeed in business and the professions. Because of discrimination in northern workplaces, perpetuated by unions as well as employers, a black person could be only a “bell boy, waiter, cook, or a house maid.” Sagers pointed out that there were only 11 black teachers in Chicago’s schools. She argued that the disenfranchisement law might serve as motivation for black youth to seek more education to pass the literacy test it required. She did not yet realize that the literacy test would be unfairly administered to prevent any African Americans from passing it.

Sagers’ opponent, Laura Arnold, got the best of the debate. She pointed out that for black southerners the “judges of his illiteracy are his enemies, one of whom recently said, no Negro could explain a clause of the Constitution to his satisfaction.” Arnold emphasized the wave of violence and lynchings being perpetrated against southern African Americans. “My friends!” she warned, “You sleep over a volcano, which may erupt at any moment, and only your lifeless bodies will attest that you believed the South to be the best home for the Negro.” Even the economic success that Sagers lauded brought danger, Arnold argued: “Displease by look, word, or deed a white man and if he so desires, your property is likely to be reduced to ashes, and the owner a mangled corpse.”

Their debate marks the intertwined personal and political motivations that prompted approximately 1.6 million southern African Americans to move north in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Push factors – reasons to leave the South, including segregation, sharecropping, disfranchisement, violence, and racism – motivated many. But pull factors were at work as well. Industrial jobs slowly opened to African Americans in the North, they found themselves able to vote and even be elected to office, and vibrant neighborhoods with distinct cultures grew in northern cities. Despite heavy discrimination, particularly in employment and housing, black southerners began to build communities in the North, prompting the chain migration of family and neighbors. In the first decade, many of those who migrated were educated, urban people who had skills and resources to make the trip and to earn a livelihood in northern cities. But during World War I, as the United States geared up for war and northern factory workers joined the armed forces, the number of migrants increased dramatically. One scholar writing in 1920 commented, “They left as though they were fleeing some curse.”

Impoverished black farmers began to move from farms to southern cities in large numbers after 1910, and many continued from there to northern cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, New York, and Chicago. Rural southern African Americans worked chiefly as sharecroppers, planting and harvesting crops on white landowners’ farms for a percentage of the profit (often 50 percent). Many sharecroppers ended the year in debt, especially after the boll weevil began to move across the South in 1892 and decimated cotton crops. In 1900, nearly half of southern farmers did not own land, and a majority of them were African Americans. Under the thumb of white landowners and in constant debt to them, many of these sharecroppers compared their situations to slavery.

A group of African American men, women, and children stand in a cotton field. Standing among them is a white man holding a dog and a gun.

The majority of sharecropping families, like this group of families pictured in West Point, Mississippi, in 1909, were unable to escape the cycle of debt incurred through the sharecropping system.

Ernest Grey, born on a Sea Island off Savannah, Georgia, had few prospects in life. His father sent him to live with a woman in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he worked as a sharecropper. He ran away to work at a fertilizer plant in Savannah: “I wanted to get away from down there.” In 1916, a labor recruiter promised free passage north on a train but left the group in Paoli, Pennsylvania, at a railroad shanty, where they were to work on the railroad. Grey made his way to Philadelphia, where he found work in a Campbell Soup factory, but even in the city he had to “be careful” because the factory was in a white neighborhood. Nonetheless, Grey did not return to the South for 70 years, and he never saw his relatives again.

From 1910 to 1930, approximately 1.3 million black southerners moved north and west in several different migrant streams that generally depended on the transportation available to them. African Americans from the East Coast typically went to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York. New York City’s black population more than doubled during that decade, from 152,000 to 328,000. From the middle South, black residents of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky moved to Chicago and mid-Western industrial cities, where car manufacturers and related industries began to employ African Americans. For example, Detroit’s population grew from 41,000 in 1910 to 120,066 in 1920. Arkansians, Louisianans, and Texans went to places like Saint Louis and California.

The map of the United States, titled

This map shows the migrant streams of southern African Americans during the Great Migration from 1916 to 1930. (credit: “Great Migration” by Bill of Rights Institute/Flickr, CC BY 4.0)

Chicago became so familiar to black southerners that they called it by the nickname “Chi.” The black-owned newspaper The Chicago Defender wrote countless stories urging migration from the South, and people in the Deep South passed the paper from hand to hand. Labor agents advertised in thee Defender, drawing countless letters like this one from a woman in Mobile, Alabama, who was eager to emigrate in 1917. “I bore the reputation of a first class laundress . . . [and] much experience with all of the machines in the laundry. . . . You will do me a noble favor with an answer in the earliest possible moment with a description all about the work.” The Defender offered cheap train tickets from the South to Chicago for three dollars on special trains at particular times. Afraid of losing its cheap labor force and its sharecroppers, Mississippi banned distribution of the paper.

Black southerners also went to mid-sized cities across the North. When Moundville, Alabama, sharecropper Garther Roberson settled up his debt, he immediately put his clothes in a sack, left his wife and six-month-old son, and took the train to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where his brother had migrated. A year later, he sent for his family. He worked in a foundry, sang in the Baptist church choir, and became a Baptist minister. He faced down the Ku Klux Klan in Ypsilanti in the 1920s, began carrying a gun, and became a community leader. His son graduated from an integrated high school and went to work for Ford Motor Company, and his daughter became a social worker. By the mid-1930s, Ypsilanti hosted a close-knit black community, with a physician, real estate agents, ministers, and business owners, and a thriving chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

By the 1970s, six million black southern refugees from the Jim Crow states had moved to the North or the West. Their children and grandchildren were writers, artists, professionals, service workers, and factory employees. As historian Isabelle Wilkerson put it, the Great Migration” moved those who had long been invisible not just out of the South, but into the light.”

Review Questions

1. Push factors at work in the Great Migration of African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century included all the following except

  1. literacy tests
  2. Jim Crow laws
  3. fear of lynching and personal violence
  4. expansion of industrial jobs

2. Many of the first African Americans who left the South to move north during the Great Migration were

  1. educated urban dwellers with resources
  2. sharecroppers
  3. people from the Appalachian foothills
  4. unemployed factory workers

3. Migration of southern African American sharecroppers increased dramatically in the early twentieth century because

  1. their skills transferred easily to northern factories
  2. they followed the progress of the boll weevil northward
  3. they sought to escape economic hardship
  4. they saved enough to purchase their own homes

4. Black southern migrants found the northern cities to be

  1. free of economic and social discrimination
  2. lacking in economic opportunity
  3. controlled by Jim Crow legislation
  4. sources of discrimination and prejudice as well as opportunity

5. Black southern migrants to northern cities generally settled in

  1. no recognizable pattern
  2. cities along existing transportation networks
  3. locations selected by their ministers
  4. cities chosen by the factories that paid for their tickets

6. Most black southerners who moved north during the Great Migration

  1. returned to the South after earning enough money to buy a farm
  2. remained in the North despite discrimination
  3. found little to no opportunity for advancement in the North
  4. moved to farming communities in the North

Free Response Questions

  1. Analyze the push factors that led more than one million African Americans to move from the South to the North in the early twentieth century.
  2. Discuss the conditions southern African Americans encountered in the North during the Great Migration.

AP Practice Questions

“If You are a Stranger in the City

If you want a job. If you want a place to live. If you are having trouble with your employer. If you want information or advice of any kind.


3719 South State Street. Telephone Douglas 9098. T. Arnold Hill, Executive Secretary.

No charges – no fees. We want to help YOU.”

Front of a card distributed by the Chicago Urban League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (now the Chicago Urban League), c. 1920

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. This document was created in response to

  1. demobilization of the integrated military after the end of World War I
  2. radicalism and labor activism associated with the Red Scare
  3. nativism aimed at Southern and Eastern Europeans
  4. limited economic opportunity and racial segregation in the South

2. Which of the following best contextualizes this document?

  1. The Spanish-American War
  2. The Socialist Party platform
  3. The Great Migration
  4. The Harlem Renaissance

3. This document was primarily intended to

  1. publicize federal programs designed to help immigrants and migrants
  2. gain votes for the urban political machines operating in major American cities
  3. promote union membership among newly hired workers
  4. offer community-based services to those recently arrived from southern states

Primary Sources

DeVore, Donna. “Interview with interview with Ernest Grey, July 12, 1984.” Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History: University of Kentucky Libraries.

Letters to the ChicagoDefender.

“One-Way Ticket. Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration Series.” Museum of Modern Art.

Roberson, S. L. Interview with Tony Ingram, July 26, 1981. African American Oral History Archive, 028, Ypsilanti District Library, Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Scott, Emmett J. ” Letters of Negro Migrants of 1916-1918.” The Journal of Negro History4, no. 3 (1919): 290-340.

Scott, Emmett J. “Negro Migration During the War.” In Preliminary Economic Studies of the War. Vol. 16. Edited by David Kinley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1920. Reproduced at

“The Great Migration, 1920 to 1970.” U.S. Census Bureau.

Suggested Resources

Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor, 2009.

Daniel, Pete R. The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969. Urbana-Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Harrison, Alferdteen. Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

“Lynchings by year and race.”

Marks, Carol. Farewell-We’re Good and Gone: The Great Migration. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Tolnay, Stewart, Katherine J. Curtis White, Kyle D. Crowder, and Robert M. Adleman. ” Distances Traveled during the Great Migration: An Analysis of Racial Differences among Male Migrants.” Social Science History 29, no. 4 (2005):523-548.

Wilkerson, Isabelle. ” The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration.”

Wilkerson, Isabelle. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Vintage: 2011.

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