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The Great(est) Migration

Bronzeville, Chicago.

A brief note on what helped shape the America we know today.

Few singular events shaped the American demographic so pivotally as did the Great Migration. The migration of African-Americans from the south to the north spanned several decades, mainly from around 1910 to 1930 and again from 1940 to 1970. During that time, approximately six million blacks transitioned out of the southern sharecropping lifestyle into the hustle and bustle of the northern industrial economy. Though African-Americans were considered “freedmen” (the Emancipation Proclomation of 1863 ended slavery), legislation and economic hardship made acquiring rights almost impossible. Historians attribute several factors that led to the mass exodus from the south, such as the Jim Crow laws and the influx of wartime jobs in the north, and, perhaps primarily, the invention of the mechanically-powered cotton harvester.

Suzanne C. Eichenlaub, a professor at the University of Washington, notes that black migrants coming from the south were able to increase their general income over the course of several decades, implying that the movement north was worthwhile to most African-American families who undertook the journey. As more and more African-American families poured out of the south, many of the the northern industrial hubs saw dramatic changes in their poulation demographic. According to Nicholas Lemann, author of The Promised Land, 1940s era Chicago saw a 77 percent increase in its black population.

Of course, Chicago wasn’t the only city to have a rise in its African-American population. Philadelphia, another destination for northern-bound blacks, was one of the lesser segregated of the destination cities of the Great Migration, writes Isabel Wilkerson in her book The Warmth of Other Suns. But life in the north was not always as bright as its initial pull seemed to be for many migrants. As the amount of migrants increased in the popular destination cities, so did illiteracy and poverty.

Ruby Lee Daniels moved to Chicago in 1946. Daniels hailed from Clarkesdale, Mississippi, and made the drastic transition to city life. She moved to the heart of black Chicago, known then as “Bronzeville.” Two historians of the time, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, wrote “Middle-class neighborhoods in Bronzeville thus became the beach upon which broke the human flotsam which was tossed into the city streets by successive waves of migration from the South.”

W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois studied the life of northern black migrants in his dissertation entitled The Philadelphia Negro. Whites at the time (ca. late 19th Century) used the deplorable conditions of the black communities and rampant crime to “prove” the notion that blacks were inferior to whites. DuBois argued that it was social conditions rather than hereditary that caused the black population to suffer, writing, “there is no doubt that in Philadelphia the center and kernel of the Negro problem so far as the white people are concerned is the narrow opportunities afforded to Negroes to earn a decent living. Such discrimination is morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly.”

Historians today continue to research the event that helped shape our United States. America as we know it today would be inconceivably different if it were not for the Great Migration.

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