The Great Migration

The Great Migration was the movement of 6 million African Americans out of the rural American South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West that began around 1916 and would continue for several decades. It was caused primarily by poor economic conditions, white supremacist violence. and racial segregation and discrimination in the South, where Jim Crow laws were upheld.

In every U.S. Census prior to 1910, more than 90% of the African American population lived in the American South. In 1900, only one-fifth of African Americans living in the South were living in urban areas. By the end of the Great Migration however, just over 50% of the America's Black population remained in the South, while a little less than 50% lived in the North and West. The African-American population had also become highly urbanized.

When America entered World War 1 in 1917, there was an immediate need for workers in northern steel mills, railroad companies, meatpacking plants, and the automobile industry. The pull of jobs in the north was strengthened by the efforts of labor agents sent to recruit southern workers. Northern companies offered special incentives to encourage Black workers to relocate, including free transportation and low-cost housing. 

Many African Americans saw this as an opportunity to escape segregation, growing racist ideologies, widespread lynching (nearly 3,500 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968), and lack of social and economic opportunities in the South. 

Between 1910 and 1930, the African American population increased by about 40% in Northern states as a result of the migration, mostly in the major cities. The cities of Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York City had some of the biggest increases in the early part of the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of African Americans were recruited for industrial jobs, such as positions related to the expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Because changes were concentrated in cities, which had also attracted millions of new or recent European immigrants, tensions rose as the people competed for jobs and scarce housing. Tensions were often most severe between ethnic Irish, defending their recently gained positions and territory, and recent immigrants and the incoming Black population. In the late summer and autumn of 1919, racial tensions became violent and came to be known as the Red Summer. This period of time was defined by violence and prolonged rioting between Blacks and Whites in cities.

The race riots peaked in Chicago, where 38 people lost their lives, with 500 more injured. Additionally, $250,000 worth of property was destroyed, and over a thousand people were left homeless. In other cities across the nation many more had been affected by the violence of the Red Summer. The Red Summer enlightened many to the growing racial tension in America. The violence in these major cities prefaced the soon to follow Harlem Renaissance, an African American cultural revolution.