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date: 24 January 2021

The Great Migrations and Black Urban Life in the United States, 1914–1970free

  • Tyina SteptoeTyina SteptoeDepartment of History, University of Arizona


During the 20th century, the black population of the United States transitioned from largely rural to mostly urban. In the early 1900s the majority of African Americans lived in rural, agricultural areas. Depictions of black people in popular culture often focused on pastoral settings, like the cotton fields of the rural South. But a dramatic shift occurred during the Great Migrations (1914–1930 and 1941–1970) when millions of rural black southerners relocated to US cities.

Motivated by economic opportunities in urban industrial areas during World Wars I and II, African Americans opted to move to southern cities as well as to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. New communities emerged that contained black social and cultural institutions, and musical and literary expressions flourished. Black migrants who left the South exercised voting rights, sending the first black representatives to Congress in the 20th century. Migrants often referred to themselves as “New Negroes,” pointing to their social, political, and cultural achievements, as well as their use of armed self-defense during violent racial confrontations, as evidence of their new stance on race.

War, Economic Change, and Black Migration

The First Great Migration began during World War I, when African Americans began relocating to southern cities and urban centers in the Midwest and Northeast. Wage labor in US cities especially appealed to African Americans living in the rural South. Since the end of the Civil War, white southern landowners strove to drive black people back into agricultural labor. Beginning in the Reconstruction period, former slaveowners issued labor contracts to freed people, which bound them to a particular parcel of land for a set term. The exploitative labor system known as sharecropping grew from these labor arrangements. Theoretically sharecroppers kept a fraction of the crop they raised. They often described the terms of their contract using expressions like “working on quarters” (or even “thirds” or “halves,” if they were more fortunate), indicating what percentage of the crop they could keep at the end of the growing season. Yet sharecropping families typically faced an endless cycle of debt because they acquired the items they needed to work and survive—from farm tools to cornmeal—through credit extended to them by the landowner. At “settling time,” landowners calculated how much the sharecroppers had borrowed on credit. Sharecroppers often learned that, rather than receive payment for the crop they had grown, they actually owed money to the landowner. To settle their debts they signed another contract for the next year. The system of sharecropping metaphorically locked African Americans to the land, ensuring that southern landowners maintained a cheap labor force.1

Natural disaster exacerbated an already dire situation for rural black farmers. The boll weevil, a bug that feeds on cotton buds, infested the Cotton South at the turn of the century. Swarms of the insect from Mexico appeared in Texas in the 1890s. By the 1920s, the boll weevil had infested the entire South, devastating cotton production in a region that thrived on that the crop. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 also influenced rural black southerners’ decision to relocate. Beginning in August 1926, record-setting rainfall in the Mississippi River Valley caused the river to overflow. Flooding eventually affected some 27,000 miles of land, mostly in the South, by the summer of 1927. Thousands of rural black farmers in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana relocated in response to the disaster.2

In the face of such unrelenting debt, flooding, and boll weevil infestations, millions of rural black southerners abandoned agricultural labor in favor of industrial labor in cities. Industrial production in urban America accelerated when World War I erupted in Europe in 1914, and the availability of labor especially encouraged rural black southerners to migrate. Trade between the United States and the Allied Powers (including Britain, France, Russia, and Italy) increased fourfold during the war. As a result, the United States transformed from a debtor nation to a creditor nation, lending money and goods to European nations like England and France. Americans supplied the Allies with material they needed to fight the war, like cotton and oil. In 1917, the United States exported 65.4 million barrels of oil, mainly to Great Britain and France.3

The majority of African Americans who left the countryside during World War I decided to remain in the South. Cities like Houston, Texas, a growing center of the cotton and oil industries, recruited African American men from East Texas and Louisiana to load and unload ships at the port and work on railroad lines during the war. The black population of Houston increased from just under 24,000 in 1920 to more than 63,000 in 1930.4 Meanwhile, the black population of Birmingham, Alabama, increased by 89 percent between 1910 and 1930, while black Atlanta grew by 74 percent in those two decades.

While southern cities swelled with migrants from the rural countryside, new black communities also emerged in the urban North (figure 1). Between 1917 and 1930, approximately 1 million black southerners moved to the Midwest and Northeast during the First Great Migration. Northern cities experienced a labor shortage during and after the war. The US economy accelerated at the same time the federal government restricted the number of European immigrants who could come to the United States. By World War I, a growing sense of resentment against immigrants had emerged in US politics. Anti-immigrant sentiment fueled the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, which banned anyone with a disability, excluded illiterate immigrants over the age of sixteen, and required immigrants to pay a head tax of eight dollars in order to enter the country. The act also restricted anyone from the “Asiatic Barred Zone” from entering the country. Seven years later the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 excluded most immigrants from Asia and restricted the number of southern and eastern Europeans who could enter the country. These restrictions on foreign immigration affected labor and economics within the United States. Factory owners had relied on immigrant labor since the 1880s, but the immigrations acts of 1917 and 1924 left them with significantly fewer workers. Southern migrants helped fill that void. For example, Chicago’s meatpacking factories employed approximately 11,000 African American men and women by 1919.5

Figure 1. Apartment building in a black section of Chicago, Illinois, April 1941. Photo by Russell Lee. Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-01561.

Southern migrants relocated in response to economic opportunity in the North, but they also sought to escape disfranchisement, legal segregation, and racial violence. By 1910 every state in the former Confederacy had established laws to segregate African Americans and strip black men of the right to vote. Furthermore, lynching had reached an all-time high in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sociologists Stewart Emory Tolnay and E. M. Beck found that white lynch mobs murdered approximately 2,500 African Americans in the Deep South and Border South between 1882 and 1930.6 For countless black southerners, leaving the South was a form of protest against Jim Crow and racial violence. In “Jim Crow Blues,” singer Maggie Jones cites segregation laws as her main reason for main reason for trading Dixie for New York City:

Got my trunk and grip all packed Goodbye, I ain’t coming back Going to leave this Jim Crow town Lord, sweet pape, New York bound
Got my ticket in my hand And I’m leaving dixieland
Going north child, where I can be free Going north child, where I can be free Where there’s no hardships, like in Tennessee
Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws Don’t have to work there, like in Arkansas7

The black southern exodus had altered the demographics of the urban North by 1930. The black population of New York City more than tripled, from 91,709 to 327,706, between 1910 and 1930.8 The Midwest transitioned from a region with a small African American population to one with multiple black urban centers. Between 1910 and 1920, approximately 65,000 African Americans moved to Chicago. In total, the black population of the city grew by 430 percent in the years between 1910 and 1930. Most dramatically, the black population of Detroit increased by a factor of 20 in that twenty-year period, growing from 6,000 to 120,000.

Economic change during World War II motivated a new wave of black migration. Beginning in 1940 and continuing through the 1960s, approximately 5 million black southerners participated in the Second Great Migration. Many black migrants found work in the newly desegregated defense industry. Facing mounting pressure from black activists like A. Phillip Randolph, who threatened a march on Washington to protest discrimination in the military and national defense industry in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802. This federal act desegregated the national defense industry by prohibiting discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin. Executive Order 8802 opened jobs to African Americans across the nation. Detroit, which became known as the “Arsenal of Democracy” due to its central role in the defense industry, experienced another influx of black migrants during World War II. In the two years between 1941 and 1943, more than 100,000 African Americans migrated to the Motor City.9

Cities in the Midwest and Northeast remained popular destinations for southerners, but African Americans who participated in the Second Great Migration also moved to the West Coast to take jobs in the defense industry. While industrial employers had primarily recruited black men during World War I, companies also hired black women during World War II. Boeing, an aircraft company in Seattle that produced B-17 and B-29 bombers during the war, hired large numbers of African American women. Shipbuilders in California also recruited black workers from the South during the war. Spurred by the availability of labor, black Los Angeles grew by 168.5 percent in the 1940s. In 1943, twelve thousand African Americans moved to the city in the month of June alone.10

Facilitating Migration

Black southerners frequently participated in “chain migration”—migrants from the same town or region relocated to a new place en masse. For example, Detroit primarily attracted migrants from Georgia during the First Great Migration, while most of the black migrants who settled in Los Angeles—and the West Coast in general—hailed from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma during the Second Great Migration.11 As early recruiters of black laborers, railroads facilitated chain migration. Some companies gave workers free railroad passes and paid for travel expenses. For example, the Pennsylvania Railroad funded the travel of 12,000 workers between 1916 and 1918. The Southern Pacific Railroad similarly recruited approximately 500 French-speaking Afro-Creole families from southwest Louisiana to move to Houston, Texas, where they established a community called Frenchtown in the 1920s.

The location of railroad lines influenced where migrants settled. Most of the African Americans who migrated to Chicago hailed from the Mississippi Delta region, and the Illinois Central Railroad, which ran from Chicago toward New Orleans, inspired that movement. The Southern Pacific Railroad connected the Gulf Coast to the West Coast, running from New Orleans through most of California. African Americans from Louisiana and Texas used the Southern Pacific to travel west to cities like Los Angeles and Oakland.

Social networks also influenced where migrants moved. Black migrants were attracted to places where their family and friends were already settled. As historian Earl Lewis notes in his study of black migration from rural Virginia to Norfolk, “Family members often facilitated the move from Norfolk County into the city by providing the new migrants with living quarters and financial assistance during the initial adjustment period.”12

Black-owned newspapers also facilitated the migration process, often encouraging rural African Americans to relocate. The Chicago Defender, founded by Robert Abbott in 1905, emerged as the most influential black newspaper in the nation during the First Great Migration. Abbott’s publication featured articles that discussed racial atrocities across the country, while also providing local news for black Chicagoans. Meanwhile, the Houston Informer made migration a central feature of the Texas-based publication. Edited by Clifton F. Richardson, who also migrated to Houston from East Texas, the Informer encouraged other rural blacks to relocate. In 1919, the first year of publication, the newspaper ran advertisements that touted the city as “Heavenly Houston.” The ad campaign appealed to prospective migrants by listing economic opportunities, boasting that the city offered “unexcelled industrial opportunities to the colored man,” but also pointed to socials benefits, like that fact that Houston was home to sixteen black elementary schools and two black hospitals.13 By providing local information and discussing national issues like racial violence and segregation, newspapers like the Defender and Informer played a vital role in easing the migration and community-building processes during the Great Migrations.

Founded in New York in 1910 as the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the National Urban League worked to assimilate black southerners into city life. The Urban League often encouraged migration by heralding northern cities. In 1921 co-founder George Edmund Haynes said of New York, “the cosmopolitan atmosphere knows less of color prejudice than probably any other city in the United States.”14 League employees also helped migrants find employment. The Detroit Urban League assisted men in obtaining industrial work and assisted women in securing domestic employment during the First Great Migration. The Urban League also worked to shape the migrant’s behavior through programs that promoted “cleanliness, thrift, domesticity, and sexual chastity.” The Urban League believed that migrants who exhibited those values would attract white employers. Forrester B. Washington, Detroit’s first Urban League director, described the organization’s goals in 1916: “You cannot do much for a man spiritually until you have given him a healthy and wholesome physical environment. In other words, ‘You cannot grow lilies in ash barrels.’ ” Some of the Urban League’s programs were based on stereotypes of black southerners as “backwards” and “uncouth.” Washington, for example, created the Dress Well Club in 1917 to discourage southern black women in Detroit from wearing aprons and head wraps in public. The Urban League also organized dances and basketball games in order to steer youth away from pursuits like gambling.15

Membership in urban churches, social groups, and fraternal organizations increased as migrants poured into cities. Previously established churches gained new members, while working-class congregations often created storefront churches in urban communities. Southerners living in New York established associations like the Sons and Daughters of Virginia and the Sons and Daughters of Florida in the 1920s. These groups sponsored cultural events, held educational forums, and offered financial assistance to members and their families during emergencies. Additionally, fraternal organizations like the Masons, Pythians, and Odd Fellows recruited new members as black urban communities expanded.16 Membership in churches and social organizations helped migrants establish new social ties and gain a sense of belonging in their new environs.

New York City, which had become the center of American commercial music and theater by the early 20th century, was a logical choice for black musicians migrating to cities. The musical Shuffle Along opened in May of 1921 and became the first successful show with a black cast to appear on Broadway in twelve years. Written by comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and composers/singers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, the musical helped inaugurate a new era of interest in black arts in New York. Edward “Duke” Ellington, who became as one of the nation’s most prominent jazz musician, expressed his love for the city he chose in

Excluded from certain parts of their adopted cities, black migrants quickly established neighborhoods. Cities that previously had small African American populations became home to thriving black communities. New enclaves developed in cities like Chicago, where a “black belt” emerged on the city’s South Side. In New York City, the Harlem neighborhood in northern Manhattan transitioned from a largely Jewish and Italian settlement into the largest and most celebrated black community in the United States.

Every migration city had its own center for business and leisure. Harlem’s 125th Street developed into that neighborhood’s commercial hub. Residents of Pittsburgh’s major black district, the Hill, could stroll Wylie Avenue when they wanted entertainment. In the Detroit neighborhood called “Paradise Valley,” which became the heart of the city’s black community in the 1930s, residents could hear live music, find a dentist, or shop for groceries.18 Black Houstonians found similar amusements on West Dallas Street, which housed 95 percent of the city’s black-owned businesses by 1920.19

As newcomers in migration cities, African Americans often did not own the majority of businesses in their neighborhoods, especially in the early years of the Great Migration. They often lacked the capital to launch businesses or were denied loans from banks with discriminatory practices. Black migrants who rented houses or apartments typically paid rent to white landlords. And while the local Urban League promoted New York as a type of black Promised Land, Harlem was not free of discrimination. “Blacks regularly endured unfair treatment and segregation in Harlem, especially in the chain stores along 125th Street that were less dependent upon local black patronage throughout the late 1920s,” asserts historian Shannon King.20

Yet black entrepreneurship developed and took various forms in migration cities. Black newspapers urged African Americans to patronize establishments owned by members of their own race, especially since black business owners were more likely to live in the neighborhood where their businesses were located. The New York Age stated in 1916 that white business owners only employed black workers in menial positions, while African Americans could obtain positions of leadership in companies owned by other black people.21 In the 1920s, the Houston Informer promoted the development of black enterprise as a way to avoid segregation in white-owned movie theaters, restaurants, and stores.22 Regardless of region, African Americans saw the development of black business as a grassroots effort to improve their economic standing in migration cities.

The beauty culture industry established by black women during the First Great Migration provides one of the most successful examples of black economic autonomy in the Jim Crow era. The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company was the most prosperous of these enterprises. Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, Walker began selling hair care products for black entrepreneur Annie M. Turnbo-Malone’s company, Poro, in St. Louis in the early 1900s. She eventually developed her own products and created the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, which was headquartered in Indianapolis by 1910. Walker hired and trained women to become “beauty culturists” who used her system of hair treatments. The success of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company led Walker to become one of the wealthiest black people in the United States by the time she died in New York in 1919. Other black women attained financial security through the beauty business. Nobia A. Franklin began creating and selling hair care products when she moved from the small town of Cuero, Texas, to San Antonio as a young woman. She established the Franklin Beauty School in Houston during World War I, and eventually opened another school and salon in Chicago. Beauty companies like these gave black women labor opportunities outside of domestic work in white homes while also cultivating black women’s economic autonomy.23

Black female domestic laborers played a crucial role in migration cities. About 40 percent of all black workers in Houston between World Wars I and II were women.24 Most worked as cooks, maids, and washerwomen. The labor of black cooks and maids was so significant to white Houstonians that when Juneteenth (the June 19th holiday that celebrates the emancipation of slaves in Texas) occurred on a Friday in 1917, a local hotel held a “rescue party” for families whose black employees had taken the day off from work.25 Washerwomen often preferred that form of labor to other types of domestic employment because it gave them more independence. They performed laundry service in their own homes and neighborhoods, so they worked without white supervision.26

Black workers who spent their wages on recreational pursuits stimulated the growth of establishments devoted to commercial leisure in migration cities. “Migrants were lured to cities not only by jobs but also by promises of the ‘high life’ ” writes historian Victoria Wolcott. “With higher wages and more leisure time came the ability to purchase luxuries such as clothes, liquor, and even a Ford automobile.”27 Black urban communities also developed informal economies, economic practices that lay outside of governmental regulation. During the era of Prohibition (1920–1933) establishments like “blind pigs” sold illegal alcohol. Through the numbers game, working-class African Americans gambled in urban communities.28 A migrant from South Carolina named Ellsworth Raymond Johnson, known as “Bumpy,” became the most well-known crime boss in Harlem through the numbers game in the 1930s. Some black women became sex workers after moving to cities, either to escape the drudgery of domestic labor or because other forms of labor were unavailable. Blues songs like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s “Hustlin’ Blues” frankly addressed the situation of black prostitutes:

It’s rainin’ out here and tricks ain’t walkin’ tonight It’s rainin’ out here and tricks ain’t walkin’ tonight I’m goin’ home, I know I’ve got to fight29

Black middle-class reformers and religious groups disdained these extralegal practices, but some African Americans turned to them for entertainment and economic necessity.

Culture and the Great Migrations

Artistic expressions flourished during the Great Migration as African Americans adapted older cultural practices to their new environs and developed new ones. Literary arts and musical forms—from blues to jazz to zydeco—especially thrived and proliferated.

New York City, which had become the center of American commercial music and theater by the early 20th century, was a logical choice for black musicians migrating to cities. The musical Shuffle Along opened in May of 1921 and became the first successful show with a black cast to appear on Broadway in twelve years. Written by comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and composers/singers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, the musical helped inaugurate a new era of interest in black arts in New York. Edward “Duke” Ellington, who became as one of the nation’s most prominent jazz musician, expressed his love for the city he chose in 1923: “New York is a dream of a song, a feeling of aliveness, a rush and flow of vitality that pulses like the giant heartbeat of humanity. The whole world revolves around New York, especially my world.”30

Black musicians found work in clubs that served an African American clientele as well as segregated whites-only venues. Harlem attracted curious white people who wanted to visit the black community for entertainment and/or vice. The Cotton Club, which opened in 1923, provided a space for both. Gangster Owney Madden established the club as a whites-only venue where patrons could eat, consume illegal alcohol, and dance to the sounds of music played by African Americans. As historian Kevin Mumford asserts, the Cotton Club “represented a sort of flagship nightclub of white slumming.”31 The club decor reminded visitors of pervasive black stereotypes. Murals depicted African jungles and southern cotton fields. White patrons could watch “exotic” black performance without interacting with African Americans as equals.

The house band at the Cotton Club became one of the most influential jazz outfits in the United States during the interwar years. Georgia-born Fletcher Henderson led the first house band in 1923, and Ellington took over in 1927. Both men’s work at the Cotton Club helped create the form of jazz known as “big band swing,” which dominated American popular music from the mid-1930s through World War II. As his band drew national acclaim (partly due to the radio show broadcast performances from the club), Ellington pushed Madden to gradually allow some black patrons to enter the establishment. Other noted bandleaders from the Cotton Club include Cab Calloway and Jimmie Lunceford (figure 3).

The decade of the 1920s is often called the “Jazz Age” because of the proliferation of that genre of music. Jazz especially thrived during the Great Migrations. Cultural historian Burton Peretti argues, “This migration, more than any other historical event, defined the social and intellectual significance of jazz for African Americans.” Peretti estimates that of all black musicians born in the South before 1915, more than 63 percent migrated to the North, Midwest, or West by 1930.32 Jazz flourished in dance halls, theaters, and nightclubs that hired black talent. High schools in migration cities helped the proliferation of jazz through music programs. Black public high schools across the country offered music instruction, so students could access instruments and learn to read music. Students from music programs at Jefferson and Jordan high schools in Detroit were crucial to the development of jazz in that city. Segregated schools in the urban South also offered music programs. Three black high schools in Memphis—Booker T. Washington, Manassas, and Douglass—provided instruction in music. In the 1930s students from the music programs at Houston’s Jack Yates High and Phillis Wheatley High played professionally at venues across the city before they graduated. On the West Coast, a young Quincy Jones learned to arrange music while attending Seattle’s James Garfield High in the 1940s.33

The music of black southerners changed in urban contexts. By 1930 blues and jazz musicians preferred guitars to the banjoes that had been central to southern music since the 1600s. Arkansas native Sister Rosetta Tharpe performed gospel music using an electric guitar, thrilling secular audiences at places like the Cotton Club, where she first performed in 1938. In the place commemorated in blues songs as “Sweet Home Chicago,” music from the Mississippi Delta grew louder and more raucous. During and after World War II, blues musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmie Reed also “plugged in” by amplifying their guitars in order to be heard above the din in urban nightclubs. In Los Angeles, the electric blues of Dallas-born T-Bone Walker contributed to the rollicking music scene that developed in clubs on Central Avenue. The genres of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll grew, in part, from those sonic explorations of the 1940s and 1950s.

Figure 3. Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Hagood, between 1946 and 1948. Photo by William P. Gottlieb. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress 031.00.00.

New genres of music emerged in migration cities. In Houston, blues played by black migrants from East Texas mingled with la-la, a style of music Afro-Creole migrants played using accordions and washboards. By World War II, Creoles living in Houston’s Frenchtown called that combination of blues and la-la zarico or zologo—anglicized pronunciations of the French word for beans, “les haricots.” (“Les haricots sont pas sales” was the name of a popular la-la tune.) When music collector and folklorist Robert McCormick visited Frenchtown in 1949, he standardized the spelling as zydeco. The new genre was the musical outgrowth of the Great Migrations, which brought French-speaking Creoles from Louisiana and black East Texans into the same Houston spaces.34

The mix of diverse people of African descent who made contact in New York contributed to the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. As black southern migrants poured into Harlem, they made contact with migrants from Caribbean islands like Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. By 1930, 160,340 black people resided in Harlem, and Caribbean migrants comprised approximately 25 percent that population.35 Jamaican Marcus Garvey made Harlem the base for his Universal Negro Improvement Association, which attracted members from the Caribbean and United States.

Journals like The Crisis, edited by W. E. B. Du Bois, and Survey Graphic, edited by Paul Kellogg, showed an early interest in the literary products emerging from Harlem residents. Writers from different parts of the United States and the Caribbean explored themes that linked the groups to a common African diaspora, celebrated black cultures, and protested racial injustice. US-born Langston Hughes wrote poems like “Brothers” that emphasized shared African ancestry among migrants, regardless of national origins. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican who moved to Harlem, collected items for the New York Public Library and curated exhibits that pertained to people of African descent from around the world.36

The Harlem Renaissance was also notable for its literary and musical explorations of gender and sexuality. Writers like Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston produced works that centered on black women’s experiences—and sometimes drew backlash from their black male peers (e.g., in the case of Hurston) (figure 4). A visible queer subculture emerged in Jazz Age Harlem, a neighborhood that “provided a degree of tolerance for lesbians and gay men,” according to historian James Wilson.37 Drag queen balls (sometimes called “freak balls”) included female impersonation, dancing contests, and costume contests.38 Entertainer Gladys Bentley made gender ambiguity part of her stage persona and personal life. Bentley, who began playing the piano and singing the blues in Harlem in 1928, performed in a tuxedo and top hat, and she flaunted multiple taboos by reportedly marrying a white woman in a civil ceremony. Bentley sometimes performed under the stage name “Bobbie Minton.”39

Figure 4. Portrait of Pearl Bailey, St. Louis Woman, July 5, 1946. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-103735.

While the Harlem Renaissance was certainly the most recognized and celebrated black arts movement, it was not the only one to develop during the Great Migrations. Black artists in cities like Atlanta and Chicago authored poems, stories, and plays. Atlanta emerged as a significant space for the cultivation of black southern music. Bailey’s 81 Theatre hired black performers who migrated to the growing city in Georgia. After leaving Macon, a young Richard “Little Richard” Penniman played at the 81 Theatre as a member of a traveling theater troupe in the 1940s.40 Whether they remained in the South or moved to a city in a different region of the country, black migrants significantly contributed to the literary and musical development of urban America.

Black Politics in Migration Cities

The migration of black southerners to the North and West influenced electoral politics in the United States and led to political party realignment. Northern and western states did not disfranchise African Americans, so black migrants in those regions could vote. Black voters on Chicago’s South Side reshaped local politics during World War I. In 1914 Republican Oscar De Priest became the first black alderman elected to the Chicago city council. Born in Alabama and raised in Kansas, De Priest entered politics when he moved to Chicago. He received the support of Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, who dominated the local Republican Party machine. After resigning from the city council in 1917, De Priest founded a political organization called the People’s Movement Club to organize black voters in Chicago.

In 1928 De Priest became the first black politician to serve in Congress in the 20th century when voters on the South Side of Chicago elected him to the House of Representatives. De Priest represented the 1st Congressional District of Illinois for three terms. When he went to Washington, D.C., for his first session as a congressman, De Priest was the only African American member of the House.

African Americans shifted their political loyalties from Republican to Democrat during the First Great Migration. The party realignment began in the 1920s, when African Americans increasingly questioned their loyalty to a Republican Party that did little to combat lynching or segregation at the national level. In 1934 De Priest lost his seat in the House to the Democratic candidate Arthur Mitchell, who became the first black Democrat ever to serve in Congress. Mitchell’s victory over De Priest can be attributed to his ability to mobilize black voters who supported the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt. New Deal programs often discriminated against African Americans. Nevertheless, Roosevelt made inroads with black voters through actions like appointing black educator Mary McLeod Bethune as director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration, an agency within his Works Progress Administration. African Americans also noted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s outspokenness against racial segregation, especially the well-publicized examples of her ignoring Jim Crow laws in the South. When 75 percent of African Americans voted for Roosevelt in the election of 1936, he became the first Democratic presidential candidate in US history to receive the majority of the African American vote. Democrats increasingly courted black voters in migration cities in the North and West.

A new wave of African American politicians entered the House of Representatives after World War II. Black voters in New York City began sending representatives to Congress in the 1940s. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. represented Harlem in the House of Representatives from 1945 to 1971. Charles Diggs of Detroit represented Michigan’s 13th Congressional District from 1955 to 1980. Robert N. C. Nix Sr., the first black congressman to represent Pennsylvania, served in the House of Representatives from 1958 to 1979. When Los Angeles voters sent Augustus F. Hawkins to the House in 1963, he became the first black congressman in California and the first black representative elected west of the Mississippi River. These politicians often promoted civil rights legislation and worked toward racial equality. Congressman Hawkins authored Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.41

Black women from migration families increasingly entered state and national politics in the 1960s. Born in New York in 1924 to Caribbean migrants, Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the US House of Representatives in 1968. She represented New York as a congresswoman for seven terms. In 1972 Chisholm became the first major-party black candidate to seek the Democratic nomination during a presidential election. Barbara Jordan, whose parents migrated to Houston before she was born, ran successfully for the Texas Senate in 1966, which made her the first black woman to ever hold that office and the first African American since the 19th century. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1972, becoming the first black woman from the former Confederacy to serve in Congress.

Backlash and Urban Violence

The rapid influx of black migrants into urban America elicited fear and suspicion among some white Americans (figure 5) In East St. Louis, Illinois, a riot erupted over labor tensions in July 1917. When white workers at the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike that year, the company responded by replacing the strikers with African American workers who were pouring into East St. Louis and nearby St. Louis, Missouri. Fear over interracial sex exacerbated economic tensions. Rumors that local white women were dating black male workers, who made up the majority of black migrants in East St. Louis, circulated that spring and summer. On the evening of July 2, 1917, groups of armed whites began shooting at African Americans and setting fire to black residences. White mobs lynched African Americans, while other rioters attacked black passengers on streetcars. To protest the violence in East St. Louis, approximately ten thousand black people marched down Fifth Avenue in New York in a Silent Parade. The Crisis also published a detailed investigation of the violent event.42

The violence continued after the end of World War I. Beginning in May of 1919, and continuing through September, twenty-six race riots occurred across the United States during “Red Summer.” One of the most notorious riots occurred in Chicago. On July 27 a black youth named Eugene Williams was swimming with friends in Lake Michigan when he drifted into an area informally reserved for white people. A group of white men began throwing stones at Williams as he swam, and the boy drowned. When the police showed up at the scene, they made no arrests. They ignored eyewitness accounts of the event and refused to arrest those responsible for the boy’s death. Crowds of angry black people gathered. Quickly, the scene escalated into a riot. Over the next week, black and white Chicagoans engaged in open warfare, especially on the city’s South Side. The state militia entered the scene on the fourth day of the fighting, but they could not restore order. Ultimately thirty-eight Chicagoans died—twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites.

Figure 5. Harlem Riot of 1964. Photograph by Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegraph & Sun. Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-136894.

While reading news about Chicago and other sites of violence during Red Summer, African Americans noticed that the character of the violence had changed. Across the nation, African Americans armed themselves against white aggression. Black writers applauded these acts of self-defense, arguing that by protecting their communities African American men had proven their manhood. The fact that fifteen white people died during the Chicago Riot of 1919 showed that a fair number of black people were taking up arms and fighting back. Claude McKay, a Jamaican poet who migrated to the United States, recalled, “Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings.”43 In response to Red Summer, McKay penned the poem “If We Must Die,” to celebrate black armed self-defense:

If we must die—let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

As they created urban communities, black migrants—regardless of region—often referred to themselves as “New Negroes.” Some writers promoted armed self-defense as a central aspect of New Negro identity. Additionally, black consumerism and the emergence of literary and cultural movements contributed to the idea that black Americans who participated in the Great Migrations had emerged with a new sense of self.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarly interest in the Great Migrations can be traced to two phenomena that affected the study of the African American history—the emergence of African American studies as a field after the civil rights and Black Power movements and the increasing interest in cultural and social history in the 1970s. Social histories that examine individual black urban communities began to appear during that era. Joe Trotters’s trailblazing Black Milwaukee (1985) highlights industrial labor and the development of a black ghetto in Wisconsin’s largest city.

The 1990s were a watershed moment for the study of black migration and urbanization. Most historical works focused on migration to one specific city. James Grossman’s Land of Hope (1991) offers a rich analysis of the factors that motivated black migration to Chicago and the circumstances migrants encountered in the city. During that decade, Albert Broussard and Quintard Taylor shifted the focus to the Pacific Coast with Black San Francisco (1993) and The Forging of a Black Community (1994), which looks at the development of black Seattle. Nearly a decade later, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore (2001) examines the smaller West Coast city of Richmond, California.

As the largest and most well-documented Great Migration community, Harlem has received perhaps the most scholarly attention. David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981) and Cary D. Wintz’s Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance (1988) have surveyed the history of the Harlem Renaissance. Shannon King’s Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? (2015) offers an excellent analysis of grassroots organization and community politics in Harlem through 1930.

Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) offers one of the most comprehensive studies of African Americans who left the South. Wilkerson reads the Great Migration experience through the journeys of three African Americans from different parts of the South who moved to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, respectively. By focusing on these cities, she shows how black urban communities developed in the West, Midwest, and Northeast.

Historian Earl Lewis was one of the first historians to produce a lengthy study of a southern city during the Great Migration. In Their Own Interests (1991) examines the development of black communities in Norfolk, Virginia, in the 20th century. In the last decade, more historians have focused on black migrants who remained in the South. Luther Adams focuses on Kentucky in Way Up North in Louisville (2010). Black Houston takes center stage in Bernadette Pruitt’s The Other Great Migration (2013).

Comparative studies that examine the Great Migration alongside the migration of other groups have emerged since the turn of the 21st century. As James Gregory points out, more white southerners moved north during the Great Migrations. Gregory’s The Southern Diaspora (2007) shows how the migration of black and white southerners affected culture, society, and politics in the North and West. In the last decade, a growing number of studies have examined interactions between African Americans and Latina/os in migration cities. In Forging Diaspora, Frank Guridy (2010) identifies multiple sites of Afro-Cuban and African American interaction. A few migration histories compare the development of black and Latina/o communities in the same cities. Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity (2012) shows how African Americans who established communities in Los Angeles engaged with the city’s Mexican American residents. Tyina Steptoe offers a comparative study of how black East Texans, Louisiana Creoles, and ethnic Mexicans from Texas and Mexico built communities in Houston Bound (2016).

A growing number of writers have examined the Great Migrations through the lens of culture. While highlighting the experiences of black women who moved to Detroit, gender historian Victoria Wolcott (2001) interprets cultural practices that emerged during the First Great Migration. In Chicago’s New Negroes (2007), Davarian Baldwin builds on the work of historians like Grossman by focusing on the development of beauty culture, sports, music, and film in black Chicago. Steptoe’s book highlights the development of diverse musical cultures in Houston, while Johnson surveys musical styles that emerged from multiethnic Los Angeles.

Primary Sources

Black newspapers from major cities, such as the New York Age, the California Eagle (Los Angeles), the Chicago Defender, and the Houston Informer, can be found on microfilm in university libraries and in public libraries in those cities. The Chicago Defender has been digitized and is available online through many university libraries. Additionally, the Library of Congress website Chronicling America offers digitized African American periodicals from the 1910s. The Wisconsin Historical Society, located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, houses one of the nation’s most comprehensive collections of microfilmed black newspapers in the United States.

Libraries and historical societies in migration cities offer the most resources for archival research. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library is the best archive available for the study of the Harlem Renaissance. The Chicago History Museum holds materials related black migration and urban life. The Houston Public Library’s Gregory School and Houston Metropolitan Research Center hold collections related to the Great Migrations to that city.

A significant number of universities, research libraries, and online collections have digitized collections related to the Great Migrations. Some notable examples are the Digital Public Library’s Great Migration Primary Source Set, which includes materials like photographs and maps, the Newberry Library’s Chicago and the Great Migration, 1915–1950, and The Great Migration: Letters of Negro Migrants of 1916–1918, a collection of letters that appeared in The Journal of Negro History in 1919. The site “History Matters” provides a similar online resource, “Sir I Will Thank You with All My Heart”: Seven Letters from the Great Migration. The National Humanities Center’s The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917–1968 contains primary sources and discussion questions that may be useful to professional historians, students, and researchers. A website sponsored by Humanities Texas offers online access to writings by Langston Hughes and contemporary reviews of the writer’s work. The Houston Public Library’s digitized collections highlight influential migrants, such as Celebrating the Life of C. F. Richardson Sr., as well as dozens of digitized oral histories.

Further Reading

  • Adams, Luther. Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930–1970. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Baldwin, Davarian L. Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Chatelain, Marcia. South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.
  • Gregory, James N. The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Grossman, James. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Guridy, Frank Andre. Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • King, Shannon. Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism During the New Negro Era. New York: New York University Press, 2015.
  • Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
  • Lewis, Earl. In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Peretti, Burton. The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
  • Steptoe, Tyina. Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.
  • Trotter, Joe. Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915–45. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
  • Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Random House, 2010.
  • Wilson, James F. Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
  • Wolcott, Victoria W. Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.


  • 1. Pete R. Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986).

  • 2. Richard M. Mizelle Jr., Backwater Blues: The Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

  • 3. Bruce Andre Beauboeuf, “War and Change: Houston’s Economic Ascendancy During World War I,” The Houston Review 14, no. 2 (1992): 89–112.

  • 4. Howard Beeth and Cary D. Wintz, eds., Black Dixie: Afro-Texan History and Culture in Houston (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1992); Bernadette Pruitt, The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans to Houston, 1900–1941 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2013); Tyina Steptoe, Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).

  • 5. James Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Burton Peretti, The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 45.

  • 6. These statistics do not include Texas or Virginia. Stewart Emory Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of the Lynching of African-Americans in the American South, 1882–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).

  • 7. Maggie Jones, “Jim Crow Blues,” Uncensored History of the Blues, September 18, 2009.

  • 8. Shannon King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism During the New Negro Era (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 23.

  • 9. Anthony Macías, “‘Detroit Was Heavy’: Modern Jazz, Bebop, and African American Expressive Culture,” Journal of African American History 95, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 47.

  • 10. Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the West, 1528–1990 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 254–256.

  • 11. Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier, 254–256.

  • 12. Earl Lewis, In Their Own Interests: Race, Class and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press), 31.

  • 13. Steptoe, Houston Bound, 35.

  • 14. King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, 13.

  • 15. Victoria W. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 54–55.

  • 16. King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, 24.

  • 18. Macías, “‘Detroit Was Heavy’,” 47.

  • 19. Beth Anne Shelton, Nestor Rodriguez, Joe R. Feagin, Robert D. Bullard, and Robert D. Thomas, Houston: Growth and Decline in a Sunbelt Boomtown (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 71.

  • 20. King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, 16.

  • 21. King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, 26.

  • 22. Steptoe, Houston Bound, 56.

  • 23. Tiffany M. Gill, Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

  • 24. Bernadette Pruitt, “For the Advancement of the Race: The Great Migrations to Houston, Texas, 1914–1941,” Journal of Urban History 31, no. 4 (May 2005): 435–478.

  • 25. Robert V. Haynes, A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 28; Steptoe, Houston Bound, 37.

  • 26. See Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

  • 27. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability, 53.

  • 28. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability, 85–114.

  • 29. Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 222–223.

  • 30. Peretti, “Therefore, I Got to Go,” 43.

  • 31. Kevin J. Mumford, Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 143.

  • 32. Peretti, “Therefore, I Got to Go,” 43.

  • 33. Macías, “Detroit Was Heavy”; Steptoe, Houston Bound. On jazz in black Seattle, see Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 Through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994).

  • 34. Steptoe, Houston Bound, 197–199.

  • 35. King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, 23.

  • 36. Cary D. Wintz, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance (Houston: Rice University Press, 1988); Frank Andre Guridy, Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

  • 37. James F. Wilson, Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 39.

  • 38. Mumford, Interzones, 81; Wilson, Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies, 13–14.

  • 39. Wilson, Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies, 172; Eric Garber, “Gladys Bentley: The Bulldagger Who Sang the Blues,” Out/Look 1, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 52–61.

  • 40. Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography (1984; reprint, London: Omnibus Press, 2003).

  • 41. Rita Werner Gordon, “The Change in the Political Alignment of Chicago’s Negroes During the New Deal,” Journal of American History 56 (1969): 586–588; Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Nancy Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983). See also “Keeping the Faith: African Americans Return to Congress, 1929–1970,” History, Arts and Archives: The United States House of Representatives.

  • 42. Elliott M. Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964).

  • 43. Quoted in Claude McKay, A Long Way Home, (1937; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 29.