The Great Migration

Great Migration – Key Books, Articles, Websites, and Resources

To save you time, here are the two best sources on the US Black Great Migration: a general article and a website from the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium. Read these first instead of this article. Then come back for the details and discussion.  

The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration (Smithsonian) – The museum also had a huge exhibit on the Great Migration called Field to Factory in 1987 – 2006

Mapping the Great Migration out of the South (part 2) (Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium)

Estimated number of Black immigrants, James Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America.

The Great Migration

There were multiple migrations by US Blacks out of the South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western cities. More than 6 million Blacks along with 15 million Whites left the South. The period lasted from 1910 to 2000. The peaks were between 1910-1930 and 1940 to 1970.

Historians focus on the periods 1910-1930 and 1940-1970 when 1.7 million and then 4.3 million Blacks left the South for opportunity and a better life in the North. Peak migration starting in 1910 was caused by the demand for workers in war industries and a large reduction in immigration. Peak migration in the 40s was also based on war. The migrations were driven by both a pull and push effects. Letters, visits, and word of mouth plus the Chicago Defender all encouraged leaving the South. But we must never forget racial hostility and racial terrorism in the South.

Hereafter we will refer to the multiple migrations of Black people to the North, Midwest, and West across many decades as the “Great Migration.”

The Great Migration changed the country forever. We are all affected, every day by the choices our ancestors made. The great migration doubled Black income. Black education increased by five (5) times. Black wealth also doubled. There was a flourishing of Black arts. Many great African Americans can trace their parents to the South. Black artists, writers, jazz musicians, and entrepreneurs came from the diaspora of the Great Migration.

Life in the North

We all live with the impact of the Great Migration to this day. But the road was not easy.

When they arrived, they encountered discrimination and segregation. Housing was hard to find but jobs were plentiful. Wages were 1 ½ to 3 times those of the South. Many professionals were open including those that did not exist in the South such as steel, autos, and machinery. There was also more personal freedom. You could vote, form clubs, and attend church without worry.

What they left in the South was unimaginably horrible by today’s standards: racial terrorism, lynchings, general, petty racial hostility, limited job prospects, poor education, real poverty, and daily oppression. There was no future. And, worse, no future for their children. So, they left. One by one and then in droves.

The North offered community and support. The relative level of freedom in the North compared to the South where they lived, was incredible. Music, Arts, Social clubs, and entertainment flourished.

There are many notable Black artists who are children of the Diaspora. We all had parents who fled the South during the Great Migration. Some of the notable artists include Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis.

Life in the South

Kids today say,” I would never let a White person call me the N-word.” Well, how about hearing it all the time since you were a little kid? Or hearing a grown man called “boy.” Or being able to swim in the public pool one day a year. The pool was then cleaned with bleach. Many places were simply off-limits because they were too dangerous. Jim Crow laws laws were strict. If you were caught in the wrong area, you would be beaten, locked up and your family was threatened. Everyone had to be out of the White areas by sunset.

My grandfather told me, “Never look a White person in the eyes.” My uncle said, “Every time you see a White person talking to a Black person, there is some kind of ‘con’ going on.” Another example, I went to a reunion of my mom’s all-Black high school in Staunton, Va about 15 years ago.  Booker T Washington High School, of course. Not sure if it was a Rosenwald School. But, Ninety percent (90%) of the students left for Black Colleges or cities like DC never to return. That is what life was like in the South.

A couple of interesting notes…

New research has shown that it was not rural sharecroppers who left but instead, people who first moved to Southern cities first. Then city dwellers who could read, people with skills like housekeeping or cooking, and tradesmen moved on.

Another more controversial topic is the character of the people who left the South. and who decided not to leave. Were the people who left the most ambitious, the most open to new opportunities and the most open to a new life. Like the classic immigrant story. Or was it people who had no choice who were fleeing racial terrorism? Someone who had made a mistake and crossed a racial boundary. People who had nothing left to lose. Or was it people who had a “connection,” someone they knew, up North who could give them a better life? It was all three.

The final area of research is who did better in the North. Rural sharecroppers, people fleeing oppression or literate Southern city-dwelling Blacks? Who exactly prospered in the North? The question is unanswered.

On a different note, the trip north was expensive. Close to $1000 dollars by today’s money. It was an investment. Frequently, the primary or supplemental breadwinner went North. The loss of earnings caused considerable hardship for the family for years. Then, typically, the new immigrants then sent for the rest of the family. 

Still more research notes:

There is no direct link between the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement. Only a huge number of indirect links. The Civil Rights Movement was led by Black Southerners who did not leave. While the move North by Blacks did lead to new Black politicians and Northern liberals supporting the civil rights movement, for most Northern Blacks there was little they could do to influence events in the South (A Man was Lynched Today, The NAACP Silent March of 1917). Newly elected politicians, like Adam Clayton Powell, were outspoken about civil rights but had little actual power.  Northern Blacks helped to organize and fund the NAACP and SCLC but largely did not participate in the Civil Rights movement. Sadly, it was a Southern thing.

The Chicago Defender (Chicago Defender, Abbott) and the Black press had an enormous impact on migration. The Defender ran job ads, ads from recruiting agencies and editorials encouraging migration. We will never know how large the impact was, but it was substantial. The paper, spread by Pullman porters, had a Chicago circulation of 50,000 in the North and 100,000 in the South. Since not everyone could read, the estimated real circulation was probably five to ten times as much (500,000).

Finally, many authors complain about the poor quality of the census data. (But imagine trying to collect data and getting a tar and feather treatment). There are just huge gaps in the US census data during the time period.  Authors who analyzed the census data have suggested collecting personal narratives to fill the gaps. But few actually did so. Personal narratives will not get you tenure.  But they might make history. So…

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson did exactly just that. In “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” She interviewed hundreds of migrants and selected three of the best stories to tell their tales. One for the East, Midwest and West. And she won the Pulitzer Prize for her masterful work. Well deserved. A long-missing piece in the puzzle.

The Black Diaspora

The success of Blacks that left the South was historical, and nowhere more than in the arts. Blacks have changed the arts forever. Jazz, Black literature, and Black visual arts would not exist without the Great Migration. Arts, science, and letters did not exist for Black people in the South. They were trying to survive, Their flourishing and legacy have changed the culture of America forever. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Jacob Lawrence, Diana Ross, Tupac Shakur, Prince, Michael Jackson, Shonda Rhimes, Venus and Serena Williams. The Harlem Renaissance.

Someone needs to tell the story

For our two cents, the US Black Great Migration is a story only we can tell.   Black people who have experienced the Great Migration need to write the full, detailed story before it’s too late. We need to create a lasting legacy.  We all have to have a grandparent or parent who was at our kitchen table telling us stories of what it was like. You need to talk to someone who has been through the Great Migration to explain the full context, meaning, and nuance. No one else can bring it to the table.

Kids Homework

Here’s your homework: Ask your grandparents or uncles what the great migration was like. Ask them if it was hard. Then ask for more cake, because no one makes cake like your grandma.

Grown people homework

Write a great migration movie script.

Here is My Script

As a writing prompt, you can review my Great Migration movie script here. (Great Migration). It gets better every time I look.

General Articles

The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration (Smithsonian) – One of the best general articles on the Great Migration

From the Great Migration to Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard(NPS.GOV)


Mapping the Great Migration out of the South (part 2) (Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium) – University of Washington – The best graphics and data by far, all explained in an easy-to-use format. By James Gregory

Scholarly Articles

Carole Marks, Black Workers and the Great Migration North, 1985. Phylon, 1985, Vol.46 (2), p.148-161 (JSTOR) – Marks discusses moving to Southern cities before moving North.

Journal of Negro History Henderson, the negro migration of 1916-1918, Journal of Negro History (1921). 448 (Project Gutenburg)


Black Migration to Philadelphia: a 1924 Profile (JSTOR)

The African American “Great Migration” and Beyond, Stewart E. Tolnay, Annual Review of Sociology(JSTOR)

The Negro Migrant in Pittsburgh, by Abraham Epstein (Gutenberg)

Alexander 1998 Pittsburgh marriage certificate analysis, Demography. (NIH)


Self-Selection and the Earnings of Immigrants, By GEORGE J. BORJAS (Harvard)


How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America, James N Gregory – The single best book on the great migration. Quoted everywhere. A little boring and academic.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson – Great personal narratives of the great migration. Pulitzer Prize winner. Readable.

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration(University of Chicago Press)

A ‘New Great Migration’ is bringing Black Americans back to the South (Brookings), 2022 – Blacks are returning south.

US Census Data

Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (US Census)


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