February 9, 2014
Black History Month: The Great Migration

African American history month continues!  We have discussed two very important African Americans, namely the stately abolitionist, Frederick Douglass and the fiery justice-seeker, Ida B. Wells.  They were only two of the many African Americans who were fighting for abolition, for racial equality and justice, and for gender equality.  Those were different and difficult times but, with the help of these great people, many changes were made that guaranteed freedom and equality to African Americans and women.

We will shift our focus from a single-person examination to discussing a million African Americans: 1.6 million to be exact. And how 1.6 million changed the country!

Following our Black History Month model, we will:




 Remember: The First Great Migration: The search for freedom

One could refer to the transatlantic slave trade as the first great migration made by African Americans in the United States. However, migration implies that the move is voluntary. And we know that the transatlantic slave trade was an involuntary, tantamount-to-kidnapping move for tens of millions of Africans.

The First Great Migration for African Americans occurred from 1910 to 1930.   It was the migration of large number of African Americans from the southern rural areas (or black belt of the deep south) to the urban, industrialized areas of the northeast and Midwest.

Let’s give a bit of background to show the significance of this Great Migration. In 1863 (the year of the Emancipation Proclamation), ninety percent of African Americans lived in the rural areas of the southern United States. Less than 8 percent lived in the north and northeast.  Between 1900 and 1910, 200,000 African Americans left the south. This number increased in the decades after the First World War. During the period between 1910 and 1930, the African American population increased by forty percent in the north, particularly in cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and New York City.  For example, in 1910, there were 6,000 African Americans living in Detroit. Within 20 years, the population of African Americans grew to 140,000! Other northern cities showed similar patterns.

Why did the Great Migration occur?  As African Americans became more educated, economically strong and stable, and skilled following slavery, certain conditions in the south became unacceptable.  Segregation (Jim Crow) was deemed as an oppressive system that caused Blacks to leave. The incidents of lynching and other forms of violence against African Americans were increasing, which caused Blacks to leave. Between 1882 and 1968, more than 3,500 African Americans were lynched. And the lack of opportunities for education and skilled jobs caused Blacks to migrate to the north.

In the north, African Americans found better jobs, particularly skilled jobs, Black men could vote, Black women could vote after 1920, and organized labor (unions) helped Blacks to obtain supervisory positions, better wages, and benefits.

The effect of this migration (besides draining the southern states of its rural labor force) was to create large urban Black communities.  These developed into centers of Black culture and politics, having an infrastructure with newspapers, businesses, jazz clubs, churches, medical centers, libraries, and schools. It created a Black renaissance with large groups of talented, dedicated, highly skilled and educated African Americans. It created a Black “intelligentsia.”

Recognize any names from this era? Langston Hughes, Nora Zeale Hurston, W.E.B Dubois, Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Louis Armstrong, and so many others!


The first Great Migration is a very interesting era to study. And there are many books about this great period.

  • The Southern Diaspora by James Bennett is an in-depth study of the movement patterns of African Americans up to the 1960s.  The book also gives insight into the reasons for this migration, benefits and disadvantages (e.g., discrimination from recent Irish immigrants) of moving to northern cities.
  • The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America (2011) by Nicholas Lemann. This book gives excellent statistics about how and why African Americans moved out of the south and into the north.
  • Land of Hope: Chicago, Southerners, and the Great Migration (1991) by James Grossman. If you want to learn about famous African Americans who moved to Chicago and the types of communities that they established, this is a perfect and focused book on the topic.

And remember that it is good to read books about the great migration but it is essential to read books written by people who lived during that time.

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Their Eyes were Watching God by Nora Zeale Hurston


A celebration for the Great Migration could involve very different types of traditions, foods, and music.  As you remember, the Great Migration involved more than a million African Americans leaving their southern roots and moving to the northeastern cities of the United States, particularly Chicago and New York City.

But we should always celebrate our roots!  And food is a great way to recognize our roots and enjoy time with our family and friends.

  • Who does not like fried catfish or fried chicken?!
  • Or chicken-fried steak with gravy?
  • Or meatloaf with tomato sauce gravy?

Remember the candied yams, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese!

Of course there are so many more dishes from our southern roots, but you get the idea!

Don’t forget the music. My recommendations:

  • Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Sevens. This is a legendary recording from the days when Satchmo was starting to improvise and would do solo performances with his band.  You will see why he quickly became such a legend when he arrived in Chicago.
  • Duke Ellington’s Uptown. This recording has the incredible Take the “A” Train, Mooche, and Harlem Suite. It’s a great album for beginners and avid lovers of the Duke’s innovative style of jazz.
  • If you want both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington together, get The Great Summit: The Master Takes.  This is such an amazing recording that people wonder why everyone around the world does not own this album!

I have discovered that there are ways in life of getting where you want to go if you really want to go.  ~ Langston Hughes

Remember. Study Celebrate.

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