The Great Migration and the Search for a New Life
Effects of the Great Migration
Not surprisingly, the Great Migration had a big impact on the South. While W. E. B. DuBois saw the mass movement as the end of the South's old order of African-American oppression, many white southerners took another view. “I do not know how the South can live without Negro labor,” wailed one Georgia plantation owner. “It is the life of the South; it is the foundation of its prosperity.”
Some progressive southerners tried to halt the migration by promising better pay and improved treatment. Other planters tried to keep African-American workers by intimidation. Some whites even boarded northbound trains to attack African-American men and women in an attempt to return them forcibly to their homes.
None of the enticements—benign or otherwise—could change the pattern. After centuries of abuse in the South, African-Americans were (as the saying of a later era would have it) voting with their feet.
On the March
Many southern whites concluded that any attempt to restrict freedom of movement was ill-advised. A number of leading southerners even argued that the wave of African-American migration should initiate a campaign to improve the living conditions of southern African-Americans.
On the March
Greater political power for African-Americans was one obvious by-product of the Great Migration. Consider the case of Oscar DePriest, who left Alabama for Chicago and then embarked on a successful political career, winning seats on the county commission and the city council before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Great Migration changed the demographic structure of the nation. From the 1890s to the 1960s the African-American population in the South fell from 90.3 percent to 60 percent; in the North, it grew from 9.7 percent to 34 percent. The percentage of African-Americans living in the country plummeted from 90 percent to 27 percent, while the percentage of those living in cities soared from 10 percent to 73 percent.
Changes and Challenges
African-Americans turned to the “Promised Land” of the North in search of jobs and toleration, and many found them.
Unlike the South, the North was a place where African-Americans could start their own businesses, live peacefully in their own neighborhoods, and even enjoy a measure of political power, provided they settled in the right cities and kept their expectations low. A fair number of those who had traveled to Chicago from the South eventually became successful entrepreneurs and prominent public figures in their new home.
It would be a mistake, however, to see the growth of the African-American population in major northern cities as a spur to social unanimity among African-Americans. There were sharp economic and educational divisions. Chicago's South Side “black belt,” for instance, contained several neighborhoods demarcated by economic status. The poorest African-Americans were to be found in the district's older, northern section; more prominent, established families resided in the southern section.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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