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The Great Migration. Professor Nora Faires Western Michigan University Teaching American History Flint, Michigan 25 June 2008. James Weldon Johnson, Historian and writer,1930:.

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the great migration

The Great Migration

Professor Nora Faires

Western Michigan University

Teaching American History

Flint, Michigan

25 June 2008

james weldon johnson historian and writer 1930
James Weldon Johnson, Historian and writer,1930:

Migrants came north in thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands - from the docks of Norfolk, Savannah, Jacksonville, Tampa, Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston: from the cotton fields of Mississippi, and the coal mines and steel-mills of Alabama and

Tennessee; from workshops and wash-tubs and brickyards and kitchens they came, until the number, by conservative estimate, went well over the million and a half mark.“ (Black Manhattan)

organization of the session
Organization of the Session
  • Overview
  • Overall causes and Motivations for the Great Migration(s)
  • Chronology
  • Scope and Scale: How many? Where from? Where to ?
  • Consequences
  • Sources
  • Discussion
organization ctd
Organization, ctd.
  • Closer Looks
  • Images, Texts, Voices
  • Discussion
  • Bringing the Great Migration to the Classroom and Students
  • An Artist of the Great Migration: Jacob Lawrence
  • Overall Causes
  • The Economic Explanation
    • “Labor Migration”: balancing the demand for labor in the industrializing, urbanizing areas with the declining rural South
    • Northern and Great Lakes states, later Far West, require workers; Southern states shed excess population from farms and towns
    • people use nearby transportation routes to reach destinations thought to be booming
economic explanation ctd
Economic Explanation, ctd.

--demand for “internal migrants” increases with:

  • economic upswings in North, Midwest, and West, especially during WWI and WWII
  • decline in immigration, especially during WWI and with immigration restriction act of 1924
  • worsening conditions in the South, especially with the effects of the boll weevil, drought
  • demand for “internal migrants” decreases when Depression hits (1929-mid 1930s)
beyond economic causes
Beyond Economic Causes
  • Difference between “causes” and “motivations” for migration
  • Importance of understanding context of individuals, families, communities
  • Examine ambitions, aspirations, skills, education, and experiences of migrants
  • Understand the role of kin and other social networks
  • For Black Southerners: Jim Crow
charles s johnson sociologist 1923
Charles S. JohnsonSociologist, 1923

“Persecution plays its part.”

--from his study of the reasons for Southern blacks heading North


I am fed up

With Jim Crow laws.

People who are cruel

And afraid,

Who lynch and run,

Who are scared of me

And me of them.

I pick up my life

And take it away

On a one-way ticket—

Gone up North,

Gone out West,


--Langston Hughes, One Way Ticket (1949);

terms types of migration
Terms: Types of Migration
  • Return Migration
  • Circular Migration
  • Chain Migration
  • Career Migration
  • “Diaspora”

Great Migration involves all these forms.

taking a look at the numbers
Taking a Look at the Numbers

Data from tables in:

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

scope of the great migration number of blacks leaving south by decade
Scope of the Great Migration:Number of Blacks Leaving Southby Decade
  • 1900-10 204,000 1980-90 603,000
  • 1910-20 437,000 1990-2000 516,000
  • 1920-30 811,000
  • 1930-40 392,000 Total, 1900-2000:
  • 1940-50 1,447,000 7,882,000
  • 1950-60 1,106,000
  • 1960-70 813,000
  • 1970-80 1,553,000
20 th century southern diaspora
20th-Century Southern Diaspora

Total Numbers Leaving the South, 1900-2000

Blacks: 7,882,000

Whites: 19,584,000

Hispanics: 1,143,000

states with large numbers of southern black migrants 1970
States with Large Numbers of Southern Black Migrants,1970

New Jersey 231,000

New York 567,000

Illinois 452,000

Indiana 119,000

Michigan 358,000

Missouri 126,000

Ohio 321,000

California 571,000

regional and racial differences
Regional and Racial Differences
  • Rural South has two main zones:
    • “Outer South”:
      • more mixed economy of general farming
      • some extractive industries (mining, lumber, fishing, oil)
      • located in arc from West Virginia through Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas
      • mostly white
regional differences ctd
Regional Differences, ctd.
  • Lower South
    • more devoted to cotton
    • some 600 counties stretching from the Carolinas to East Texas
    • heart is the rich lands of Mississippi and Alabama
    • “black belt”
    • mostly home to African Americans
  • First Phase
    • begins around 1900, as Black sharecroppers, tenants, small landowners leave Southern farms, many looking to continue farming
    • accelerates with WWI and demand in urban and industrial centers: 3 million factory and transport jobs; demand for domestic service
    • continues to grow in 1920s with good times in North and Midwest; boll weevil,mechanization, and increased discrimination in South
    • families, single people, women, men
    • some among “best and brightest”
chronology ctd
Chronology, ctd.
  • Depression: Interlude of 1930s
    • First phase of Great Migration showed many similarities in Black and white patterns
    • but whites more likely to go West, especially to California
    • 1930s: drought hits the Plains—”Dust Bowl”
    • New Deal policies do little for most Southerners
    • “Okies”: Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma hard hit
    • some “return migration” for Blacks and more for whites
chronology ctd19
Chronology, ctd.
  • Second Phase
    • 1940s through1960s
    • begins with build up for WWII and continues through US economic heyday of 1950s-60
    • ebbs with slowdown in industrial North and Midwest; boom in South and Southwest
    • especially large migration to California and Far West, for Blacks and whites
    • includes some Native Americans leaving reservations
    • diverse migration
chronology ctd20
Chronology, ctd.
  • Second Phase, ctd.

--drawn from remaining farms, rural areas, towns, smaller and larger cities

    • importance of chain migration, newspapers,labor recruitment, better transportation (rail and car), military service
    • “brain drain” accelerates
    • context of growing opposition to Jim Crow and increasing demand for civil rights, and heightened racial conflict
chronology ctd21
Chronology, ctd.
  • Post-Diaspora
    • by 1970, period of great outpouring from the South has ended
    • most Southern states become destinations for migration
    • 1965 to 1970: 700,000 more people move to South than leave; rate increases after 1970
    • growth of the Sun Belt, attracting migrants from across the US
    • many Southern-born Blacks or their children return to the South, especially in the 1990s
rates of return migration ratio of returnees migrants blacks whites
Rates of Return Migration(ratio of Returnees/Migrants)Blacks Whites
  • 1935-40 .20 .30
  • 1955-60 .22 .54
  • 1965-70 .34 .78
  • 1975-80 .76 .98
  • 1985-90 .95 .75
  • 1995-2000 1.32 .85
important sources
Important Sources

In preparing this presentation I have drawn from numerous sources. See especially:

  • James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora:

How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005)

  • JamesGrossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
important sources continued
Important Sources, continued
  • Kimberley L. Phillips, AlabamaNorth: African American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-1945 ( Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1999).
  • for a local focus, see Rhonda Sanders, Bronze Pillars: An Oral History of African Americans in Flint (Flint: Alfred P. Sloan Museum and Flint Journal, 1995).
key websites
Key Websites
  • For James Gregory’s book:

  • For a brief overview by James Grossman of Chicago and the Great Migration, including suggestions for lesson plans:

key websites continued
Key Websites, continued
  • Library of Congress American Memory Project: African American Odyssey:
  • Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—In Motion: The African American Experience
key websites continued27
Key Websites, continued

History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web

Includes: "Sir I Will Thank You with All My Heart"Seven Letters from the Great Migration

Seven letters to the Chicago Defender— a black newspaper published in Chicago that strongly urged southern blacks to migrate North—attest to migrants' strong desire to “better their condition,” often risking their lives and possessions to make the trip north.

key websites continued the blues the music of the great migration
Key Websites, continuedThe Blues—The Music of the Great Migration

Langston Hughes: Artist and Historian

by Medria Blue

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute:

closer looks
Closer Looks

Images, Texts, and Voices of the Great Migration

life in the rural south
Life in the Rural South

When wages were paid, they averaged about 75¢ a day before World War I.

A minister from Alabama commented,

"The Negro farm hand gets his compensation hardly more than the mule he plows; that is his board and shelter. Some mules fare better than Negroes."

sample letter to the chicago defender
Sample Letter to the Chicago Defender

Sirs: Noticing and ad in Chicago Defender of your assitance to those desiring employment there I thought I mayhaps you could help me secure work in your Windy City. I’m a married man have one child. I have common school education, this is my hand write. I am presently employed as a miner has been for 14 years but would like a Change. I’m apt to learn would like to get where I could go on up and support myself and family. You know more about it than I but in your opinion could I make anything as pullman porter being inexsperienced? I’d be so grateful to U. to place me in something I’ve worked myself too hard for nothing. I’m sober and can adjust my life with any kind and am a quiet christian man. * * * NEW ORLEANS, April 22, 1917

typical rail fares 1918
Typical Rail Fares, 1918

Norfolk to Pittsburgh:

  • 1 adult: $8.00
  • Family of six: $ 48.00

New Orleans to Chicago:

  • 1 adult: $ 22.50
  • Family of six: $ 90.00
violence and the first phase of the great migration
Violence and the First Phase of the Great Migration

Between 1889 and 1932, over 3,700 people were lynched in the United States.

More than 85 percent of these lynchings were of blacks living in the South.

the southwestern christian advocate an african american newspaper april 26 1917
The Southwestern Christian Advocate, an African-American newspaper; April 26, 1917:

"[S]ome months ago Anthony Crawford, a highly respectable, honest and industrious Negro, with a good farm and holdings estimated to be worth $300,000, was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina. He was guilty of no crime. He would not be cheated out of his cotton. That was insolence. . . .

[The mob] overpowered him and brutally lynched him. Is any one surprised that Negroes are leaving South Carolina by the thousands? The wonder is that any of them remain."

Detroit detectives show confiscated robes, masks, and weapons belonging to the Black Legion (late 1930s)
boxing great joe louis with john roxborough he and his partner julian black managed louis s career
Boxing great Joe Louis with John Roxborough. He and his partner Julian Black managed Louis’s career.
Marion Post Wolcott.Negro Man Entering Movie Theatre by "Colored" Entrance.Belzoni, Mississippi, in the delta area.October 1939.
restrictive covenants langston hughes 1949
“Restrictive Covenants”Langston Hughes (1949)

When I move

Into a neighborhood

Folks fly.

Even every foreigner

That can move, moves

The moon doesn’t run

Neither does the sun.

In Chicago

They’ve got covenants

Restricting me—

Hemmed in

On the South Side,

Can’t breathe free.

But the wind blows there.

I reckon the wind

Must care.

elder lucy smith led all nations pentecostal church chicago s largest pentecostal assembly 1941
Elder Lucy Smith led All Nations Pentecostal Church Chicago’s largest Pentecostal assembly (1941)
Reverend C.L. Franklin turned New Bethel Baptist into one of the largest and most politically active black churches in Detroit.
langston hughes reading his poems
Langston Hughes reading his poems:

One Way Ticket

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

Trumpet Player

Ballad of the Gypsy

Kid Sleepy


Southern Mammy Songs

langston hughes reading his poems87
Langston Hughes reading his poems

one way ticket
One-Way Ticket

I pick up my life I pick up my life

And take it with me And take it on the train

And I put it down in To Los Angeles,

Chicago, Detroit, Bakersfield,

Buffalo, Scranton Seattle, Oakland,

Any place that is Salt Lake

North and East— Any place that is

And not Dixie North and West

And not South

one way ticket ctd
One-Way Ticket, ctd.

I am fed up I pick up my life

With Jim Crow laws And take it away

People who are cruel On a one-way ticket

And afraid Going up North,

Who lynch and run, Gone out West,

Who are scared of me Gone!

And me of them.


I’ve Known Rivers Langston Hughes (1921)

I've known rivers:I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.I've known rivers:Ancient, dusky rivers.My soul has grown deep like the rivers

chicago and the great migration narrative james grossman curriculum lessons jerryelyn leonard jones
“Chicago and the Great Migration”Narrative—James Grossman Curriculum Lessons—Jerryelyn Leonard Jones

focus on an artist jacob lawrence
Focus on an Artist:Jacob Lawrence

jacob lawrence paintings of the great migration a story in paintings
Jacob LawrencePaintings of the Great MigrationA STORY IN PAINTINGS