The Second Great Migration


The dramatic exodus of African Americans from countryside to city and from South to North during World War I and the decade that followed changed forever black America's economic, political, social, and cultural lives. The Great Migration was, up to that point, the largest voluntary internal movement of black people ever seen.

Somewhat ironically, the Great Migration's sequel during and following World War II has not been given its own title by scholars. It is, in fact, often considered to be merely a continuation of the earlier movement, following a momentary pause during the Depression. In many ways, however, this second huge exodus from the South deserves a separate identity; it was larger, more sustained, different in character and direction, and precipitated an even more radical and lasting transformation in American life than its better-known predecessor.

By the end of World War II, the character of the black population had shifted: the majority was urban. In 1970, at the end of the second Great Migration, African Americans were a more urbanized population than whites: more than 80 percent lived in cities, as compared to 70 percent for the general population of the United States; and 53 percent remained in the South, while 40 percent lived in the Northeast and North Central states and 7 percent in the West.

The Migration Numbers

Between 1910 and 1940, roughly 1.5 million African Americans left the South for Northern cities; however, during the decade that followed the stock market crash of 1929, this emigration slowed to a trickle. But with America's entry into World War II looming on the horizon, the exodus of blacks from their Southern homeland resumed. Between 1940 and 1950, another 1.5 million African Americans left the South. The migration continued at roughly the same pace over the next twenty years. By 1970, about five million African Americans had made the journey, and the geographic map of black America had fundamentally changed. Roughly one of every seven black Southerners pulled up stakes and headed north or west. Both their places of origin and destination shifted from earlier patterns.

They drove, or boarded trains straight north or west. They went from Alabama to Detroit. They left the Carolinas and Georgia for New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The migrants from Mississippi and Arkansas headed up Highway 61 or took the Illinois Central railroad to Chicago as their predecessors had done during the Great Migration. What was new was that many moved west to California.

The Western states, especially California, witnessed an explosive growth of their African-American populations. In 1930, some 50,200 African Americans lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland; twenty years later, the three cities' combined black population had soared to 254,120. Altogether, 339,000 African Americans moved to the Western half of the country during the 1940s, in contrast to a mere 49,000 in the previous decade.

Most of the migrants to California came from Southwestern and Central states like Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Almost three times as many African Americans left this region between 1940 and 1950 as had done so during the previous thirty years. The South Atlantic states, however, remained the most frequent point of origin for migrants, accounting for some 30 to 40 percent of those leaving the South in each decade. This is particularly striking given that Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Florida usually had net gains in their black population during this period. Thus, the combined totals for the region mask the fact that the two Carolinas and Georgia experienced a virtual hemorrhage of their black citizenry. Well over half a million African Americans left those three states in each of the three postwar decades.

Over the thirty-year course of the migration, arrivals to the West remained constant; those to the Northeast steadily increased, while those to the North Central region decreased considerably. The centuries-long era during which black Americans had lived mostly in the rural South and worked primarily in agriculture was over. By 1950, most African Americans no longer worked in agriculture or as domestic labor - the occupations that had always characterized their existence in America - and the population was more evenly distributed throughout the nation.

Out of the Rural South

As with most migrations, there were several factors that drew African Americans out of the South and into cities throughout the nation. Poverty, the lack of educational facilities for the children, rigid segregation and discrimination, and limited opportunities were all among the reasons that led some to look North.

But the most important was the massive collapse of Southern agricultural employment. The principal factors contributing to this economic disaster were great declines in the prices of sugar, tobacco, and especially cotton, coupled with the negative effects of federal policies designed to rescue Southern planters (at the expense of the workers) and the restructuring of commodity production that followed.

With the onset of the worldwide depression, cotton prices fell from 18 cents a pound in 1928 to less than 6 cents a pound in 1931. Despite crashing prices, demand was suppressed further by continued high production that bloated surpluses; in the face of the price collapse, farmers harvested a record crop in 1933. Cutting production seemed to be the only solution. The Roosevelt administration achieved this by paying farmers to reduce the land planted and by buying up surpluses already on the market. Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared the initial program, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, unconstitutional, a revised system was put into place during the late 1930s and achieved the same ends.

Farm owners now received direct subsidies for taking land out of production, as well as so-called parity payments that reimbursed the difference between the actual cost of production and the market price of their product. The owner's tenants and sharecroppers were to share in the benefits of crop reduction. In practice, however, most tenants and croppers were excluded from most, if not all, of these subsidies.

In addition, the New Deal's reduction in acres planted meant that fewer workers were needed to make a crop. This initial reduction was made even worse by mechanization. For the longest time, Southern planters - in control of a captive, cheap, and intimidated labor pool - had little reason to mechanize; but now, with subsidies providing the capital and parity payments guaranteeing a profit, they began to use tractors. Although labor needs ballooned at harvest time, they could be met by turning former tenants and croppers into temporary wageworkers.

Between 1930 and 1950, the number of Southern tenant farmers was cut roughly in half, while the number of tractors tripled from 1940 to 1950. A Mississippian, Maud Jones, recalled those days: "It seemed like all the jobs that came through then, the white had them all and there wasn't anything for the black people to do but still go back to the field. They didn't go to school to cook for a tractor driver, so they just didn't stay here to do it."

Adding to the problems, many planters began to use the mechanized cotton picker. The need for laborers at harvest time was thus drastically reduced. One displaced cropper, Mae Bertha Carter, remembered, "I didn't stay on the farm too long after that. When those mechanical cotton pickers came in was about the time we were told to leave the farm." A social organization of production - the sharecropping and tenant system - that was almost a century old was eliminated. By 1940, moreover, the United States was no longer producing the majority of the world's cotton, and by the 1950s, the South was no longer the dominant source of cotton even within the United States. For many Southerners, it was time to go.

Legendary blues singer Koko Taylor grew up chopping cotton in the Mississippi Delta. She was one of the many thousands who didn't stay:

When I was 18 years old, I left Memphis, my husband and I. And we got the Greyhound bus up Highway 61 and headed north to Chicago. He didn't have no money and I didn't have no money. We had one box of Ritz crackers that we split between us. With no money, nowhere to live, no nothing; we was just taking a chance. And I figured, "If he got enough nerve to take a chance with nothin', I have too." So that's what we did.

Fleeing Racism

Besides a dire economic situation, Southerners, as they had done during the Great Migration, were also fleeing Jim Crow. Rev. James McCoy, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Mission Baptist Church in Chicago, who, like the members of his large congregation, was originally from Mississippi, recalled:

We suffered. We didn't have. We worked land that we thought we owned and after a while found out that we didn't own it. We could go to town and we had to wait until everybody else passed by and then we could walk on the street. It was a suffering life. If we walked up to a counter we had to wait until everybody else was gone...then we could buy what we wanted and paid more than anybody else. And it was always a problem in our way of life. We suffered to get this far.

Although lynching had greatly diminished by 1935 - there were eighteen lynchings that year - violence was still prevalent in the South. People were threatened, beaten, fired from their jobs, and publicly humiliated. A letter published in the Chicago Defender stressed:

Dear Sir, I indeed wish to come to the North - anywhere in Illinois will do so long as I'm away from the hangman's noose and the torch man's fire. Conditions here are horrible with us. I want to get my family out of this accursed Southland. Down here a Negro man's not as good as a white man's dog.

With little hope of redress in the justice system, African Americans were at the mercy of abusive employers, landlords, and almost anyone bent on depriving them of their rights. Notwithstanding the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which guaranteed them the right to vote, the vast majority were effectively disenfranchised by restrictive rules that applied only to them. Rigid segregation in public spaces - signaled by the constant presence of "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs on water fountains, restroom doors, hospital wards, transportation, and housing - was a constant humiliation and a reminder that blacks were second-class citizens.

Compared to the South, the North, although segregated in practice if not by law, appeared appealing. World War II veteran John Wiley was working in Memphis at the U.S. Army Depot. On the segregated bus ride home from work one day, a white man demanded his seat. Wiley refused. The other black riders loudly voiced their support:

The bus driver told him [the white man] "You ought to come up here to the front 'cause you gonna get in a whole lot of trouble". I said, "He sure gonna get in a lot of trouble!" I was so angry at them. I had a switchblade knife in my pocket. I went home and told my wife.... We left the next day and came here to Chicago and I've been here ever since.

Into the North and West

Southerners were not only pushed out of the South, they were also pulled to the North and West by the particular economic climate created by World War II. Indeed, although black tenant farmers and sharecroppers had migrated to Southern cities and towns in the late 1930s, there was no significant movement out of the region during that time. The net African-American migration from the South during the 1930s was only 347,500, scarcely more than a fifth of what it would be in the following decade. The 1940s movement was driven in part by the tremendous expansion of industrial production during and after the war.

Industrial mobilization began even before America's entry into the war in 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Once the United States became engaged in a two-front war against Japan and Germany, production shifted into high gear. In addition to the usual needs for munitions, clothing, food, and training facilities, the naval war with Japan spurred increased shipbuilding and the production of naval materiel, much of it channeled to and through Pacific coast ports.

West Coast aircraft plants increased their work force almost fifteenfold; in 1940 they employed 36,850 workers, but by 1945, on V-J Day, nearly 475,000 were working on the assembly lines. Although Pacific Coast shipyards accounted for more than half of all vessels built during the war, the South, long a major training ground for military forces and the site of numerous bases, also began to produce armaments and warships. Production at Southern textile factories, oil refineries, steel mills, and seaports was also boosted by the war. But even this substantial improvement in the region's economy could not stem the tide of black emigrants.

Although African Americans were hardly welcomed with open arms in Northern and Western industrial centers, the South was even more deeply racist and hostile. For example, when Bell Aircraft opened a huge factory on the outskirts of Atlanta, it employed 35,000 workers, only 2,500 of whom were black. Of those 2,500, just 800 had skilled positions; the majority were relegated to jobs as janitors, cafeteria workers, and other industrial equivalents of domestic labor. In the Western shipyards, by contrast, men and women in greater numbers could find skilled work.

Friends and family members who had already made the trip north or west and had found better jobs than the South had to offer enticed those who had not yet moved to follow them. Letters were sent back home with descriptions of the riches that could be found above the Mason-Dixon Line:

Hello Dr., my dear old friend. These moments I thought I would write you a few facts of the present conditions in the North. People are coming here every day and finding employment. Nothing here but money - and it's not hard to get. I have children in school every day with the white children. However are times there now?

But it was not only the prospect of employment, the desire to escape the drudgery of agricultural labor, or the need to escape racism that pulled the migrants northward. There was also the siren song of the bright lights and the big city. Vernon Jarrett, veteran columnist for the

Chicago Tribune

, and himself a migrant, recalled:
Radio had a tremendous impact in terms of making people dream of going North one day. You heard music coming from the Grand Terrace Café... Earl "Fatha" Hines, Duke Ellington...Cab Calloway...the young Count Basie. Chicago - this was a place where black people could talk back to white people - and could vote. We read the

Chicago Defender

and we would have great dreams and great fantasies about this place, this Mecca of human rights and civility. And of course, much of this was exaggeration, but it was the kind of exaggeration people needed to maintain hope in this country and their own lives.

Segregated residential patterns spawned flourishing institutions in black neighborhoods, including a thriving nightlife. On the musical front, rhythm and blues - born in the late 1940s of the fusion of blues, jazz, boogie-woogie, and gospel - was popularized by southern migrants such as Muddy Waters, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1943; Bo Diddley, who left Mississippi in 1935 and also settled in Chicago; and Ray Charles, who migrated from Georgia to Seattle. R&B, an urban music, flourished on the South Side of Chicago, along Los Angeles' Central Avenue, and in Harlem, the neighborhoods that were home to the old and new migrants.

A Diversity of Migrants

The sheer magnitude of the second migration and its duration suggest that people from a wide range of social classes, age groups, and economic levels were drawn into it at different times and places. There are strong indications, however, that, as is usually the case, the second Great Migration was selective - drawing on that part of the black population best able to take and benefit from the risks associated with leaving home for an unfamiliar city.

It appears that the initial wartime migrants were more likely to be urban and/or wage laborers, rather than the simple "peasants turned cityward" that they were often characterized as. The displacement of tenants and sharecroppers during the 1930s had already moved thousands of black families into urban wage labor, and often sent them to the cities. The Southern urban black population had grown tremendously over the preceding decades. During the 1920s alone, major metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, and Memphis had experienced growth rates ranging from 41 to 86 percent. Even in Mississippi, still the most rural Southern state, the black urban population had increased from 5 to 7 percent between 1890 and 1940. The black populations in Louisiana and Oklahoma, two major sources for the Western migration, were substantially urban by 1940 (52 percent and 47 percent, respectively).

The migrants were largely people who had already made the transition to urban life, or at least to wage labor, and who were generally better educated than their non-migrating neighbors.

In addition, given the increase in the Northern urban population due to the Great Migration, potential migrants probably had access to many more informal networks of communication about jobs than earlier migrants had. Many people already had kinfolk in the Northern and Western cities who could provide both information about jobs and support.

World War II had a significant impact on gender relations and the status of women, black and white. For black women, its impact was especially marked because of their significant - though still limited - recruitment into the defense industries and their rejection of private domestic labor.

During World War I, black women migrants were not heavily recruited for industrial labor; indeed, many moved from Southern household help to the same jobs up North. By contrast, the federal censuses of 1940 and 1950 show a nationwide reduction, from 24 percent to 15.1 percent, in the number of blacks employed in domestic labor. For Southern women, the change was even more dramatic. In many cities, the proportion of the black female labor force confined to private domestic work exceeded 70 percent before World War II. These numbers had plunged by the postwar period - in Atlanta, from 70 percent in domestic labor in 1940 to 50 percent ten years later. Although this often simply meant that women did the same kind of labor in non-domestic settings (in a commercial laundry, for example), the change was generally accompanied by better wages and benefits, and sometimes by unionization.

In the first years of the migration, men were twice as likely to travel to the more distant destinations than women, who tended to stay closer to the South. But this was a temporary phenomenon, because over the entire period of the second migration, migrants were more likely to be married than non-migrants. Just as during the Great Migration, people used various strategies, including wives following husbands, wives and husbands migrating together but leaving their children in the care of grandparents until they got settled, and single women joining relatives in distant cities.

A New Life

The impact of the second Great Migration was much less dramatic than that of its predecessor, perhaps because its demographic effect was less spectacular. Despite the new westward push of the second migration, the cities that had been the principal destinations of the earlier exodus - New York, Chicago, and Detroit - were also the principal goals of migrants in the 1940s. But the percentage increase in the black populations of these cities was smaller the second time around. Moreover, African- American communities and their social infrastructures were already well established in these Northeastern and Midwestern communities.

Nevertheless, as during the Great Migration, the influx of newcomers resulted in a shortage of housing. Single-family houses were turned into tenements that lodged several large families. Overcrowding and the lack of enforcement of housing and sanitation codes resulted in unsanitary conditions. In Detroit, half the dwellings rented to black tenants were unsafe, whereas only 20 percent of those occupied by whites were in poor condition.

New migrants were restricted, by segregation, to certain neighborhoods in which no new housing was planned. Landlords had a captive population and took advantage of it by raising the rents. The United States Housing Administration took some measures to provide housing for the new residents, but the process was slow. In Detroit, more than 9,000 families applied for city housing in 1941, but fewer than 2,000 were offered apartments in the projects.

In addition, the federal government was deeply implicated in policies that restricted the ability of African Americans to obtain mortgages outside of black neighborhoods. The government also turned a blind eye on segregation in much of the temporary housing constructed during the war to shelter defense-related production workers.

And, finally, government policies and financing played a major role in stimulating the expansion of the suburbs and "white flight" in the postwar era. This flight was described by Ruth Wells:

Realtors would move in a black person with a lot of children. And so the white people in the neighborhood would see all these little black kids running around and they didn't like that....People are frightened... and they didn't give them very much for their houses, but they went up on the price - sometimes double - when they get ready to sell it to the blacks.

Western communities, on the other hand, were usually experiencing a large influx of African Americans for the first time, and they arrived as part of a vast shift of the general population. Eight million Americans moved west of the Mississippi after 1940, half of them to the Pacific coast. There were 171,000 African Americans in the West in 1940, but 620,000 by 1945. Between the spring of 1942 and 1945 alone, 340,000 African Americans settled in California.

Conflicts and Mobilization

In 1941, A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order mandating an end to racial discrimination in defense industries and setting up an agency, the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), to enforce it. Although the enforcement mechanism was weak, the agency's hearing and complaint process did provide a forum for black political mobilization that would bear dividends in future years.

Many features of these conflicts were different in the West because of the magnitude of the war effort and the new federal role in the economy. For example, the East Bay shipbuilder Kaiser experimented with new production techniques and labor management policies. Some of these - such as prefabrication, which reduced the skill levels needed by those entering the workforce - benefited both African Americans and women. Even when employers like Seattle's aircraft manufacturer Boeing Company and Atlanta's Bell Aircraft remained committed to discriminatory hiring, the federal government's interest in sustaining wartime production often made it an ally of African Americans pushing for change.

But the segregation and discrimination the migrants found in their new homes created an explosive situation. The resentment over discrimination in jobs and housing, police brutality, and humiliations of all sorts culminated in major riots in 1943.

The Detroit "hate" riots erupted in June 1943 at Belle Island, a popular segregated beach. On June 20, 1943, fights broke out between groups of white and African-American youths. News of the altercation spread, and by that night a full-scale riot had erupted. The Detroit police force was unable to quell the disturbance; Detroit Mayor Edward Jefferies requested assistance, but federal authorities were reluctant to intervene. The violence escalated, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered military police and infantry regiments to disperse rioters late on the second night of the riots. Order was restored, but in a day and a half of rioting, 25 African Americans and 9 whites were killed, almost 700 people were injured, and 1,893 people were arrested.

High unemployment and price gouging, as well as rampant racial tensions, led to another riot, in New York on August 1. Police arrested an African-American woman for causing a disturbance at the Braddock Hotel in Harlem. Robert Bandy, a black soldier, demanded that the police release the woman; when they refused, he allegedly assaulted an officer. Bandy was then shot and wounded while attempting to flee. A rumor circulated that the police had killed an African-American soldier, and a crowd of over 3,000 gathered. The crowd turned violent that night and continued rioting into the next morning. Six African Americans were killed, 185 were injured, and at least 500 were arrested. Urban rebellions continued throughout the second Great Migration. In the summer of 1964, a series of "racial disturbances" occurred in several American cities, beginning in Harlem.

Decades before the boycotts and sit-ins of the 1950s, African Americans were using their power as consumers to achieve social change. "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaigns sprang up in Northern urban centers - particularly in African-American communities such as Harlem and Chicago's South Side - to protest discriminatory hiring practices. Often, white-owned commercial establishments that all but monopolized business in black enclaves would refuse to hire neighborhood residents. African-American protesters would picket these establishments not only to increase job opportunities, but also to increase awareness about the community's collective economic power.

African Americans were an important segment of the powerful Democratic coalition that emerged during the 1930s. The Democratic party's strongholds, which were moving from their traditional base in the South to cities of the North, also comprised Catholics, immigrants, and labor and farm interests, all of whom hoped to benefit from Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies.

From Country to Inner City

The demographic changes that came with the migration transformed both the character and representation of the race problem in America and, as a consequence, the image of African Americans. Since the arrival of the first Africans, the black presence in America has been framed as a problem - a labor problem, a social problem, a political problem. For the first three centuries, when most African Americans lived in the South and earned their livelihood from agriculture, the so-called Negro Problem was distinctly Southern and linked to the backwardness of the Southern economy and society. Blacks were backward because the South was backward, or the South was kept back because of deficiencies in the African-American character and culture. Either way, it was a regional problem.

With the urbanization of the African-American population and its spread all over the country, the "problem" became a national one, and its terms of reference began to change. In popular speech as well as in literature and art, in sociological and historical work, black urban life became the dominant setting and motif.

In a very brief time, the now-familiar image of a black inner-city core surrounded by a white suburban ring emerged as the dominant pattern of American life. Thus did the "ghetto" become dominant in scholarly and creative literature by the 1960s. The term "inner city" became a virtual synonym for black people.

Although this rural-to-urban shift was evident even during the Great Migration, there were decisive changes in its character and nuances during the post-World War II era. Unlike the earlier urban expansion, this one was generally portrayed negatively, by blacks as well as whites. The novelty, excitement, and creativity of black urban life that figured so prominently in the literature and art of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, gave way to themes of deterioration. The visual and literary images were now accented in emotional tones of lament, loss, and despair.

The magnitude of the change is made clear by the fact that the very nature and terms of discussion of what had once been referred to as "the Negro Problem" were radically altered. Black life and racial conflicts were now characterized by phrases like "the rise of the ghetto," "the problem of the inner cities," "urban disorders," and "the underclass."

In contrast to this view, however, black urban communities across the country became centers of political and cultural activity. The New Deal coalition formed in the late 1930s, the civil rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the various liberation struggles of the late twentieth century all were grounded in the social and political ferment of these new urban societies.

The Legacies

The vast remapping of black living space and work in the United States was the dominant and lasting consequence of the second Great Migration. These changes contained the seeds of extraordinary political transformations as well. Cities, South as well as North and West, provided a more favorable breeding ground for political mobilization - both inside and outside the established political system - than rural regions.

The second Great Migration was a watershed. For the first time, the African-American community, which, up to that time, had been mostly Southern and rural, became a national population, represented in large numbers in the North and West, and a largely urban one.

Eventually, white flight to the suburbs combined with black migration to urban areas to produce African-American political majorities or large pluralities in several key cities. This laid the basis for the election of numerous African-American mayors, state legislators, and congresspersons.

There is ample evidence of increased political consciousness among Southern migrants, even before voting barriers fell later in the century. Migrants were already politically aware, if not active, before leaving the South, and, as in the Great Migration, many registered to vote as soon as they reached their destinations.

Despite several postwar recessions, the military mobilizations of the Korean War and the Cold War helped the Western and some Midwestern states to remain economically attractive to African Americans for two decades after V-J Day.

The substantial urban concentrations of black Americans were no doubt instrumental in changing marketing strategies for commercial goods and cultural products. For better or worse, the representation of African Americans in the nation's everyday life - in the media and culture - would be radically different at the end of the twentieth century than it had been at its beginning.

The changes in African Americans' self-perception that resulted from this new reality ultimately formed the basis for the various political, social, and cultural movements that reshaped black citizenship in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.



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Jones, Jacqueline. The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present. New York: Basic Books , 1992.

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Lemke-Santangelo, Gretchen. Abiding Courage: African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press , 1996.

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Web Links

Oral Histories from Detroit, Michigan

The John Novak Digital Interview Collection from Marygrove College consists of interviews about immigration, migration, and the Civil Rights Movement. The interviewees, who range in age from 20 to 90, speak of their experiences moving to and within the United States.