The Great Migration refers to the movement of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north in the early 1900s. They were fleeing economic depression and racial violence and apartheid, and seeking a better life and better opportunities.

In 1865, at the end of the American Civil War, 91 percent of the estimated 5 million African Americans in the US lived in the South, roughly the same percentage as in 1790. Blacks made up 36 percent of the total Southern population (as compared with 3 percent of the total Northern population). Though some Blacks migrated elsewhere after emancipation and the end of the war, in 1910, nearly 50 years after emancipation, 89 percent of all American Blacks remained in the South, and nearly 80 percent of those lived in rural areas.

In the 1910s several things happened to change Black settlement patterns:

  • falling cotton prices brought an economic depression to the South
  • a boll weevil infestation destroyed much of the cotton crop between 1914 and 1917, further damaging the Southern agricultural economy
  • in 1915 severe floods in the Mississippi Valley ruined crops and homes, especially those of blacks, who lived in disproportionate numbers in the valley's bottomlands.
At the same time, WWI and new restrictive immigration laws were causing labor shortages and inflated wages in the North and the West. At the time, wages in the South ranged from 50 cents to $2 a day, while wages in the industrial North ranged from $2 to $5 a day.

Southern blacks responded to these forces by filling Northern jobs by the hundreds of thousands. Between 1915 and 1920, from 500,000 to 1 million moved North; thousands more moved West. Others remained in the South, but moved from the country to the city.

On their arrival in the North, migrants found not just better wages but the freedom to vote, less exposure to white violence, and, sometimes, better schools for their children. The north was far from being a racial utopia, however: discriminatory real-estate practices forced blacks into poorly maintained and segregated housing, contributing to the rise of the urban black ghetto. Blacks were routinely excluded from labor unions, and many migrants were forced into menial jobs as household servants or served as replacement workers ("scabs") during strikes by white unions.

Southern states, who relied heavily on cheap black labor for every sector of their economies, tried desperately to stop the population flow. Several states passed laws fining and jailing "vagrant" or "landless" blacks to keep them from travelling. They also fined and jailed Northern labor recruiters and Southern blacks who encouraged other blacks to move. The migration continued undeterred. In addition to the hundreds of thousands who left in the 1910s, another 700,000 to 1 million African Americans moved North and West in the 1920s.

The effect on Northern and Western cities was dramatic.

  • In Detroit, Michigan, the Black population jumped from fewer than 6,000 before World War I to more than 120,000 at the end of the 1920s.
  • Chicago's black population grew from 40,000 in 1910 to about 240,000 in 1930.
  • New York's black population grew from 100,000 in 1910 to 330,000 in 1930.
  • Los Angeles, California, jumped from 8,000 blacks in 1910 to almost 40,000 in 1930.

By 1940, 23 percent of blacks in the United States were living in the North and West, and Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi no longer had majority Black populations. In the areas left behind, thousands of farm acres were reported idle, and many businesses in these areas were forced to close.


sources: North by South: Charleston to Harlem, The Great Migrations a three year, NEH sponsored study of African American migrations from south to north. http://www.northbysouth.org/
several other websites

In Canada (Upper Canada and Lower Canada before the Union Act of 1841), the "Great Migration" was a period of accelerated immigration. In the early 1800s, innovations of the Industrial Revolution began to automate many of the jobs that employed the lower classes. Starting around the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the jobless and hungry were lured to travel to the "New World" from Great Britain and Ireland. This was partly facilitated by England's hunger for lumber -- ships brought timber from the New World, and carried immigrants on the return trip to Canada. By 1830, almost 30,000 people annually were arriving in the Canadas, mostly via Québec City. By 1851, almost 700,000 immigrants had passed through Québec City from ports in England, Ireland, and Scotland with some 60% of those arriving from Irish ports. This influx changed the language and cultural balance of the Canadas from predominantly French to British.

Grosse Île tragedy

When a terrible outbreak of cholera spread through Britain in 1832, authorities hastily set up a quarantine station at Grosse Île, an island in the St. Lawrence river approximately 50 km downstream from Québec City. A particular tragedy took place at Grosse Île in 1847, during the height of the Irish potato famine. With over 90,000 immigrants arriving after fleeing the famine, an outbreak of typhus swept the island, claiming over 5,000 lives at the station and on quarantined ships anchored nearby (compared to a few dozen deaths in any other year).


Data from Parks Canada's Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada

Every year, some time around July, 1.5 million wildebeest gather on the southern banks of the Grumeti river in Tanzania, eying their chances against the formidable crocodiles and its coursing waters as they leave behind the arid grasslands of the Serengeti for the wetter northern woodlands of the Masai Mara in Kenya.

This is the Great Migration, and it's the largest mass-movement of land mammals on the planet.

The females would have calved between January and March. The timing would have been dependent on the rutting season, sometime in the previous May or June. But as the dry season comes, the plains dry out, and the young reach the stage when they are capable of embarking on a 1,500 kilometre journey, they begin to move.

They head north, following the rains.

Once they have made their way across the Grumeti and cantered north, the herd will hit the Mara river, another crocodile-ridden battle ground. Not all the animals will make it. They are a feast for crocodiles, yes, but they also fall victim to broken legs as they jump from the banks and into the river, they are swept downstream by the current, or they're prey for lions and hyenas.

Those who safely navigate it will be able to feast on the lush pastures of the Serengeti until October or November.

By then, the rains will have come to the south and the plains will have been rejuvenated, made verdant again. Once again, the herd masses, contemplates the river, and eventually one animal will make the plunge and lead them back on their journey to their breeding grounds, so that the cycle can begin once again.

It's chaotic, it's noisy, and it's an incredible spectacle.

(You can also see the most awesome video of the Great Migration, as the wildebeest return south, and face the Mara river a second time around, made by Will and Matt Burrard-Lucas.)

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