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.
several other websites