Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Great Migration [First Installment]

In celebration of Black History Month, The Daily Leap presents the first installation of a four-part series on The Great Migration. The series was excerpted from Spencer R. Crews' article "The Great Migration of Afro-Americans, 1915-1940," which appeared in the Monthly Labor Review in March 1987.

Historic Event

The "Great Migration" of African Americans from largely rural areas of the southern United States to northern cities during and after World War I (1915-40) altered the economic, social, and political fabric of American society. More than one million black Americans left the South to seek opportunity and fuller citizenship in the North.

The momentousness of the migration as an event does not alter the fact that the migrants were ordinary people. Like colonial settlers or western pioneers of an earlier day, these migrants were not looking to change the world, only their own status. A mixture of farmers, domestic servants, day laborers, and industrial workers, they came from all parts of the South, hoping for a chance to improve their own station or at least that of their children.

War Trigger

Without the increase in job opportunities caused by World War I, the Great Migration might never have occurred. The fighting in Europe dramatically increased the demands on companies in the United States to produce munitions and other goods to support the war effort.

At the same time, the labor pool these companies normally depended upon immigrants and native-born Americans—was dwindling. The draft siphoned off many of these men, while the turmoil in Europe disrupted the flow of immigrants from that area. Desperately in need of additional workers, northern businesses looked southward for new sources of labor.

Because African Americans made up a large portion of the unskilled workforce in the South and because of social conditions there, they became the targets of aggressive recruitment campaigns. Northern companies offered well-paying jobs, free transportation, and low-cost housing as inducements to African Americans to move North. They also sent labor recruiters into the South who received a fee for every recruit they provided for the company they represented.

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