Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Great Migration [Second Installment]

In celebration of Black History Month, The Daily Leap presents the second 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.

Local Prod

Socio-economic and political conditions in the South made African Americans likely candidates for migration. After the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction, the Nation's legislators and the Supreme Court had turned their backs on black Americans and left determination of their citizenship rights to local jurisdictions.

In the South, this abdication of authority resulted in the creation of a two-tiered system of citizenship with one set of rules for whites and a more restrictive set for African Americans. In this system of "Jim Crow" laws, black Americans, under penalty of imprisonment or possibly death, were forced to use special sections when they rode on public transportation, ate in restaurants, or attended theaters.

Southern statutes also excluded them from voting through such manipulations of the law as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, or literacy tests which prevented the majority of African Americans from voting while allowing their white counterparts access to the ballot.

Oppressive as the political situation was, the economic situation was even more oppressive in that it locked tenant farmers ("sharecroppers") into an ever-tightening cycle of debt. While the majority of black Americans in the South resided in rural areas, they did not own the land they worked. Most often they rented it from large landowners or worked as farm laborers. Bad crop years, boll weevil attacks, floods, or low crop prices often destroyed profit margins and left sharecroppers in debt to the landlord.

In order to avoid imprisonment, they agreed to work additional years in hopes of paying off their debts. Unfortunately, profits rarely were large enough to wipe out their obligations and African Americans found themselves bound to the landlord who owned their land or controlled the local store where they purchased goods on credit.

Migrating offered a chance to escape the oppressiveness of the South and begin anew.

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