Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Great Migration [Third 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.

Problems of Leave-taking

Once a decision to depart was made, leaving was often a complicated process. Southern officials tried to slow the tide of migration by arresting or detaining African Americans who tried to leave. Local police regularly searched departing trains for people they thought might be heading North. To escape police scrutiny, many migrants had to steal away late at night or devise elaborate plans to get away safely.

These subterfuges forced the migrants either to sell their property and belongings secretly or to take with them only what they could carry. Most migrants were working people who did not possess great wealth and leaving under these circumstances hurt them financially. Items left behind or given away brought in no money and buyers rarely gave full value for items they knew the owner had to sell.

Many migrants, therefore, did not have enough money with them to tide them over for long periods of time once they reached the North. Consequently, finding a job became a high priority as soon as they arrived.

While job opportunities were readily available in most cities, these jobs were at the lower end of the occupational ladder. Northern labor unions generally did not accept African Americans as members and often threatened to strike companies where nonunion workers performed union jobs. Even when African American workers acquired better paying jobs during the war, many of them had to relinquish these jobs once the war ended.

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