In celebration of Black History Month, The Daily Leap presents the final 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.
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.
Types of Jobs
African Americans typically wound up in dirty, back-breaking, unskilled, and low-paying occupations. These were the least desirable jobs in most industries, but the ones employers felt best suited their black workers. On average, more than eight of every ten African American men worked as unskilled laborers in foundries, in the building trades, in meat-packing companies, on the railroads, or as servants, porters, janitors, cooks, and cleaners. Only a relatively few obtained work in semiskilled or skilled occupations.
Occupational choices for black women were even more limited because few of them, in concordance with women in general, had access to industrial jobs. While some women found employment in the garment industry, packinghouses, and steam laundries, the majority of African American women worked as domestic servants or in service-related occupations. While none of these jobs paid high wages, they paid more than African Americans could obtain for similar work in the South.
However, the cost of living in the North was higher than in the South. Funneled into certain areas in most northern cities, African Americans have paid nearly twice as much as their white counterparts for equivalent housing. Higher rents made it harder for them to make housing payments and encouraged migrants to take in boarders or other family members to help meet expenses. While the extra income eased financial problems, it resulted in overcrowded living conditions, little privacy, and poor sanitation.
With the additional financial burden of having to pay higher prices in neighborhood stores for food, clothing, and other necessities, settling in the North was a mixed experience for many migrants. Though they earned better wages in the North, much of the increased income was offset by higher living expenses.