• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • Files spread between Dropbox, Google Drive, Gmail, Slack, and more? Dokkio, a new product from the PBworks team, integrates and organizes them for you. Try it for free today.


Great Migration

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 10 months ago

The Great Migration

created by Brittany Lodge



In the years following the Civil War, a variety of factors converged in the nation encouraging blacks to move from the South to the North and West in search of new opportunities. The motivations of the time can be thought of as both push and pull. Troubling economic conditionsin the South pushed blacks to leave the southern states. The world war created a new marketplace of jobs in the north, pulling many blacks to search for work up North. The Great Migration of the early 1900’s “arose from conditions in the North and South that strongly induced African-Americans to move, but left them wide options and resources to do so” (Gottlieb 74). The Great Migration manifested itself in a variety of ways as blacks moved away from the southern rural settings into cities in the North as well as in the South. 


 (1)   (2)

                       Street scene, 1939                                   Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro



Contributing Factors


One of the primary factors that drove the migration was the boll weevil infestation that devastated crops throughout the South (Marks 37). This destructive beetle, which thrives in wet weather, began its onslaught in 1915 and 1916 during a period of heavy rain that followed a long dry spell (Henri 52). Farmers and cotton plantation owners suddenly faced an economic crisis, and their black workers were left jobless. These workers, who were already struggling to survive on dreadfully low wages, now found another reason to look for work elsewhere (Henri 53). As the saying goes:

            Boll-weevil in de cotton

            Cut worm in the cotton,

            Debil in de white man,

            Wah’s goin’ on (Henri 51).


Carole Marks writes that “the differences between an agricultural South and the industrial North were so stark that an image of the South as an underdeveloped country is appropriate” (38). As this job crisis was occurring in the rural South, the job market was booming in other parts of the country. Industrialization was taking hold in a big way and due to the war in Europe, the United States was in need of cheap labor to support the “war economy” (Marks 37). Blacks coming to the North arrived just in time to fill this need. While men primarily took industry and construction jobs, women were often forced to take jobs similar to the tasks they had been assigned in their southern homes: “cooking, cleaning and washing in private homes” (Gottlieb 70). The South, however, also offered a lot of opportunities for blacks to take positions in urban industries. Mining, dockside labor, and the construction of railroads and military installations provided those who wanted to stay in the South with the chance to find occupational success in urban areas (Gottlieb 71).


The Great Migration actually occurred in the South as a “circulation of population” (Marks 44). The field workers, suddenly finding themselves jobless, went to local cities and towns where they took the jobs of those living and working in the city. Former city-dwellers, being pushed out of their positions in Southern towns, formed the first wave of the Great Migration, as they were forced to move out looking for more work.


Population in the Cities


Migrants coming north tended to settle in areas that were already populated by blacks. Blacks who came to New York City looking for labor congregated in Manhattan and the Harlem district. A neighborhood of stylish homes, Harlem had recently been mostly vacated due to the depression in 1904-5. Landlords were happy to rent their properties out to the migrant blacks (Rodgers 71). The area soon became almost entirely black, made up mostly of unskilled laborers, as well as a “Talented Tenth” of skilled, educated blacks in more elite positions (Rodgers 71). This diversity allowed for “the unique cosmopolitan flavor necessary for a full-scale renaissance” (Rodgers 72). Many writers of the Harlem Renaissance fell into the elite category, a fact which caused a distinct separation between “the migration experience of most renaissance writers from working-class migrants who constituted the renaissance’s veiled chorus and provided the human critical mass necessary to allow it to flourish” (Rodgers 76).


Similar to the popuation boom in New York City, Chicago also received an influx of blacks during this time. In this city, too, it was the work offered by the war economy that drew people in and, more importantly, kept them there. The black population spiked during this era and remiained a powerful force in the city in the decades that followed (Grossman). For more information on the influence of the Great Migration on the city of Chicago, see the entry in the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.


Migration-Era Authors


(3)    (4)

           Langston Hughes                                Jean Toomer


Langston Hughes, who had lived all over the country by the time he came to Harlem, would definitely be labeled as a member of the “Talented Tenth.” He arrived in the city not to find work, but to enroll in Columbia University (Rodgers 76). But despite his own personal history and reasons for coming to the city, he successfully captured the sentiments of many migrants in the cities.

            Folks, I come up North

            Cause they told me de North was fine.

            I come up North

            Cause they told me de North was fine.

            Been up here six months –

            I’m about to lose my mind.


            This mornin’ for breakfast

            I chawed the mornin’ air.

            This mornin’ for breakfast

            Chawed the mornin’ air.

            But this evenin’ for supper,

            I got evenin’ air to spare (Rodgers 1).


This poem serves as a great example of what Hughes encouraged in black writers. In his article "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" he argues that blacks should not fear their own unique experiences and should not avoid writing distinctly black art. There is more value, he believed, in an authentic representation of black culture than in mimicry of the typical white cultural experience. The Great Migration was certainly a large part of the black experience in this era of history. Hughes wanted black authors to embrace this history and express it in the art they created. Much of his poetry captures the difficulty that blacks faced as they tried to integrate into the broader culture. Poems like "Vagabonds," "I, Too," and "Refugee in America" sound the cry of the black masses who, while functioning as a part of city society, still felt like outsiders. The Great Migration brought them into the cities, into working relationships with whites, but nothing could remove their sense of separateness.


Jean Toomer, another migration-era writer, “conveyed a measured blend of the humanity and cruelty of rural black life” (Rodgers 81). His work Cane, a combination of poetry and prose, finds its unity in the sense of regionalism that pervades the work, specifically the section Fern. In this segment, the northern narrator seems to believe that the south can be reclaimed and that it will somehow exist eternally, as embodied by characters like Fern. Toomer, however, did not believe this. He saw the south, at least the south as it had always been, as permanently lost to the urbanization taking place throughout the country.




Works Cited


Gottlieb, Peter. “Rethinking the Great Migration: A Perspective from Pittsburgh.” The Great Migration in Historical Perspective. Ed. Joe William Trotter Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 68-79.


Grossman, James. "Great Migration." Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. Chicago Historical Society. 26 Apr. 2007 <http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/545.html>.


Henri, Florette. Black Migration: Movement North 1900 – 1920. Garden City: Anchor Press, 1975.


Marks, Carole. “The Social and Economic Life of Southern Blacks During the Migration.” Black Exodus: The Great Migration for the American South. Ed. Alferdteen Harrison. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1991. 36-50.


Rodgers, Lawrence R. Canaan Bound: The African-American Great Migration Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.



Photo Acknowledgements

(1) http://www.africanamericans.com/HarlemRenaissance.htm

(2) http://northbysouth.kenyon.edu/1999/space/home.htm

(3) http://www.nndb.com/people/111/000032015/

(4) http://authors.aalbc.com/jean.htm


back to Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature

Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 11:06 am on Mar 14, 2007

Britanny, this should have been made as a comment. Perhaps the student didn't understand the distinction between editing and commenting.

"Maybe you can touch base a little on the Harlem Renaissance, as the Great Migration affected that movement as well. Maybe talking about: because the Great Migration from the South to the North resulted in the appearence of more African Americans in Urban settings, movements such as the Harlem Renaissance came into being."

Anonymous said

at 11:07 am on Mar 14, 2007

A good start here. I think that you could probably have some good images since there's a lot of stuff out there on the web. Maybe connect to Harlem Renaissance and discuss briefly. Someone like Jean Toomer or Langston Hughes.

Anonymous said

at 7:34 am on Apr 25, 2007

Brittany, this seems like a solid page. A few of your images aren't showing up, so perhaps you need to try to set that up again. Also, you have the opportunity to create a lot of interesting links in your text, so think about taking advantage of the internet to link your writing to other texts.

You don't have permission to comment on this page.