The First Northern Migration

The 1890s

By 1900 significant urban black populations had emerged in a number of cities, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, four of the twelve cities whose total populations exceeded forty thousand by that date. The northern black urban communities that emerged at the turn of the century varied in their economic structure, their pattern of racial relations, the size of their pre-1900 African American community, and the origins of their populations. Yet for all their differences there existed great commonality, the most obvious of which was residential segregation. Except for some western cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, segregation swept across urban America in the first few decades of this century, channeling blacks into distinct sections of cities that were almost always characterized by deteriorating buildings and severe overcrowding. As Jacob Riis wrote in 1890, “The Czar of all the Russia’s is not more absolute upon his own soil than the New York landlord in his dealings with colored tenants. … Where he permits them to live, they go; where he shuts the door, [they] stay out” (Riis, p. 110).

Chicago, with its “black belt” across the South Side, perhaps best represented the rise of almost complete residential segregation. Although the belt had begun slowly evolving as early as the Civil War, by 1906 Chicago had become the most segregated city in the North, with 90 percent of its African American population in a racially restricted ghetto.

Despite the evolving concentration of blacks that made that community appear monolithic to outside observers, a socioeconomic hierarchy based on occupation and aspiration generated distinct differences among the new black urbanites. At the top of this hierarchy was a small elite of professionals and service workers: teachers, doctors, lawyers, barbers, and servants for the wealthiest families and private clubs. Their status derived from their concern for manners, “good breeding,” and from their antecedents in the city, as in the case of the “O.P.’s,” or Old Philadelphians. As David Nielson reminds us, the status of this elite rested not just on proper but on exemplary conduct and superior manners. “If their respectability only had been equal to that of their white neighbors,” Nielson has argued, “they knew they would not have been considered respectable.”

Below the elites, and constituting the vast majority of black northern urban inhabitants before 1920, was the working class W. E. B. Du Bois called “the respectables” in his 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro. These people, including the majority of southern-born migrants, were employed in such steady if poorly remunerated occupations as laborers, midwives, laundresses, housemaids, nurses, butlers, and coachmen for middle-class whites. As this list suggests, and as was true in southern cities, black women often found greater opportunity than men. These people, though poor, appropriated a life-style and mode of public conduct they hoped would generate respect for them within their own community if not the larger society. This respectability was a critical determinant of their sense of self-esteem, since their race, poverty, and location in segregated slums made them indistinguishable from what would now be termed the underclass.

At the bottom of the black urban social order was a small group of people for whom such social strictures were meaningless. They were, according to one social observer, “undisciplined, unchurched and uneducated,” people far more concerned with their survival in the complex, hostile environment of the city than with their image in either the white or the black worlds. These men and women, often involved in “hustling,” included gamblers, petty thieves, confidence artists, prostitutes, and procurers, and were the group most inclined to try to manipulate that environment as best they could to their own advantage. As James Weldon Johnson once recalled, they were quite willing to strike back quickly and violently when the white man’s discrimination penetrated their customary indifference. Many of these people lived just on the edge of the law, with a flamboyant minority clearly outside its strictures.

The Great Migration: 1915-1920

During World War I half a million black people moved from the rural south to the urban north. This migration ended the overwhelming concentration of black people in the eleven former Confederate states and made the question of black civil rights a national concern for the first time since the 1860s. This migration accelerated the urbanization of African Americans that continued until well into the 1980s.

Although its effects were not immediately apparent, this migration also led to the rise of the modern ghetto.

The years between 1915 and 1920 which saw this migration also witnessed a dramatic reorientation of the northern African American community as a rapid urbanization and proletarianization of the black work force arising from the employment of African Americans in the factories, mills, and foundries of the North permanently reshaped the politics, social structure, and culture of the black community. By 1930 a national black community had evolved, possessed equally of a distinct sense of its inferior place in American society and of the desire to marshal all its collective energies to challenge that place. Alain Locke captured this new consciousness when he declared in 1925 that “all classes of people” who are “under social pressure [have] a common experience; they are emotionally welded as others cannot be. With them, even ordinary living has epic depth and lyric intensity, and this, their material handicap, is their spiritual advantage” (Locke, p. 47).

Although as late as 1910 more than 85 percent of the black population still lived in the rural South, this figure was about to undergo abrupt change. In 1915 nearly sixty thousand blacks moved north; in 1916 one hundred thousand more came, and in 1917, the peak year, over one hundred fifty thousand moved north, with another two hundred thousand migrating by 1920. The pattern of migration was selective, with most African Americans being destined for the large northeastern and midwestern cities. The smaller northern cities and the cities of the West were hardly affected. Between 1915 and 1920, Chicago’s black population rose from 44,000 to 109,000, New York’s from 91,000 to 152,000, and Detroit’s from 3,400 to 36,000. In 1920 James Weldon Johnson recalled the migrants he saw in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, bound for the north: I sat one day and watched the stream of migrants passing to take the train. For hours they passed steadily, carrying flimsy suit cases, new and shiny, rusty old ones, bursting at the scams, boxes and bundles and impedimenta of all sorts, including banjos, guitars, birds in cages and what not. The great exodus of Negroes from the South was on. (Locke, p. 305.)

The black migration north of 1915-1920 was generated by four basic push-pull factors: a labor surplus in the South, prompted both by poor crops and the forcing of sharecroppers off plantations; a combination of natural catastrophes, including floods, droughts, and a boll weevil infestation that disrupted cotton production; southern antiblack violence, which though not significantly greater than before was nevertheless a reminder to African Americans of their precarious existence in the region; and a shortage of labor in northern factories brought on by the war-reduced European immigration to the United States. That immigration fell from 1.2 million in 1914 to 110,000 by 1918, just at the moment labor was most needed in northern factories.

As Louise V. Kennedy has noted, the wages paid in the North seemed “fabulous sums promising speedy wealth and success” (p. 44). Being “paid in cold cash by the week or month instead of in store credit once a year” guaranteed the attractiveness of the North to blacks. In Pittsburgh migrants earned $3.60 per day in the steel mills, and in Detroit black autoworkers, the highest-paid group in the North, averaged five dollars a day, compared with the fifty-cents per day paid to southern laborers. Even domestic servants in New York City received $2.50 per day, as opposed to the relatively high sixty-five cents per day they could earn in Virginia or North Carolina. According to a U.S. Labor Bureau survey of 1919, even including the higher expenses in the North, the average migrant made 300 percent more there than in the South.

Rural unskilled black males from the South found a number of occupations in the North. They became steelworkers, automobile assemblers, textile workers, and meatpackers, all being industrial jobs blacks had rarely held in the South before 1915. And the directly war-related jobs like munitions manufacturing and shipbuilding and maintenance produced a range of new industrial skills that could profitably be utilized after the war. Some of the southern blacks brought their skills north: railroad repair and maintenance workers, longshoremen, and freight haulers often found similar occupations after migrating. Moreover, the increase in the North’s black population provided more opportunities for a growing black business middle class of bankers, insurance agents, merchants, barbers, undertakers, and newspaper owners.

There was, however, one major exception to this pattern of upward occupational mobility. Most black females, regardless of their demonstrable skills in the South, could only become cooks, nurses, and maids in the North. They found it almost impossible there to get the factory work many of them had had in Richmond and other southern cities and as their white female counterparts had in the North. The southern black professional women, particularly teachers, were not allowed to continue their occupations in northern cities.

High wages were indeed the primary reason for the migration, but as mentioned, many African Americans abandoned the South because of its oppressive conditions and violence. The northern black newspaper the Chicago Defender, which unabashedly promoted the migration, urging southern blacks to come to “the Promised Land,” regularly published letters from prospective migrants seeking its assistance. These missives, in their simplicity and urgency, suggest the anguish of many southern blacks. From Alabama one person wrote: I am a poor woman and have a husband and five children living. … This is my native home but it is not fit to live in. … Will you please let me know when the [railroad] cars is going to stop. … Your needed and worried friend” (Scott, p. 332).

The migrants soon discovered that the North was neither the Promised Land of their dreams nor of the Defender’s description. The growing black population in the North generated a violent reaction from whites resentful of sharing jobs, housing, and political power. Chicago, the Defender’s home city, illustrates the best example of the tension and its resulting violence. Between 1915 and 1920, when Chicago’s black community grew by 148 percent, African Americans crowded into the existing housing and eventually began spilling over into Polish and Irish neighborhoods on the edges of the black belt. Typically, one intrepid black family would move into a previously all-white block and meet resistance, frequently including bombing of the property. If the blacks then moved away, the block was considered “saved,” but if they managed to stay the whites would rapidly move out. In 1918 Chicago recorded sixty-eight bombing incidents involving the integrating of neighborhoods.

Moreover, the labor shortage prompted by World War I ended soon after November 1918, as industries converting to postwar production began laying people off. To make matters worse, returning white servicemen tended to expect to get back their old jobs or receive preferential hiring. This rivalry, in Chicago and other cities, led to what became known as the red summer of 1919, a term which had a dual meaning. There was for one an attack on perceived leftists by the federal government and patriotic organizations such as the newly formed American Legion, and on the other hand the greatest outburst of racial violence in the history of the nation. The Chicago race riot of 1919, which lasted nearly three weeks and caused the death of thirty-eight people, was the single-worst outbreak, but there were similar conflagrations in thirty-six cities, from Washington to Omaha, which took the lives of more than six hundred people.

Despite the violence and growing economic difficulties prompted by the postwar recession, the consensus among the migrants was that life in the North remained better than “going back home,” according to an Associated Negro Press survey in mid 1923. This consensus was supported by numerous developments that mitigated the harshest realities of northern urban living. For example, the migration brought a resurgence of political activity. There was no denial of voting rights in the North, and soon African American politicians were being increasingly elected to office. As early as 1915, blacks served on the city council in Chicago, as they did in 1919 in New York. By 1928, Oscar DePriest of Chicago had become the first northern black congressman and the first black man to sit in Congress since 1901, beginning a pattern of continuous northern representation that has held until now. In key industrial states like Ohio, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania black voters often swayed the balance of power between the Republican and Democratic parties, which gave them state and national influence far out of proportion to their numbers. To serve them a new urban black middle class emerged, out of the growth of black community services. Unlike their counterparts prior to 1910, this entrepreneurial class in the larger cities served an exclusively black clientele. Many in this new class were self-made men and women like Sarah Breedlove, who migrated from Louisiana to Indianapolis and finally to New York selling beauty products. She eventually developed a hair-straightening cream that made her the first black female millionaire, after which she adopted the name Madame C. J. Walker.

The migration north created a physically compact black community where individuals with diverse political, educational, and social backgrounds could exchange ideas, especially in New York, where African American migration from the South took place alongside smaller migrations from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and Africa. Out of this intellectual crucible was forged the artistic creativity that generated the Harlem Renaissance. Comparable developments in music led to jazz and the blues becoming widely accepted both within and, for the first time, beyond the boundaries of black America.

The northward migration generated similar sweeping changes in black religion, though along radically differing paths. The first was the growth of the huge urban black churches such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church founded in 1910 by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., in Harlem. By 1930 this church had become the largest in the nation, black or white, with over twenty thousand members. The Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago had ten thousand members by 1930, and the Bethel AME Church (Mother Bethel) of Philadelphia, with its eight thousand members by the same date, became centers of political as well as religious activity. For instance, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the successor to his father as pastor of the Abyssinia Church, became New York’s first black congressman in 1944.

The migration north also inspired the growth of so-called storefront churches, usually of the Holiness or Pentecostal denominations. These churches, which sprang up by the hundreds across urban black America, frequently had fewer than fifty members, yet they had strong appeal for the thousands of African Americans alienated by the size and formality of the larger churches. Harking back to the emotionalism of southern black services, these churches saw their members unabashedly illustrating their faith through singing, shouting, and speaking in tongues. Yet another approach was that of messianic religious leaders such as Father Divine and Daddy Grace, who attracted thousands of followers both black and white during the Great Depression, with their particular combinations of religious fervor and social service. Finally, various non-Christian groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Temple all found a place in the urban religious milieu generated by the northward migration.

The UNIA and Black Culture

The great migration to the northern cities helped generate new black organizations that rejected their assimilation into American society and sought instead to marshal the economic and political resources of the black enclaves to generate some degree of autonomy over the black condition. The most successful of these organizations was the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914 by Marcus Garvey.

The UNIA was by far the largest popularly based political and economic organization of its time run by blacks. At the height of its power, in 1924, it included more than 2 million members and had 4 million sympathizers in the United States, Latin America, the West Indies, and Africa. Indeed, the UNIA was the first mass black organization whose every tenet reflected a racial consciousness. Its black-owned enterprises, including the Negro Factories Corporation and its steamship company, the Black Star Line, recalled the earlier emphasis on black capitalism by Booker T. Washington’s Negro Business League and the black self-help efforts of the 1840s and 1850s. Its paramilitary arm, the African Legion, and its companion group of white-clad Black Cross nurses exuded a sense of strength and collective purpose rarely exhibited in the black community since the Civil War. Even its African Orthodox church suggested the racial purposes to which religion could be put. Although the UNIAs’ leaders did not use the term, they were in fact the first advocates of “black power.”

By 1924 there were more than four hundred divisions or branches of the UNIA throughout the world, the largest being in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. These seven cities alone had over 250,000 members and were each financially strong enough to purchase Liberty Halls to house their Garveyite activities. Although the UNIA was primarily an urban organization, its appeal reached out well into the rural areas and small towns of black America. Louisiana, for example, had thirty-three divisions, mainly in small towns rather than major cities, and California’s divisions in Monrovia, Fresno, Wasco, and San Bernardino became active before those in Oakland and San Francisco.

The ideals of the UNIA struck a responsive chord among millions of African Americans. The historian J. Saunders Redding has provided a vivid recollection of a UNIA rally in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, in the 1920s.

They came with much shouting and blare of bugles and a forest of flags–a black star centered in a red field. … They made speeches in the vacant lot where carnivals used to spread their tents. … [Y]oung women … in their uniforms distributed millions of streamers bearing the slogan “Back to Africa.” [The UNIA members] were not people of the slums, they were men with small struggling shops and restaurants, and personal servants. … They had been dependable attendants at meetings promising Negro uplift, and loyal though perhaps somewhat awed members of the NAACP. (p. 39)

Like many middle-class African Americans who dismissed the UNIA, Redding as a historian focused primarily on Garvey’s blunt exhortations to “look up, you mighty race” without understanding the deep roots of the “new” black consciousness. This new awareness was in part a response to a growing white racial consciousness, as reflected in the South in the emergence of a corpus of segregationist legislation and in the North by a corresponding concern with race. Although black nationalism clearly predates 1900, it was nonetheless accelerated by changes occurring on both sides of the color line. By the turn of the century many urban blacks had given up the dream of Reconstruction that black Americans would eventually be pulled into the economic, social, and political mainstream of the nation. All the solutions suggested to the race problem–education, property accumulation, industrial training, and religion–seemed useless in the quest for acceptance. Even the conservative Alabama educator W. H. Councill was forced to assert in 1899 that “whether North, South, East or West, [the black’s] ambition, his aspirations are chained to a stake, are circumscribed by Anglo-Saxon prejudice and might” (p. 576). Only when black Americans “become a people,” he said, will they be able to attack this chain.

Becoming a people required the development of a group consciousness promoting racial solidarity, a consciousness that had both its conservative and its radical antecedents. Conservatives such as the supporters of Booker T. Washington’s Negro Business League saw the development of black business as the foundation for African American economic autonomy if not independence. Radicals like W. E. B. Du Bois emphasized a variety of reforms, from the promotion of black culture through studying black history to the use of economic boycotts and racially uplifting organizations such as the NAACP to shape an up-to-date African American. Indeed, the turn-of-the-century debate over the proper name to use for themselves–Negroes, Colored Americans, People of Color, African Americans, Afro-Americans–was emblematic of a growing racial consciousness. For many African Americans, “culture” was no longer simply the sum of the characteristics shared by the descendants of African slaves but was now a weapon in the struggle for equality.

Thus, Marcus Garvey’s 1916 transferring of the international headquarters of the UNIA from Kingston, Jamaica, to Harlem and the rapid success of the organization by 1920 can be explained only partly by the travail of black America during World War I and its aftermath in the summer of 1919. Black America had in fact been poised for the UNIA’s message long before Garvey ever arrived on the mainland. “The UNIA,” wrote William Pickens of the NAACP in 1921 in a comparison with the leading white consciousness organization, the Ku Klux Klan, “was neither secret nor sinister,” yet it “imbued ordinary black Americans with a massive dose of self-esteem” (p. 751).

The Great Depression

By the Depression, for the first time in the nation’s history two distinct types of African American societies had evolved–an urban culture, best represented by Harlem or Chicago’s South Side but which was also inclusive of a number of smaller northern, western, and southern cities from Seattle to Miami, and a rural culture, formed in the aftermath of slavery. These two cultures had in common such features as poverty, segregation and, most importantly, a shared worldview. By the 1930s, as a consequence of the continuing migration to the north, these cultures were inexorably linked. Indeed, after the migration no southern black community, however small, was ever as isolated in the 1930s as it had been in the 1890s.

Ref.: Encyclopedia of American Social History, Volume 2, ©1993.

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