Great Migration

Driven from the rural South by economic upheavals and drawn to urban areas by their growing manufacturing and service sectors, millions of African Americans fueled a transformation of the American economy that spanned several decades, leading to dramatic changes in the economies of many American cities and to the economic empowerment of African Americans in those cities.

The Great Migration of African Americans;in business[business]African Americans both influenced and was influenced by dramatic changes in the American economy during the twentieth century. In the southern United States, cotton crops were destroyed by boll weevil infestations and a series of natural disasters during the early decades of the century. At the same time, agricultural mechanization significantly increased productivity. Thus, the South experienced a surplus of agricultural labor, which the Great Migration relieved.Great Migration

In turn, the mass movement of African Americans to northern and western cities fueled the burgeoning automobile and defense industries. Most Employment;African Americansemployment opportunities for African Americans were not in these industries but in service jobs vacated by whites for factory employment. These jobs, however, were necessary to sustain the communities growing up around the automobile and defense factories, and they contributed to the economic empowerment of African American migrants. Many of these newly employed migrants found themselves with substantial disposable income for the first time in their lives.

As a result, the Great Migration produced a dramatic increase in the number of black-owned businesses. African American patronage of white businesses outside the South remained limited by customary segregation, discrimination, and an ingrained reluctance of many African Americans to purchase goods and services from whites. Thus, black-owned businesses such as restaurants, barbershops, and insurance companies proliferated in urban areas during the Great Migration, and they thrived as African Americans continued to pour into northern and western cities.

Migrants from rural areas to southern cities also increased the number of black-owned businesses in the segregated South during the first half of the twentieth century. Much of this growth was short-lived, however, as black-owned businesses suffered a significant decline with the integration of American society during the 1960’s and 1970’s, which broke down many traditional barriers to African American patronage of white businesses. The growth of retail chains further diminished the presence of black-owned businesses during the late twentieth century.

Despite the absence of legal segregation outside the South, segregation by custom relegated most African Americans to specific locations within urban areas, leading to the creation of ghettos as these areas grew increasingly neglected by government officials and property owners. As the urban African American population grew, these blighted areas spread. Many white residents responded by abandoning city life for the growing suburbs, leading to further neglect and deterioration. As a result, many American cities experienced decades of economic decline that in many cases did not begin to reverse until the late twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Baldwin, Davarian L. Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Gregory, James N. The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migration of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
  • McDonald, John F. Urban America: Growth, Crisis, and Rebirth. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2008.


Arms industry

Automotive industry

Farm labor

Internal migration

Military-industrial complex