Great Northern Migration

More than one million African Americans moved from the rural South to industrial cities of the Midwest and the North, leading to the establishment of vibrant African American communities within those cities.

Summary of Event

The demographic shift known as the Great Northern Migration, during which many African Americans moved from southern states to both midwestern and northeastern states, occurred roughly between 1910 and 1930. Because the demographic figures available are based on the U.S. Census, which is conducted every tenth year, the dating of migration events is imprecise. The data indicate only that this migration took place between 1910 and 1930, but other historical evidence suggests that it began during World War I (between 1914 and 1918) and ended around the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Great Northern Migration
African Americans;population shifts
[kw]Great Northern Migration (1910-1930)
[kw]Northern Migration, Great (1910-1930)
[kw]Migration, Great Northern (1910-1930)
Great Northern Migration
African Americans;population shifts
[g]United States;1910-1930: Great Northern Migration[02590]
[c]Business and labor;1910-1930: Great Northern Migration[02590]
[c]Economics;1910-1930: Great Northern Migration[02590]
[c]Social issues and reform;1910-1930: Great Northern Migration[02590]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;1910-1930: Great Northern Migration[02590]
Du Bois, W. E. B.
Abbott, Robert Sengstacke
Hughes, Langston
Garvey, Marcus

Migration is often measured as net migration, or the difference between the number of people moving into a region and the number moving from it during a specific time period. Between 1910 and 1920, approximately 454,400 more African Americans migrated from the South than migrated to it. During the same period, net migration of African Americans to the North was approximately 426,200. Between 1920 and 1930, net migration of African Americans from the South increased to approximately 749,000, while net migration to the North increased to 712,900. In all, net migration of African Americans from the South exceeded 1.1 million during the period of the Great Northern Migration. The total number moving out of the South cannot be determined with complete accuracy, because an unknown number of African Americans moved to the South during the period, offsetting some of the out-migration, but it has been estimated that some 2 million blacks left the South in that time.

During the Great Northern Migration, the industrial northern and midwestern states of New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan experienced the greatest positive net migration of African Americans. The greatest net loss of African American population took place in the southern agricultural states of Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. As they moved from one region to another, most of the migrants also moved from rural areas to urban areas. Between 1910 and 1920, the African American population of Detroit grew from 5,000 to 40,800, that of Cleveland grew from 8,400 to 34,400, that of Chicago grew from 44,000 to 109,400, and that of New York increased from 91,700 to 152,400. The transition from rural to urban locales was accompanied by a transition from employment in agriculture to employment in industrial or service occupations for increasing numbers of African Americans.

The reasons that African Americans did not leave the South in large numbers until fifty years after the end of the Civil War have long been the subject of debate among social scientists and historians. It is apparent that both social and economic factors were involved. After the Civil War, owners of plantations and farms in the South imposed new ways of controlling labor that were almost as restrictive as slavery had been. As sharecroppers, former slaves and their descendants were allowed to farm land owned by others in return for part of their harvests. These arrangements usually left the sharecroppers perpetually indebted to the landowners, so that they were financially obligated to stay on the land although legally they were free to leave. In addition, many African Americans who were born during the period of slavery were accustomed or resigned to their inferior social and economic position and were reluctant to seek change. According to W. E. B. Du Bois, a leading African American intellectual of the period, African Americans who came of age around 1910 were the first generation for whom slavery was a distant memory. Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws which formalized segregation, discrimination, and racial violence, including lynchings, motivated many in this new generation of African Americans to seek better conditions in the North.

Because the vast majority of African Americans in the South worked in agriculture, particularly in the production of cotton, several bad crop years and a boll weevil infestation in the mid-1910’s contributed to the decisions of some to migrate when they did. The increase in out-migration was greatest in the areas that experienced the greatest crop failures.

Changing conditions in the North also played an important role in the timing of the Great Northern Migration. Prior to World War I, immigration from Europe had supplied the labor needs of northern industry, and African Americans in northern cities usually could find work only as servants, porters, janitors, or waiters. Most industries hired African Americans only during strikes, as a way to exert pressure on Euro-American workers. Restrictions imposed during World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];effects on U.S. workforce reduced the number of European immigrants entering the United States by more than 90 percent, from 1.2 million in 1914 to 110,000 in 1918. This reduction in the available labor force took place just as the war increased demand for industrial production. Northern factories, mills, and workshops that previously had disdained African American workers were forced to recruit them actively, offering wages that were often twice what African Americans could earn in the South, plus inducements such as free rooms and train fare.

In some industries, managers attempted to foster racial division among their workers by encouraging segregated labor unions. The strategy was effective, and workplace competition sometimes contributed to race-based antagonism and violence. Despite such problems, northward migration was further encouraged by news of opportunities, spread not only by personal letters home from new arrivals in the North but also by advertisements and articles in newspapers aimed at African Americans, such as the Chicago Defender, published by Robert Sengstacke Abbott.

The Great Northern Migration ended with the onset of the Great Depression. With an increase in poverty and fierce competition with Euro-Americans for scarce jobs, African Americans from the South found the North to be a less desirable destination. During the 1930’s, net migration of African Americans from the South diminished by about one-half.


African Americans who migrated to northern cities established their own communities within those cities in which African American culture flourished. An example is the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. Although the area was occupied primarily by wealthy European Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century, African Americans had been in Harlem since Dutch colonial times. Philip A. Payton, Jr., Payton, Philip A., Jr. was among several African American businesspeople who saw an opportunity when a housing glut in Harlem coincided with an influx of African Americans. He leased apartment buildings and rented the apartments to African American tenants, a move that antagonized some of the wealthy Euro-American Harlem residents. Harlem was soon an almost exclusively African American enclave.

Harlem became not only a home for African American workers, but also a center of intellectual, cultural, and political development. The Harlem Renaissance, Harlem Renaissance fostered by such African American intellectuals as Du Bois and the poet Langston Hughes, was embraced by white liberals as an alternative to bourgeois American culture. Harlem also became known for African American performing arts, which attracted many white visitors seeking entertainment. Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey arrived in 1916 to establish a branch of his newly formed Universal Negro Improvement Association Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was intended to unite all the “Negro peoples of the world.” The UNIA flourished in New York and other northern cities during the 1920’s. Garvey encouraged African Americans to take pride in their heritage and to establish their own businesses.

Although the Great Northern Migration ended around 1930, it set the stage for subsequent migrations of African Americans that would be even greater in absolute numbers. By the 1940’s, the trend had reversed again, with net migration from the South growing to more than 1.2 million, a level that would be sustained or exceeded during subsequent decades. Great Northern Migration
African Americans;population shifts

Further Reading

  • Hornsby, Alton, Jr. “1918-1932: Between War and Depression.” In Milestones in Twentieth Century African-American History. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1993. Chronicles significant events involving African Americans during a period roughly corresponding to the Great Northern Migration.
  • Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Describes the second Great Migration, beginning in the 1940’s. Includes biographical sketches of individual migrant families and a comprehensive discussion of political implications.
  • Long, Richard A. African Americans: A Portrait. New York: Crescent Books, 1993. Nineteenth and twentieth century migrations are included in a broad history of African American culture, which also discusses the contributions of prominent African Americans.
  • Sernett, Milton C. Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Examines the impact of the Great Northern Migration on religion in the United States. Draws on interviews, government documents, church publications, and more to describe how the migration affected both southern and northern churches and African American religious leaders.
  • Smythe, Mabel M., ed. The Black American Reference Book. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Provides demographic details of the Great Northern Migration. Explains demographic concepts such as “net migration” and “natural increase.”
  • Takaki, Ronald. “To the Promised Land: Blacks in the Urban North.” In A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. Uses primary sources, including music, advertisements, and letters, to detail the impacts of the migration on northern urban culture and labor relations.

Founding of the Niagara Movement

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Is Founded

Universal Negro Improvement Association Establishes a U.S. Chapter

West African Student Union Is Founded