Between the years of 1915 and 1930, more than 1 million black southerners set out on one of America's most important mass movements. These people migrated from the South's countryside to the cities in the North in hopes of finding better jobs, a new sense of citizenship, and a new respect for themselves, their families, and their people in the North.
In 1910, the North and South were so dissimilar that they could have passed for two different countries. The southern states were isolated, economically backward, had fewer schools, and higher rates of illiteracy. The South was suffering from floods and the boll weevil, both of which injured the faltering southern economy. The Industrial Revolution resulted in increased mechanization of farms, displacing many Negroes, and the economic picture was bleak because there were no jobs on farms.
Their northern counterparts, however, boasted cultural attractions and booming industries that produced a huge demand for labor. In order to increase factory output to meet orders, northern industrial bosses dispatched labor agents to the South to recruit Negroes, promising them employment and free railroad transportation. Despondent blacks seized the opportunity for a new life and began to leave in large numbers.
With black labor leaving the South in large numbers, southern planters tried to prevent the outflow, but were ultimately unsuccessful. The more progressive southern employers tried to promise better pay and improved treatment. Others tried to intimidate blacks, even going so far as to board northbound trains and attack black men and women, to try to force them into returning to the South.
The Great Migration created the first large, urban black communities in the North. The North saw its black population rise about 20 percent between 1910 and 1930. Cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Cleveland saw some of the biggest increases.
Migrants soon discovered that their past rural residence had not prepared them for urban life. The challenges of living in an urban environment were daunting to many. As in the South, segregation in housing and hiring were the norm, and northern racism sometimes took on a brutality that equaled anything in Mississippi or Alabama. Most often new arrivals could only land the poor paying jobs that did not require any intelligence. They found themselves surrounded by prejudice, discrimination and segregation and were forced to reside in run-down areas of the city.
But despite the challenges, most of those who went to North never returned to the South. African Americans created businesses, neighborhoods, and political organizations. Harlem, New York, became a center for African American culture, and spawned the Harlem Renaissance.
The steam of migrants continued until the Great Depression and World War II caused northern demand for workers to slacken.