Refugees on levee, April 17, 1897, photo by Carroll's Art Gallery
Sections: Colonization | Abolition | Migration | WPA

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed less than 8 percent of the African-American population lived in the Northeast or Midwest. Even by 1900, approximately 90 percent of all African- Americans still resided in the South. However, migration from the South has long been a significant feature of black history. An early exodus from the South occurred between 1879 and 1881, when about 60,000 African-Americans moved into Kansas and others settled in the Oklahoma Indian Territories in search of social and economic freedom.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, movement of blacks to the North increased tremendously. The reasons for this "Great Migration," as it came to be called, are complex. Thousands of African-Americans left the South to escape sharecropping, worsening economic conditions, and the lynch mob. They sought higher wages, better homes, and political rights. Between 1940 and 1970 continued migration transformed the country's African-American population from a predominately southern, rural group to a northern, urban one.

The movement of African-Americans within the United States continues today. Further research in the Library's general and special collections could help assess how migration affected social and economic changes in individual cities, towns, neighborhoods, and even families.

Statistical and Geographical Patterns

Maps As Tools in Tracing Migration Patterns

Maps and atlases are useful tools in tracing migration patterns. Probably the first atlases to include maps portraying the distribution of blacks in the United States were statistical ones based on United States censuses. The bar graph from the eleventh census shows the percentage of whites and blacks for sixteen states at each census from 1790 to 1890. The map shows the proportion of colored people (a term used to include blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and Indians) and their distribution and density per square mile.

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  • Statistical Atlas of the United States, Based upon the Results of the Eleventh Census, p. 18 Henry Gannett, ed. Washington: GPO, 1898 Bar graph. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (95)

  • Statistical Atlas of the United States, Based upon the Results of the Eleventh Census, Map 29, Plate 11 Henry Gannett, ed. Washington: GPO, 1898 Color map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (96)

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Map Showing Distribution of Black Population

By 1950, the black population comprised approximately eleven percent of the population of the United States, while black migrants comprised forty percent of the population in several of the U.S. major cities. This 1950 map shows counties with 500 or more blacks and their distribution, and graphically represents how the black population had become concentrated in northern cities during the first half of the twentieth century.

Distribution of Negro Population by County: Showing each County with 500 Negro Population, 1950 Samuel Fitzsimmons United States. Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census, Volume 11, 1950 Color map Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (97)

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