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[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

Historical Comprehension

As white families moved from cities to suburbs and the advent of World War I created a shortage of labor in northern cities, African Americans began to migrate north from their southern rural homes. During the 1920s, 1.5 million African Americans migrated north in hope of employment and relief from the prejudice that oppressed them so severely in the South. Van Vechten's many portraits of African-American performers, writers, and musicians taken in New York City reflect his interest in African Americans and the arts, but they also reflect the growing presence of African Americans in northern cities resulting from the mass migration of the 1920s. More than this, these portraits also document the impact of this migration in popularizing African-American artistic movements, such as jazz, the blues, and the Harlem Renaissance. Students can use this collection to gain a multi-faceted understanding of this mass migration by browsing the Subject Index and the Occupational Index.

Students can supplement their understanding of the causes and consequences of this migration with information from other American Memory collections. Search on Harlem and Chicago in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 for accounts of what life was like for people as they settled in these urban centers. To see how African-American art forms changed with popularization, students can compare early blues music found in Southern Mosaic with blues music from the late twentieth century, or search on jazz in American Memory for materials to compare with contemporary jazz.