Moving North, Heading West
In the 50 years following the end of Reconstruction,
African Americans transformed American life once more: They moved.
Driven in part by economic concerns, and in part by frustration
with the straitened social conditions of the South, in the 1870s
African Americans began moving North and West in great numbers.
In the 1890s, the number of African Americans moving to the Northeast
and the Midwest was double that of the previous decade. In 1910,
it doubled again, then again in 1920. In the 1920s, more than
750,000 African Americans left the South--a greater movement
of people than had occurred in the Irish potato famine of the
The large-scale relocation to the Northeast
and West brought many other changes with it, as many largely
rural people moved into cities for the first time. Housing was
difficult to come by, and in many cities the non-African American
residents demanded strict segregation, relegating the new arrivals
to self-contained neighborhoods in undesirable parts of town.
In addition, most of the available work in the cities was industrial,
and many migrating African Americans faced the prospect of learning
new trades, generally at lower rates of pay than European Americans
received. Tensions between longtime residents and new migrants
frequently flared, and during the first decades of the century
race riots struck many of the nation's cities and towns, from
Springfield, Illinois, and Rosewood, Florida, to New York, Los
Angeles, Detroit, and Tulsa.
The coming of the First World War drew still
more African Americans to the nation's cities, both in the North
and the South, as workers were attracted by new factory jobs.
A university education came within reach for more and more African
Americans, and considerable debate emerged about the role of
the growing African American professional class. As African American
officers such as Colonel
Charles Young attained higher command rank, a career in the
military became more appealing.
The new century also saw the birth of a new
generation of activist organizations dedicated to advancing the
cause of equal rights for African Americans, as well as to improving
their social and economic conditions. The two most notable of
these were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People, which was founded in 1910, and the National Urban League,
which followed the next year. Both groups were racially integrated,
and both were seen by some as too radical in their goals and
methods, but they soon emerged as central forces in the struggles
of the mid-century.
Perhaps the most profound result of the move
to the Northeast and West, however, was the shift in electoral
power that it brought with it. For the first time since Reconstruction,
a substantial number of African Americans were able to freely
exercise their right to vote. This access to the tools of democracy
soon resulted in the election of African American political leaders,
and it also made the African American electorate a force to be
reckoned with on the national political scene-a force whose concerns
could not easily be ignored.
To learn more about the Great Migration in
one city, visit Chicago:
Destination for the Great Migration, a section of The