The Great Migration is a term used to refer to the migration of African Americans from the southern states to the northern states. The migration occurred in the period 1916-1930 and involved blacks in the search for a better life. The South had over 7 million African Americans especially due to the slave trade and the agricultural economy (Harrison A. 1992). The rest of America had approximately 1 million blacks but this was changed by the migration. In this paper, the focus will be mainly on the reasons why the migration occurred and the positive and negative consequences of the move. The conditions in the South that led to their departure and the enticement they got to move North will be put into perspective.
The reasons given for the migration vary but some are common. To start us off is the most common reason which is the boll weevil which infested the South and destroyed the cotton crop. In the South, cotton farming was the major economic activity and with the destruction of the cotton crop, its economy was in danger of collapse. Most of the farm-laborers were rendered unemployed and hence the need to look for alternative employment arose. The South had not expanded its economic activities beyond agriculture and this led to the migration to the northern cities that were industrialized and had employment that did not depend on the weather changes (Sioux T. 2004).
The World War 1 meant that plenty of munitions and supplies from factories were required and this meant that an increase in workers was imminent. This occurred when most factory workers were quitting their jobs to join the army thus reducing the number of the factory workers at a time when they needed more workers than those already working. The need for more workers became critical and so they started enticing the blacks in the south to go to the North in order for them to get better paying jobs. There were also new industries that dealt with things required for the war and they also needed workers. This urgent need for workers combined with the free train tickets provided for those who wanted to work in the industries was enough to make many blacks leave the South.
Those who migrated sent letters to those left at home urging them to join them and they would assist them with accommodation and finding work once they got there. The religious leaders were also used to reach the people by reading letters sent in church and religious gatherings thus giving the movement north a religious aspect. They formed groups that assisted people make the move. The presence of agents scouting for able bodied young men with ready work upon arrival was also another incentive. Also, the presence of African American reading material for example the Chicago Leader containing advertisements for employment in the north and the good life available to blacks there also influenced the decision of many to move (Harrison A. 1992).
The other reason given is connected to race. Although slavery had ended, discrimination based on ones race was rampant and the 19th century constitution encouraged segregation thus making it hard for the discrimination to stop. The use of Jim Crow Laws that clearly segregated the blacks from the whites in public facilities including schools, transport, hospitals, restrooms and all other public places was also another factor encouraging the move. They were also denied the right to vote by the introduction of a law that required ones grandfather to have been a voter for one to be allowed to vote. The violence perpetrated against them was also instrumental since a total of 2-3 people were publicly lynched every week.
In 1924, there was the introduction of the Immigration Act that restricted the number of European immigrants entering America. They provided cheap labor and with their absence, labor became expensive and consequently the reduction of profits. This led to an emergency search by the companies for labor elsewhere that would be as cheap as that provided by the European immigrants. The blacks in the south were seen to be the solution since they were underpaid and would grab the opportunity provided in the north of better pay although it was less than what they should have been paid. The vacant positions in the factories were quickly filled with blacks from the south searching for better lives.
The final reason for the move to be discussed in this paper will be the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The movement had slowed down but with the flooding of the river, a lot of property was destroyed and lives were lost. Hundreds of thousands of African American farmers were displaced alongside white farmers. However, when relief came it only catered for the whites while ignoring the black man who was instead enlisted to assist in the relief efforts. With their source of income destroyed and the government holding back much needed assistance, they were left stranded for days and many decided to move North to try and reconstruct their lives there (Sioux T. 2004) .
As with every event that occurs, the migration had both positive and negative consequences for all concerned. The positive consequences include the increase of literacy in the black community with a rise from 39% to 85%. They were also able to become involved in professional, clerical and business occupations as opposed to their previous occupations of farm labor. Those involved in arts including singing were able to make a living from the recording of their songs and constant performances which would not have happened in the South. In time they were also able to set up hospitals and nursing schools that catered for them and their children in an effort to provide the much needed but rare services concerning their health.
The negative consequences were also present and included the payment of fewer wage than their white counterparts especially since some had signed their contracts before arriving at their place of work. Others were just glad to be able to earn more than they did at the South and did not mind working for less. This led to poor working conditions that could have been improved if not for the leniency of the black man. An increase in the price of commodities and train fare was attributed to their movement north since they increased the demand for everything making life more expensive for everyone.
There was no opportunity for advancement or promotion for blacks and they were stuck with the lower rank jobs in all factories. Their large numbers led to congestion and the use of dilapidated and uninhabitable areas as housing. This coupled with long working hours led to poor health and high mortality rate including infant mortality. Criminality increased due to bad living conditions and the migration of criminals from the South. Racial tensions erupted into violence more than once with the East Saint Louis in 1917 and the Red Summer of 1919 being the most notable incidences. They were blamed for everything that went wrong in the society (Marks C. ND ).
In conclusion, one can say that the Great Migration was caused by a need for the African Americans to escape racism and the discrimination associated with it, seek employment and better education and life for their children. Not all their expectations were met upon arrival but the good outweighed the bad and few of those who planned on returning upon making their fortune ever did. The North did not provide all that they had hoped it would but the life there was better than that in the South and so it was preferred and thus the Great Migration caused a shift in the demography of the African Americans.
1. Harrison A. 1992, Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South University Press of Mississippi
2. Marks C. ND, The Great Migration: African Americans Searching for the Promised Land, 1916-1930, University of Delaware
3. Sioux T. 2004, African American Migration, Rosen Classroom