Demographers and historians call it the “Great Migration,” an extraordinary exodus of blacks from the South to the urban North throughout much of the 20th century. Now that epic shift is reversing, bringing millions of African-Americans back to a region that once shunned or tormented them and their ancestors.
Between 1916 and 1975, an estimated 6 million African-Americans left the South in search of greater economic opportunity and social freedom in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York. But in the 1990s demographers began to notice something remarkable: Millions of black Americans were leaving their homes and jobs in the North and returning to their roots in the South.
Census data released in 2011 show that 57 percent of American blacks now live in the South, the highest percentage since 1960. Michigan and Illinois, home to large concentrations of African-Americans, both lost black population for the first time, according to the 2010 census, and Atlanta replaced Chicago as the city with the second-largest African-American population, after New York. More than one million blacks now living in the South were born in the Northeast, a 10-fold increase since 1970.
“This is the decade of black flight,” Brookings Institution demographer William Frey told The New York Times last year.
Frey credited the return of many blacks to the South to an improved racial and economic climate there, along with “the strong cultural and economic ties that the South holds for blacks.” Even so, he noted that “blacks, by and large, are not settling in the Deep South states that registered the greatest out-migration of blacks in the 1960s” and where discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws restricted blacks' freedom.
That out-migration began in earnest in the second decade of the 20th century, driven by the demand for workers in Northern munitions factories during World War 1. Between 1916 and 1919, half a million African-Americans came North.
Yet, jobs were far from the only lure for Southern blacks. Isabel Wilkerson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, frames the migration as a flight from racial hatred and abuse.
“This was … a defection from a system that had held [black] Americans in an artificial hierarchy that restricted their every move …,” Wilkerson told CQ Researcher in an e-mail interview. “They were, in effect, seeking political asylum from a caste system that limited every aspect of their lives and [that] was enforced with such brutality that, in the two decades leading up to the Migration, an African-American was lynched in a public spectacle every four days for some perceived breach of that caste system.”
The economic impact the South faced from the exodus of blacks wasn't apparent at first. Some Southerners gloated: “As the North grows blacker, the South grows whiter,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote.
Then, as the implications of the loss of so much of the South's agricultural workforce became clear, worry set in. Southern authorities tried to stem the hemorrhaging of cheap farm labor by invoking “anti-enticement” laws to discourage agents from northern companies from recruiting blacks. But it was too late: The Great Migration was on. And it kept going long after the lure of Northern jobs ended following World War I.
“Those in the World War I-era wave of the Great Migration didn't see their move as permanent — they thought when the war was over, they'd go back home,” says Lorenzo Morris, a political science professor at Howard University in Washington. “But when the war ended, although it was difficult to stay [in the North], to return was intolerable.”
An estimated 6 million African-Americans left the South between 1916 and 1975 in search of greater economic opportunity and social freedom, settling in such cities as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York. Today, many blacks are leaving the North and returning to their Southern roots. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)
During the post-war 1920s, the industrial economy kept booming, and so did the migration: Nearly a million more blacks headed North during the decade, and nearly half a million more left the South during the Depression era of the 1930s. The exodus continued — 1.6 million in the 1940s, 1.4 million in the '50s, another million in the '60s. When the Great Migration began, one in 10 American blacks lived outside the South; by the 1970s, nearly one in two did. Within the migration statistics is evidence of an evolution in American society, culture and politics. “Many leading figures in American culture — from [writers] Toni Morrison and August Wilson to [performers] Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin to [sports figures] Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson — are people whose names we likely would never have known had there been no Great Migration,” Wilkerson said in the e-mail interview. “Each one of them was a child of this Migration, whose life chances were altered because their parents or grandparents chose to escape the restrictions of the South.”
The Great Migration came to a close in the 1970s after its over-arching catalyst — a caste system sanctioned by law — ended with passage of landmark civil rights legislation during the previous decade. By the 1990s, the Great Migration had turned around. But its legacy lives on.
“Perhaps one of the least recognized effects of the migration was its role, unintended though it was, in helping bring the South into mainstream culture and ultimately helping it open up to the rest of the country,” Wilkerson said in the e-mail interview. “The upending of the caste system brought the South more in line with the rest of the country and made it a more welcoming place for white Northerners and for immigrants who might never have considered living there under the old regime, as well as for the children and grandchildren of black Southerners who had fled in previous generations.
“The return migration of many of the children and grandchildren of the Great Migration is, in my view, one of the legacies of the Great Migration itself,” Wilkerson continued. “The people who left, by their heartbreaking decision to leave, helped to change the region they had been forced to flee and make it a more welcoming place for everyone, including immigrants from other parts of the world, for white Northerners who might never have considered living in the South and for the migrants' own descendants.”
— Bill Wanlund