Beginning about 1910 and running for roughly thirty years thereafter, millions of African Americans fled the South and headed north, swelling the population of cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and establishing the first large urban black communities. The intensity of the migration waxed and waned, but in the end it constituted the greatest internal demographic shift in U.S. history, "the largest movement of black bodies," according to critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "since slavery."1 A variety of "push" and "pull" factors sparked the move. Poverty, violence, crop failures, and the boll weevil's assault on cotton drove migrants out of the rural South. The First World War sparked a boom in northern industry and diminished immigration from Europe, creating job openings that lured African Americans to the "Promised Land." It should be noted that these same forces pushed and pulled white migrants from the South as well.
Emmett J. Scott (1873-1957), who for a time served as Booker T. Washington's personal secretary, did not at first believe that blacks should leave the South. Like his boss, he held that blacks should cast down their buckets where they were, as Washington advised in his Atlanta Exposition Address (see Atlanta Exposition Address in The Making of African American Identity, Vol. II). In 1906 Scott was elected secretary of Tuskegee Institute and in that office became the leader of the "Tuskegee Machine," Washington's disciples who promoted his views in the black press, churches, and schools. One year after Washington's death, he published Booker T. Washington, Builder of a Civilization (1916). Scott served as a special assistant to the U.S. secretary of war in charge of Negro affairs during World War I. In that position he traveled to Europe to remind black soldiers not to expect the kind of treatment some of them received in Europe when they returned home. Out of his war experience came The Official History of the American Negro in the World War (see The Making of African American Identity, Vol. II). Later in his career he held a variety of administrative positions at Howard University, where he was employed at the time he wrote this study. Apparently, his war experience, the passing of Washington, the lynching of black soldiers, and the general deterioration of conditions for blacks in the South prompted Scott to change his mind about migration. By 1920 he was urging blacks to depart. In the chapters provided here we discover how information about the North empowered Southern blacks, how vast numbers of African Americans simply "melted away" from Southern towns, how migrants covered their tracks through secrecy and guile, and how the fever to escape gradually inflamed every level of black society. Through Scott's study we see that Southern blacks were not simply passive victims of oppression but acted decisively and deliberately to better their lives. (15 pages.)
- What information about the North made its way into Southern communities?
- How did this information get there?
- How was it disseminated?
- What image of the Southern black community do these chapters present?
- What circumstances—economic, political, social, and psychological—coalesced in the early twentieth century to enable African Americans to leave the South?
- What role did African American women play in these early years of the migration?
|What migrations did African Americans undertake in the twentieth century?
|What were the effects of these migrations?
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Image: African Americans in the segregated waiting room of the Jacksonville, Florida, railroad station, 1921. Permission pending from Florida State Archives.
1Henry Louis Gates, "New Negroes, Migration, and Cultural Exchange," in Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series (Washington, DC: Rappahannock Press, 1993), 17.