James Grossman (Executive Director, American Historical Association)
April 10, 2012
In the first two decades of the 20th century, large numbers of African Americans exchanged rural, southern addresses for urban, northern ones. In a phenomenon later referred to as the Great Migration, these masses swelled the populations of cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia. Driven by racial violence and dwindling options in the South, and hoping to find better economic and educational opportunities in the North, they helped to define northern urban black culture generally and to shape the Harlem Renaissance specifically. Why and how they came to the cities and what happened to them upon their arrival inform numerous literary creations, sociological treatises, and historical studies. Concentration on the migration sheds light on African American aspiration in a defined historical moment and how that aspiration was realized — or not — in the quest to incorporate black bodies into the American body politic.