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Picturing Black History, Part 3: The Great Migration and Renaissance

Welcome back to this five-part series, where we're exploring the history of people of African ancestry in the United States with an emphasis on photography from public archives.

In the second part of our series, we took a look at the civil war and what happened afterward: a brief opening, then political stalemate, segregation, and terrorism in the south. Today we'll examine the rich photographic history of the Great Migration west and northward, and the flourishing of African American life that happened afterwards.

If you've missed the first part of this series, please check out the preceding parts, 1619–1865 and the Civil War and aftermath. Let's begin!

The Arthur family escaped from the south to Chicago in 1920, with the help of the Chicago Defender, as part of their "Great Northern Drive", after losing two sons to a brutal lynching.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Escaping the South

After all the bloodshed and upheaval we covered in the previous histories, the situation for African Americans in the south had not improved all that much, if at all.

Sharecropper, Arkansas.
Sharecropper, Arkansas. Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

After emancipation and the failure of Reconstruction, African Americans found themselves not free to control their own destiny in the same way that white people were. Instead they were locked out, hobbled by a collection of state and local laws called the Black Codes and Jim Crow segregation laws.

Tenant farmer in Louisiana. Source: Schomburg
Tenant farmer in her home in Louisiana. Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

These laws were meant to return blacks to a state of subjugation to whites through racial segregation. They found their movement and employment opportunities limited, were subject to arrest and force into unpaid labour, denied any protection under the law, prevented from voting and from gaining a quality education.

Mother teaching children numbers and alphabet in sharecropper's home, Louisiana. Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Mother teaching children in a sharecropper's home, Louisiana. Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Too graphic to show here, the caption of one terrifying photograph from the time reads, "Rubin Stacey, lynched victim, hanging from a tree, surrounded by onlookers, including girls, Fort Lauderdale, Florida." (found in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture collection.)

The Great Migration

These conditions, combined with the terror of lawlessness and violence, in the form of vigilantes and lynch mobs, could not be borne. As life in the South became increasingly difficult, African Americans began to migrate northward, but it wasn't until 1916, when employment opportunities began to open up for them, that the migration trickle became a torrent.

With the advent of the First World War in 1914, the northern states experienced a boom in war industries. When the country entered the war and white men went off to fight, these industries began to experience severe labour shortages. With anti-immigrant sentiment high and restrictive legislation limiting the influx of people from Central and Eastern Europe, northern businesses began to turn southward to the African American population for labour.

Union Terminal Railroad Depot Concourse, Jacksonville, Florida, 1921. Source:Florida Memory

In 1916, the Pennsylvania Railroad began offering free transportation north to African Americans in the South who were willing to work on the railroad. Over 12,000 African Americans travelled north to Philadelphia before the program ended in 1918. 

Other businesses sent recruiters south to lure African Americans north to work, and newspapers like the Chicago Defender—Chicago's leading black newspaper—actively encouraged African Americans to move north by publishing stories about Southerners who had "made it" in the city. They also published helpful information on travel, housing, and jobs, and printed lists of churches and other organizations that potential immigrants could write to for help.

Group of Florida migrants on their way to New Jersey. By Jack Delano. Source: Farm Security Administration

Migrants who settled in the North didn't cut ties with their southern family or friends. They sent remittances home to support them, and when they visited, they often were eager to show how well they had done by moving North. Soon the north began to seem like the Promised Land and more and more people were eager to get there.

With the widespread development of the American railway system in the early 20th century, trains became a natural conduit for the first wave of the Great Migration as well as a source for plentiful jobs. In fact, where migrants ended up in the north was heavily influenced by the trains available to them.

SOURCE | In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Thus African Americans from the coastal states of Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas and Virginia ending up in cities along the eastern seaboard from Washington to Philadelphia, Boston and New York. While migrants from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas tended to end up in the cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Chicago. And migrants from Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas moved north to St. Louis and Minneapolis but also West to Los Angeles and San Francisco based on the availability of their trains. The railroads were also a plentiful source of jobs for African-American workers.

This movement of African Americans from the Southern to the Northern States became known as The Great Migration or sometimes The Great Northward Migration. It saw more than 6 million African Americans relocate from the south of the USA to the Northern and Western states and is to date one of the largest mass internal population movements in history.

The Great Migration can be divided into two phases. The first phase was between 1916 and 1940 and saw about 1.6 million people move from mostly rural areas in the South to northern industrial cities. The second phase was after the Great Depression between 1940 and 1970 and saw an additional 5 million people, including many townspeople with urban skills, move to the Northern and Western states.

White Southern Opposition

The southern economy was deeply dependent on African Americans as an abundant supply of cheap labour. As the migration gained speed, southern elites began to panic, fearing that the mass exodus of African Americans would plunge them into poverty.

In reaction, white southerners tried threats, coercion, and violence. Banks refused to cash checks sent to finance black migration, local governments and vigilantes tried to restrict bus and train access for blacks, and newspapers were pressured to devote more coverage to negative aspects of black life in the North. White vigilantes used intimidation and beatings to terrorize African Americans into staying put, and states passed laws to limit black mobility even more through vagrancy ordinances and conscription orders.

In spite of these efforts, African-Americans continued to leave. Before 1910, more than 90% of the African-American population lived in the American South. By 1970, only about half of the African-American population lived in the South.

De Facto Segregation in the North

When most of us think of the northern states of the United States we tend to think of them as a safe haven for African Americans because those states had abolish slavery relatively early in America's history, and the northern states were the destination for the enslaved when they escaped slavery in the south. However, the new arrivals faced race hatred in the north, too, albeit in different forms.

American Gothic, a parody of Grant Wood’s iconic 1930 painting, is a portrait of Ella Watson, a cleaner for the Farm Security Administration who moved north after her father was lynched and her husband shot. The photographer, Gordon Parks, intended the photo to serve as an indictment of the treatment of African Americans by accentuating the inequality in “the land of the free”, and the image came to symbolise life in pre-civil-rights America. Source: FSA, Library of Congress

There had always been African Americans in the North and in the West of the United States, but in very small numbers. The Great Migration enlarged those numbers drastically and those rapid growth of black populations created enormous anxiety among white people in northern cities. They feared that the new arrivals were taking jobs, housing, and security from them.

Source: Library of Congress

While they were used to the de jure segregation—segregation that existed because of local laws that mandate it—in the south, the migrants were not prepared however for the de facto segregation—segregation that existed by general consensus—of the north.

After the initial excitement of arriving wore off they found themselves needing to get used to a new set of unfamiliar norms, none of which delivered the Promise Land they had been expecting. What they had to face instead were forms of discrimination enforced not by law but by general white consensus against them. 

Jobs

African Americans with a high school education were often better positioned to obtain jobs when they migrated and eventually gained a measure of class mobility, but most migrants encountered significant discrimination in employment from being given the most dangerous and most unpleasant jobs to being paid less than their white counterparts. In addition they had to deal with active resentment from the European-American working class—many of whom were recent immigrants themselves—who sometimes refused to work with the new migrants or staged mass protests in opposition to their hiring.

Two women working at a Douglas Aircraft Company factory in El Segundo, California, c. 1940. Source: Farm Security Administration

Housing

The small populations of African Americans who lived in the northern states prior to 1916 were already subjected to race-based exclusion in housing, but housing segregation and race-based isolation spiked in response to the influx of African Americans to northern cities during The Great Migration.

Due to the rapid population increase of African-American migrants, most major cities experienced housing shortages which pitted the new arrivals against their slightly more established counterparts from Europe.

And due to racially restrictive covenants—contractual agreements between white property owners in a given area, which prohibited the purchase, lease, or occupation of a piece of property by African Americans—African American migrants had little choice about where they could live. They usually stayed with relatives or friends until they could find their own accommodation, which was often in old and already overcrowded areas of the city deserted by the more established European-American ethnic groups when they moved to newer housing in the suburbs.

White children cheer outside an African-American residence that they set on fire in September, 1919 Source: Library of Congress

These ethnic groups were wholly opposed to African American neighbours and defended their territories viciously. Neighbourhood mobs regularly chased out African Americans who tried to move into their neighbourhoods and destroyed their possessions and sometimes the property to make sure they wouldn't return. In addition, landlords often subdivided apartments into smaller units and charged African Americans tenants higher rents for each subdivision than they previously got for the entire apartment. 

Banks and Mortgage Companies

African Americans who eventually saved enough money for a down-payment on a home still found it impossible to buy a home because of mortgage discrimination and redlining, a systematic denial of financial services to residents of areas based upon the racial or ethnic composition of those areas.

Redlining took place either directly or through selectively raising prices, and was practised by federal government agencies, local governments, and the private banking system. African Americans who persisted in trying to get a mortgage were often preyed upon by dishonest mortgage companies who provided them with mortgages at the most unfavourable of rates.

This herding of a African Americans into old and overcrowded areas of cities where they paid astronomical rents, mortgage discrimination and redlining—which continues even today—limited African American wealth accumulation and social mobility significantly and created the racially specific ghettos that are prevalent across America cities. 

Red Summer of 1919

After the end of World War I in 1918, African American veterans returned from the fighting to discover that the country they had fought for still denied them basic human rights. Meanwhile, many white servicemen resented the black workers from the South who had been brought in to replace them.

Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, aka Harlem Hell Fighters, were awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre by the French government before heading home after World War I but treated as second-class citizens with no rights when they got home in 1919. Source: National Archives

Things eventually came to a head in 1919 during what became known as the “Red Summer”. Red Summer is the period from Spring to Autumn of 1919 when white anxiety led to mass violence, with white supremacist mobs rioting, terrorizing, and killing black residents in more than three dozen cities across the United States, as well as in one rural county in Arkansas.

When the dust settled, there where 25 race riots, 97 recorded lynchings, and a three-day massacre of over 200 black men, women, and children in Arkansas after black sharecroppers tried to organize for better working conditions.

“Persistence of unpunished lynchings of Negroes fosters lawlessness among white men imbued with the mob spirit and creates a spirit of bitterness among Negroes …. Unchecked mob violence creates hatred and intolerance, making impossible free and dispassionate discussion.”Dr George Haynes, a black civil servant and academic, 1919

Just two years later came the infamous Tulsa Race Massacre, in which white mobs ran amok through the thriving African American Greenwood neighbourhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing up to 300 African Americans, destroying their businesses and homes, leaving thousands homeless.

Smouldering ruins of African American's homes following race riots in Tulsa, Okla.,1921 Source: Library of Congress

Some black veterans mobilized in self-defence during both the Red Summer and the Tulsa violence, while thousands flocked to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which grew its membership from 9,000 members before WW1 to 100,000 in the early 1920s. These two responses to white supremacist violence foreshadowed later developments in the 1960s and 70s: the active self-defence of the Black Panthers and the peaceful organizing of the Civil Rights Movement (we cover this in the next article).

Health

In spite of the obstacles and violence they faced, moving north did open up opportunities for the African-American community as a whole. These opportunities came at a high price, though: researchers have found that instead of extending life, moving north actually increased mortality rates for African Americans. The mortality rates for 65-year-old black women who migrated out of the South increased by 43%, and for men of the same age, it jumped by a full 50%. 

Flourishing of African American Culture

One thing that is certainly clear is that the migration gave talented and ambitious African Americans opportunities that Jim Crow Segregation in the South could not. Better economic prospects, the opportunity for education, exposure to city life and the concentrations of ambitious black people in places where they could support and encourage each other led to a cultural boom in cities like Chicago, New York and elsewhere. This put African American culture on the national and global map.

From 1924 to 1929, Bronzeville, in Chicago, better known as the "Black Metropolis", was at the peak of its golden years, while the Harlem Renaissance saw a cultural awakening among African Americans during the 1920s and 1930s. 

Source: Library of Congress

These urban centres became a mecca for other African peoples from the Caribbean and Africa and fostered an overt racial pride that came to be represented in the idea of the New Negro, who through the production of scholarship, literature, art, music, dance, fashion, theatre, politics, and entrepreneurship, could challenge the pervading racism and stereotypes to promote progressive politics and racial and social integration. 

Photography and Art

To many white Americans in the early 1900s, African Americans were domestics and sharecroppers, with strange habits of speech, dress, song and dance that were captured in the blackface—black makeup used predominantly by whites to portray a caricature of a black person—performances they frequented. The range of their humanity was often ignored, invisible, or dismissed, but the burgeoning of African American photographic talent began to change these distorted representations.

“The camera was the central instrument by which black folks could disprove representations of us created by white folks …." — bell hooks

African American photographers allowed African Americans to take control of their own image and present themselves to the world as they saw themselves. 

Source: National Gallery of Art
This James Van Der Zee photo entitled Couple, 1924, captures the essence of black middle-class comfort and confidence. Source: National Gallery of Art

Photographers like James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, Moneta Sleet Jr., and Robert L. Haggins, to name a few, used their cameras to counter the degrading and widely disseminated caricatures of ­African Americans in popular culture. They did this not only by photographing major events like weddings and funerals, but also by capturing the everyday lives of African Americans and community leaders, artists, writers, movers and strivers.

Meanwhile, fine artists like Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett brought a unique and personal perspective as African American artists to the realm of fine arts. Jacob Lawrence in particular became well known for his landmark series, which told the story of the Great Migration in painting. 

Music

The Great Migration brought various musicians in touch with each other in northern and western cities. Though the rich musical tradition of African Americans grew out of negro spirituals during the period of enslavement in the south and evolved into the blues that thrived during segregation in juke joints, after migration African American musical innovation and dance forms thrived, and the artists connected with wider audiences.

American's most original and popular music forms—Jazz, Country, Rock and Roll, Funk, Rhythm and Blues, Hip Hop, Disco, and House—wouldn't exist without African American musical innovation. Neither would a wide range of classic and popular dances like Swing, Lindy Hop, Charleston, Jitterbug, Twist, Tap, Break dancing, Locking, Popping, Crumping and more.  

Singer, Billie Holiday, by William P. Gottlieb Source: Library of Congress

Literature

Apart from music and dance, one of the greatest achievements to come out of the Great Migration was the flourishing of the African American literature and the introduction of literary giants like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and others. 

Writer, Zora Neale Hurston Source: Library of Congress

Scholarship

Convinced that African American contributions to American history and to the history of other cultures was being ignored or misrepresented among scholars, historian Carter G. Woodson realized that there was a need for research into the neglected past of African Americans.

To facilitate this he joined with William D. Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, Alexander L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, it's mission is "to promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history, and culture to the global community."

Perhaps nothing captures the spirit of The Great Migration more than 'The New Negro', an anthology of poems, stories and essays by prominent black scholars and specialists published in 1925, and edited by Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy at Howard University.

The collection showcased the biggest African American scholarly and literary talents of the day, while announcing the "spiritual emancipation" that had resulted from the Great Migration and the increased opportunities it gave access to.

Left to Right: Author, Langston Hughes; Sociologist & President Fisk University, Charles S. Johnson; Sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier; Physician & Writer, Rudolph Fisher; Lawyer, Judge & Politician - Hubert T. Delaney. Source: Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, NYPL Digital Collection

The year after The New Negro was published, Carter G. Woodson launched ‘Negro History Week’ in 1926 to educate African Americans and Americans of all ethnicities about the history of Africans in the world and their extensive contribution to all parts of life.

The new racial consciousness and ethnic pride also lead to the creation of the Back to Africa movement, led by Marcus Garvey, which promoted W. E. B. Du Bois's idea of the 'talented tenth', which said that the very existence of African Americans who were fortunate enough to have inherited money or property or obtain a college degree during the transition from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow were the best response to the rampant racism of the period and should be emulated.

Also important in this period was Du Bois's concept of dualism, or double consciousness, which he introduced in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk. In it, he explored a divided awareness of one's identity as a critical psychological and social ramification of racial consciousness. 

Politics

This period was also a watershed moment for political activism. The NAACP was formed by a group of scholars and activist including W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, Moorfield Storey and Ida B. Wells, with the aim of eliminating race-based discrimination and achieving racial justice and equality for African Americans. Today the NAACP is the largest and most best knows civil rights organization in the United States.

W. E. B. Du Bois, Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL

Sports

The early 1900s saw a lot of firsts for African Americans as various sports slowly became desegregated and allowed African American athletes to play on national teams with white players. This allowed black sports people to showcase their skills and abilities.

During this period Jack Johnson became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, while Lucy Diggs Slowe became the first African American woman to win a major sports title, in tennis. Then there was DeHart Hubbard, the first African American to win an individual Olympic gold medal—in the long jump at the 1924 Summer Olympics. 

Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens. Source: Library of Congress

But no star shines as bright as that of Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals and broke two world records at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the capital of Hitler's Nazi regime. The son of a sharecropper and grandson of enslaved people, Owens was born in Alabama in 1913, and moved to Cleveland with his family when he was nine.

Entrepreneurship

The period from the early 1900s until the Great Depression was a golden age for black entrepreneurship. Segregated from the larger white community in urban areas in both the north and the south, black entrepreneurs succeeded in establishing flourishing businesses that catered to a black clientele. 

National Negro Business League Executive Committee. Source: Library of Congress

In the 1900, The National Negro Business League (NNBL) was founded in Boston by Booker T. Washington "to promote the commercial and financial development of the Negro." It grew rapidly and by 1915 had more than 600 chapters in every city across the country with a significant black population.

Dixie Liquor Store, St. Louis, Missouri Source: The Henry Ford

By 1920, there were tens of thousands of black businesses, the great majority being quite small and running the gamut from barber shops to funeral homes, with the largest businesses being insurance companies.

Black Barber Shop. Southside of Chicago, Illinois Source: Farm Security Administration

The Great Depression of 1929-39 struck a serious blow to many of these businesses, as cash income fell in the black community because of unemployment and many smaller businesses were forced to close.

Conclusion

The Great Migration changed the lives of people of African ancestry and the wider social and political landscape of America in profound ways. Not only did it shift African America's self perception from rural, undereducated second-class citizens to one of urban, cosmopolitan, capable and powerful, but this new identity led to a greater social consciousness, a stronger sense of pride and a greater quest for self-determination.

The struggles of this period also fostered greater community organization, which was easier in urban centres than in scattered rural environments. The growth of black pride and groups like the NAACP laid the foundations for the Civil Rights Movement, which we'll look at in the next article.

If you've missed the earlier parts of this series, please check out:

In the rest of this series, we'll look at photographs from the following periods:

  • Part 4: The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
  • Part 5: The Black Lives Matter Movement

Must-See Collections

If you want to learn more about black history through photography, explore some of these wonderful archives:

1. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

Explore over 300,000 images in this section of the New York Public Library system that's dedicated to black history.

2. Library of Congress

The Library of Congress holds millions of photographs, books, newspapers and other documents that can help you explore any area of black history that interests you. Includes photos by James Van Der Zee, who's portraits challenged popular perceptions about race, class and success, and other black photographers.

3. Farm Security Administration

This subsection of the Library Congress contains a massive record of photographs of American life from 1935 to 1944, the legacy of a U.S. government photographic project that employed photographers such as Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange.

Russell Lee:  Boys on Easter morning.  Southside, Chicago, Illinois.  1941.  (Photos are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress.
Boys on Easter morning, Southside, Chicago, Illinois. 1941, by Russell Lee. Source: Farm Security Administration

4. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The museum itself is well worth a visit when Covid-19 allows, but in the meantime, you can explore the museum's digital archives on its website.

5. National Archives

The U.S. National Archives contain a wealth of historic photographs, including a special section on African American history.

6. Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida

Florida Memory has the most complete online portrait of the state, drawing from photographs of Florida families, their communities and their pastimes. Find material related specifically to African American history using the Black Experience Guide

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