Conditions in the south

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African-American Migration

After the Civil War thousands of African Americans moved to the North in order to escape the discrimination of Black Codes (later Jim Crow laws) and to find jobs. This migration of African Americans from the South to the North contributed to the expansion of small black communities in a number of Northern cities, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. However, the distribution of the Black population had not changed dramatically by 1874. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of African Americans remained in the South. As late as 19l0, seven million African Americans still lived in the South, while fewer than one million lived in all other regions of the country (North and West) combined.

However, things started to change: between 1890 and 1910, most African Americans in the South had lost the right to vote through restrictive requirements such as property qualifications, poll taxes, literacy tests, and the "grandfather clause" that limited the vote to those whose grandfathers were registered voters, thus disqualifying blacks who had gotten the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. In addition, the creation of Jim Crow laws (segregation laws) led many to leave the South, as illustrated in Alabamian Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport's Jim Crow Blues:

I'm tired of being Jim Crowed, gonna leave this Jim Crow town,

Doggone my black soul, I'm sweet Chicago bound,

Yes, Sir, I'm leavin' here, from this ole Jim Crow town.

I'm going up North, where they think money grows on trees,

I don't give a doggone, if ma black soul should freeze . . .
In addition to the discrimination, wages in the rural south, when wages were paid, averaged about 75¢ a day. In fact, sharecropping (a job most African Americans in the South had) was the lowest paying job in all of America. A minister from Alabama commented, "The Negro farm hand gets his compensation (pay) hardly more than the mule he plows; that is his board and shelter. Some mules fare better than Negroes."

The exodus (mass migration) that started during World War I decreased the overwhelming southern concentration of African Americans. From its beginning in 1916 to its end in 1930, the Great Migration sent nearly one-tenth of the African-American population from the South to the North. By 1930, 89 percent of the northern black population was urban (city), while 32 percent of southern African Americans lived in cities. In the country as a whole, 44 percent of African Americans were urban by the end of the Great Migration.

So what caused the Great Migration? Simply put, it was the high demand for workers during World War I, combined with the shortage of white workers, that caused many northern factories to heavily recruit African Americans fill some positions that had been reserved to whites. Every conceivable method was used to draw the black labor supply from the South. Labor agents from northern companies stood on street corners offering train passes to the young African American males. Black newspapers carried job advertisements advertising good wages and other advantages of living in the North. They also published success stories about recent migrants already making more money than they had ever dreamed possible. Their letters confirming success were read out loud in churches, barbershops, and meeting halls.

Another reason why black southerners were eager to leave was education. Public education throughout the South was terrible. It is estimated that less than 40% of all children attended school regularly. Where school funds were available, Black children got far less than their fair share. In eleven southern states, African Americans totaled 40% of the population and but received only 15% of the school funds. More than two million African Americans ten years and older were illiterate, which represented 33% of the Black population; In contrast, White illiteracy stood at 7%.

With the lure of better jobs and living conditions, thousands of African Americans left the South for a better life up North. In Georgia alone, 45% of the African American men aged fifteen to thirty-four in 1920 had left by 1930. As a result, the African American population in the North increase noticeably. For example, between 1910 and 1920, the Black population in Chicago went from 44,000 to 110,000, an increase of 149%, while the white population grew by only 21 percent. Gary, Indiana, saw its Black population increase by more than 1,200%. In addition, the percentage of African American men employed in industrial jobs increased, increasing from 10%-20% of the black labor force in 1910 to 60%-70 in 1930.


  1. Although African Americans were now freed (the 13th Amendment abolished slavery), why did so many stay in the South? (hint: most didn’t really have a choice).

  1. What are some of the factors that cause the First Great Migration (hint: give at least 3 causes)?

  1. The positives and negatives of the First Migration:

    1. What problems might African Americans face due to the First Migration (remember, there were millions that left the South in a short period of time). Give and explain at least two things

    2. What are some of the good things that might come out of the First Migration?

    3. Overall, was the First Migration a good or bad thing for African Americans?

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