Week 2: The Great Migrations



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Week 2: The Great Migrations

The Great Migrations is a term that refers to the waves of African-Americans who left the rural areas of the southern United States during the nineteenth and especially the mid-twentieth centuries and moved to cities in the northeast, midwest, west and south (note: I will make reference to Hispanics in this lecture as well; however, they are not part of the Great Migrations and I include them here only as a point of comparison, since they have recently surpassed African-Americans as the largest minority group in the country). This is, arguably, the most important demographic movement affecting American cities in the twentieth century. It is part of a large movement of rural peoples to urban areas, but because it involved race (a very complex and important subject in our history) its impacts go beyond simple rural-to-urban change (which is, in fact, not quite so simple). Whereas the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was characterized predominantly by the impact of immigration on the city, the post World War II city would be influenced even more profoundly by race.

1Although blacks were residents of many northern and midwestern cities in 1900, their numbers were small compared to the total population. In 1910, for example, blacks comprised 1.9 percent of the population of New York, 2.0 of Chicago, and 1.2 of Detroit. These small black enclaves would begin to burst at the seams during the Great Migrations, the waves of black migration to northern, midwestern, and western cities during the twentieth century. Although there was a small movement of free blacks to northern cities right after the Civil War, a much larger wave of black migrants came between 1900 and 1920: some 1.5 million migrated from the south to northern cities (700,000 during World War I alone – between 1914 and 1918). Between 1920 and 1945, blacks moved from the south to northern and midwestern cities in even greater numbers. By 1940s, the black population in New York grew to 6.1 percent, in Chicago to 8.2 percent, and in Detroit to 9.2 percent. This trend continued even after the war, with some 5 million migrants moving out of the South between the 1940s and 1970s. Between 1940 and 1950, the black population of Chicago grew from 278,000 to 492,000, as blacks became the largest single minority group in the city, surpassing German and Irish ethnics. Even though these migrants often encountered harsh conditions in their new homes – overcrowded housing, uncertain employment, new urban circumstances different from their rural background, racism and discrimination – they were nonetheless drawn by the prospect of manufacturing jobs, and pushed by the strictures of “Jim Crow” racial segregation patterns which had intensified in the South between the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and World War I. Just like immigrants, in other words, blacks were pushed and pulled to come to cities.

In a few cities, Blacks became a majority of the population, a trend often accompanied by white flight. White flight is the exodus of white populations (to the suburbs or other cities). Detroit, for example, illustrates the impact of these two demographic trends. Detroit experienced both a significant inflow of black migrants and an exodus of whites. Combined with a devastating riot in 1967 (which caused 43 deaths and $50 million in damage), the oil embargo of the early 1970s, increased competition from Japanese auto manufacturers, and the subsequent decline in American auto manufacturing, Detroit was left with a deteriorating economic base and increasing social distress.

1Black Population of Detroit, 1940 to 1980

Year Population Number of Blacks Percentage Black

1940 1.6 million 149,000 9.2

1950 1.8 million 298,000 16.2

1960 1.7 million 482,000 28.8

1970 1.5 million 672,000 43.6

1980 1.2 million 759,000 63.1

One of the most important aspects of this racial change, in Detroit and elsewhere, was its impact on ethnic self-perception. That is, prior to the Great Migrations, immigrants in cities tended to think of themselves in terms of ethnicity: the ethnic diversity of American cities encouraged this. Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, for example, retained much of their ethnic identity in the face of new waves of immigration. However, the arrival of large numbers of African-Americans changed the ethnic dynamics of urban politics; white ethnics did not entirely lose their sense of ethnic identity, but the dividing lines in cities increasingly fell along racial lines: between black and white.

Slide 17

Here you see the long-term growth of the black population in the US. Most of that population was enslaved (more about this below) until 1865. Note that the population grew by almost ten times between 1790 and 1890 (to 7.5 million) and then four and a half times between 1890 and 2000, when it reached just over 34 million. Note as well that the Hispanic population surged in the period after 1970 so that by 2000 Hispanics outnumbered blacks for the first time in our history.

Slide 18

Although the absolute number of blacks has grown steadily since 1790, the percentage declined from about 19% of the population in 1790 to a historical low of 9.7% in 1930, rising steadily thereafter to reach 12.3% in 2000. You can see as well that until 1865, most of the black population (about 90%) were enslaved. Note also the dramatic increase in the Hispanic population since 1970.

Slide 19

In subsequent slides, I will make reference to various regions of the US (south, northeast, midwest, west). The Census Bureau has designated those regions as indicated on this map. Note that the northeast is fairly small compared to the other regions. Don’t be deceived, however, since northeastern states tend to have much higher population densities, especially compared with western states and states in the upper midwest (North Dakota, for example).

Slide 20

In this slide, you can clearly see the legacy of slavery on the demographic makeup of the United States. In 1870, over 90% of African Americans lived in the south. Even as late as 1910, nearly 9 of every 10 blacks lived in the southern states. Here, too, you can see the effects of the Great Migrations. Between 1910 and 1930, black migration out of the south meant that just about 10 percent of blacks now resided in northeastern states and an equal number in the midwest. The west had only a very small fraction of African-Americans. Between 1940 and 1970 you can see the effects of the second big twentieth century wave of the Great Migrations. The percentage of blacks in the northeast and midwest doubles to about 20 percent. There was also a notable increase in black populations in the west (Los Angeles and Oakland, for example). However, even today half of all African-Americans live in the south.

Slide 21

This graph shows the relative distribution of the white population. Note that in 1870, about three quarters of all whites lived in either the northeast or midwest; just under a quarter lived in the south and only about 3 percent lived in the west. Western and southern populations increase (in terms of percentages) so that by 1990, over 50 % of the population is living in the south and west; by then, the south had surpassed both the northeast and midwest and the west was about to overtake the northeast.

Slide 22

This graph shows that 45% of Hispanics are located in the west. About 30% are located in the south, while 17 % are in the northeast. You can imagine the reasons behind this numbers: the west has a large Mexican population; Florida and Texas (both considered southern states) have experienced immigration (from Mexico and the Caribbean) since 1960; and New York City has a substantial Puerto Rican population.

Slide 23

The impacts of the Great Migrations on the west have been profound. Even though the percentage of African-Americans living in the west is relatively small, their numbers grew dramatically between 1930 and 1950 and again between 1960 and 1990. Between 1930 and 1950, almost a million blacks moved to the west. Between 1960 and 1980, the population more than doubled.

Slide 24

The growth pattern of the black population of the northeast differs from the west. By 1930, over 1 million blacks lived in the northeast. The second wave of the Great Migration accelerates the steady trend that had developed since 1910. Between 1940 and 1970, the black population increased from 1.4 to 4.3 million, though growth declines slightly since then.

Slide 25

The midwest looks very similar to the northeast, with black population roughly doubling between 1910 and 1930 as migrants came in search of jobs. The Depression witnesses a slowing of this growth, but World War II initiates another boom, with the population growing from 1.4 million in 1940 to 4.5 million in 1970, and slowing thereafter. Note that between 1970 and 1990, the black population still grows by over 1 million.

Slide 26

Most of the black migration to other parts of the US came from the south. This did not mean, however, that the black population of the south declined. Note that it grows from 4.4 million in 1870 to 8.7 million in 1910. Then, the first big wave of the Great Migrations was initiated by World War I. Much of the grow of the native black population then moves out of the south, so that between 1910 and 1950, the black population in the south increases by a relatively small figure of around 1.5 million. Indeed, growth continues to be slow until 1970, after which the Great Migrations were effectively over.

Slide 27

Cities experienced the affects of the Great Migrations differently. In this graph, you can see that Detroit saw a steady increase in its black population beginning around 1910. Chicago saw similar increases up to about 1940, but the rate of increase declined thereafter, and the percentage of blacks in the population actually declined between 1980 and 1990, never reaching over 40 percent. New York, Boston, and Milwaukee exhibit another pattern. They show later and slower growth, and were thus more affected by the second wave of the Great Migration. However, it is important to point out that New York City was profoundly affected by the first wave of the Great Migration, with significant growth in neighborhoods like Harlem and Beford-Stuyvesant.

Slide 28

Here you see the experience of a few sunbelt cities (see the next lecture for more explanation of the sunbelt). They show a different pattern of black migration than northeastern and midwestern cities (note New York as a point of comparison). Los Angeles and San Francisco were much more affected by the post-World-War-II wave of black migration, and you can see that the percentage of black residents increased from under 5 percent to around 18 and 14 percent, respectively, between 1940 and 1970, and declined thereafter. Phoenix saw a slight increase in its black population between 1930 and 1940, but it has never reached more than about 5 percent ever since. Miami’s pattern is unique, as far as I can tell. Recall that Miami started as a southern city with a very high percentage of black residents (over 40% in 1910), and then, in spite of the absolute increase in the number of blacks living here, the percentage declined through 1950, mainly because the white (non-Hispanic) population increased faster than the black population. Miami experienced the second wave of the Great Migration between 1950 and 1960, when the percentage of blacks increase for the first time in half a century, but then the rate of increase slows, in part because most of the population increase after 1960 was due to immigration from the Caribbean, especially Cuba.

Slide 29

Remember that percentages are not the same as absolute numbers and this graph helps clarify how percentages can be deceptive if viewed alone. Note that Chicago has several hundred thousand more blacks than Detroit, even though Detroit has a higher percentage of black residents; Chicago has never been majority black, though certain areas of the city are almost exclusively black, while Detroit has been majority black since the mid-1960s. Note also that the black population of Detroit continued to increase even after the black populations of Los Angeles and Chicago declined in absolute and percentage terms.

Slide 30

Milwaukee had a very small black population until after 1960, so it was the second wave of the Great Migration that had the most effect on this city. Both Miami and Boston had larger black populations than Milwaukee until 1960. While the black population of both cities continued to grow through 1990, it was slower than in Milwaukee.

Slide 31

Just as with immigration, the Great Migrations had their largest effect on cities, since blacks, like immigrants, tended to be drawn to cities in search of jobs. In all of these major cities, blacks are concentrated still in the center of the metropolitan area and much less likely to be represented in the suburbs. In some cases, like Chicago, Detroit, Miami and New York, you can see that there is a substantial black presence in the suburbs, where the percentage of black residents exceeds their percentage in the nation as a whole. Still, in most cases, there is a much larger black presence even today in cities than in the suburbs.



The impact of the Great Migrations on American cities was, and continues to be, enormous. Remember that the Great Migrations meant that millions of rural people were suddenly becoming urban, with all the difficulties involved in that transition. Discrimination against blacks was even more harsh and enduring than discrimination against immigrants and thus the arrival of large numbers of African-Americans created even more difficult conflicts in cities, especially around the issues of how to share space (in other words, where people live) and how to distribute resources (political power, tax dollars). Unlike most immigrants, blacks could not “melt” into the population after a generation or two, so discrimination against them has endured longer than most anti-immigrant sentiments, though we have seen recently that anti-immigration feelings return whenever there are large numbers of immigrants and economic hardship. This meant that as black migration to cities increased, so did tensions between whites and blacks, as cities became more segregated and segregation became more of a political problem. Several areas of urban life posed special problems for African-Americans: jobs and jobs discrimination, housing, and policing. Black were often systematically excluded from many types of work and suffered the most in periods of economic downturn. Their housing opportunities were limited by segregation, which meant that black neighborhoods swelled in population during periods of high migration; housing conditions were often very bad, with absentee landlords exploiting tenants. Demand for public action (such as code enforcement, more housing opportunities, prosecution of landlords, and more public housing) went unheeded or resulted in prolonged and bitter political fights. Such conflicts also arose around the issue of police-community relations; white police officers could be brutal to black citizens and politicians were slow to respond to complaints; police forces also remained in the hands of white majorities who resisted racial balance. Schools also served as centers of conflict both because whites often did not want integrated schools and because schools in black neighborhoods went unfunded for years. As should become clearer over the course of the term, a great deal of twentieth century urban history is wrapped up in the problem of race, and many of the policies that have affected cities have turned on racial issues.

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