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Reflections on the Meaning of the Great Migration

by James R. Grossman

Between 1916 and 1970, six million black Southerners moved to cities in the North and West. Known as the Great Migration, this unprecedented social movement re-shaped the American cultural and political landscape. Writer and Goin' to Chicago consultant Robert Coles has described African-American migration from South to North as "One of the great unsung sagas of human history."

Since the 1970s, a much smaller — though still noticeable — shift has occurred away from central cities in the North, as African-Americans have begun to move back to the South or to working-class and middle class suburbs. Goin' to Chicago provides an oral and visual history of these changes in African-American life, exploring the meaning of migration to those who experienced the journey.

a picture of a girl in a chicago apartment

This "Second Great Migration" encompassed more people (at least 4 million between 1940 and 1970 than the first wave, and occurred under different circumstances. By 1940 African-American communities were well established in nearly all Northern cities, and family and community networks linking North and South were in place. Later migrants usually followed the migration trail established by family members who had gone before. Church congregations sometimes relocated together, or in stages. Binding relationships between the migrants and the communities they left behind remain vital today.

In addition, participants in the first wave were self-selecting; they chose to leave one place and try their luck someplace else. The migration had a greater "refugee" component, as thousands of rural black Southerners were forced off the land by the mechanization of cotton cultivation (especially the harvest). The destinations had changed as well: Northern factories were either unionized or in the process of becoming unionized; the West was more significant as a potential destination; and racial tensions had by now become more visibly an aspect of Northern urban life.

Historians have begun to probe into the internal dynamics of the first Great Migration. They have drawn on a wide variety of sources, including interviews, surveys, letters written by migrants before leaving the South and after arriving In the North, commission reports, music, literature, and records of social service organizations and factories, to provide insight into both the dynamic and impact of migration.

The second Great Migration, however, has received little such attention. Its chroniclers have generally been social scientists interested in its statistical and economic parameters. The experiential aspects of the process have been left to novelists, playwrights, and a handful of journalists. This film communicates to a broad public the meaning of the Second Great Migration as a personal experience.

Historical Background

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, nearly 90% of all African Americans lived in the South; three-fourths of these lived in rural areas. By 1970, half of all black Americans lived in the North, nearly all in urban areas. Of those remaining in the South, two-thirds lived in cities.

The causes of this shift are complex, lying in the changing relationship between the economy and patterns of race relations in both the North and the South. Although sparked by the opening of industrial jobs to blacks for the first time (other than Migration which provided only temporary employment), the first Great Migration (1916-1920s) was as a broad social movement on the part of black Southerners who decided that industrial work in the North, rather than the promise of landownership in the South represented the path to full participation in American society. Migrants used the term "bettering my condition," to at once describe economic disparities between regions and such opportunities as better schools, the right to vote, greater access to the legal system, and freedom from the fear of rape and other forms of violence.

Northern life seemed to enable blacks to live with greater dignity and hope. Northern cities offered access to institutions — political, economic, cultural, social — that were off-limits or unavailable in the South. And despite the considerable disappointments entailed by race riots, residential segregation, limits on advancement in the workplace, and new (although informal) forms of racial discrimination, migrants did generally enjoy considerable improvements in various aspects of their life. Their homes were sturdier and better equipped; their children went to school for a full year and even had high schools available; adults could (and did) go to night school; political recognition (if not real power) provided the community with a sense of importance and dignity; wages were adequate in good times to provide consumer goods unaffordable to most black Southerners; and the ubiquitous indignity coupled with the threat of violence was missing.

Migration tailed off during the Great Depression of the 1930s as jobs disappeared and blacks were often the first to be laid off; in the rural South those able to stay on the land could at least grow some food. Industrial employment in the North began booming again during World War II and the military drained thousands of young men from the work force. Family, church, and community networks linking Northern cities to Southern communities were already in place. The sources of information central to the first Great Migration — black newspapers (especially the Chicago Defender), letters, and visits, now operated even more powerfully. Moreover, with the invention of the mechanical cotton picker after the War, migration during the following decades was no less a choice than a necessity.

a picture of a girl in a chicago apartment

Once again, migration provided African-Americans with new opportunities, and once again the promise of those opportunities was partially fulfilled. In Chicago, jobs in packinghouses, steel mills, garment factories, and a variety of other industries provided well-paying and often unionized employment. Black political power — in the person of William Dawson — was more apparent than real, but was nevertheless apparent. On the South Side a vibrant black community — known to some as Bronzeville, and even boasting its own ritualized election for "mayor of Bronzeville" — pulsated with energy and self-confidence.

On the other hand, the schools by now were entirely segregated; slums were more evident; and there was less illusion about Northern race relations as more benign. And as migration continued into the 1950s and 1960s, the experiences of some newcomers and earlier migrants became increasingly shaped by a deindustrializing "Rust Belt" and the now infamous high rise housing projects.

The impact of the exodus of black Southerners has been equally significant in the South. Some historians have argued that the pressure the migration placed on the Southern labor supply during World War II played a central role in the intensification of the effort to design and market the mechanical cotton picker. In Moversturn, the cotton picker not only displaced black Southerners who then migrated North, but also rendered the South less dependent on a system of race relations that would ensure white supremacy and a subordinated black labor force. It is possible, therefore, that a South which still required such a labor force would have resisted the Civil Rights Movement with greater unanimity and ferocity. Some employers dependent on black labor had been exerting pressure for reform ever since the first wave of the Great Migration had suggested a threat to the reliability of that labor force.

That the Great Migration transformed various portions of the American landscape is clear. To communicate the essence and meaning of this transformation, Goin' to Chicago examines a single portion of this process — migration between Mississippi and Chicago. Between 1940 and 1960, approximately one-third of African-Americans leaving Mississippi went to Illinois, mainly to Chicago. Approximately one-fifth of black Chicagoans born in the South hailed from Mississippi. Although no migration experience was "typical," many aspects of both the Mississippi/Chicago nexus and Chicago as a destination for other migrants were representative of a broad range of migration experiences.

The changing social and economic forces impelling blacks out of Mississippi differed little from those in other parts of the cotton South and suggest themes important elsewhere in the South as well. Similarly Chicago's attractions were comparable to those of New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other popular destinations. Although black ghettos evolved differently in various cities, the history of Chicago's South and West Sides is comparable to that of Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant in New York, Cleveland's Hough, or Los Angeles' Watts.

Mississippi To Chicago

Focusing the film on the second wave of the Mississippi to Chicago migrations permits a depth of analysis and texture of human experience that would be difficult in a film that tried to encompass a number of migration streams in a quixotic quest for the "typical" migration experience.

The close links between Chicago and Mississippi highlight the crucial process of "chain migration" — the continued movement from one place to another directed and facilitated by kin and community networks. A focus on that nexus permits sensitive and comprehensive documentation of the continued relationship between North and South, a cultural process manifested with special clarity in the blues.

Moreover in parts of the black South, Chicago represented Northern cities in general. Because of the wide distribution of the Chicago Defender, many migrants who ended up elsewhere left with an image of Chicago etched on their minds. The route North to Chicago took Delta migrants up Highway 61 or on the Illinois Central Railroad, through a string of cities — each touched in some way by the migrants. Memphis, St. Louis, and towns in Illinois and Indiana were major stopping off points along the route to Chicago; many stopped "for a few days" and never left. Mississippi Delta residents are known to refer affectionately to Memphis as the capital of Mississippi. In parts of the black South, Chicago was nearly mythic; as bluesman Muddy Waters put it, "Goin' to Chicago was like goin' out of the world."


As an oral and visual history of the Great Migration, Goin' to Chicago documents and analyzes the meaning of not only a transforming event in African-American history, but a theme central to the experience of nearly all American families. We have been called "a nation of immigrants," and for many that experience has included an important rural-urban component. Indeed, to understand the evolution of American culture requires a comprehension of the process by which rural cultures have been transformed into an urban ones, albeit with rural inflections in some cases.

For African-Americans this transformation has been underscored by the simultaneous movement from the proscriptions of the Jim Crow South to the apparent (and in many cases very real) opportunity offered by the urban-industrial North. That perception of opportunity, and the successes achieved by many migrants embodies a variety of themes central to our history and culture: landownership, independence, hard work, and the relationship between migration and frontiers of human experience. "I dreamed of going North," recalled Richard Wright in Black Boy nearly two decades after he left Mississippi headed eventually first to Memphis and then Chicago. "The North symbolized to me all that I had not felt and seen; it had no relation whatever to what actually existed. Yet by imagining a place where everything was possible, I kept hope alive in me."

The experience of the Great Migration is not only one of individual striving, opportunity, and disappointment. It is also a story of family. Goin' to Chicago, by focusing on a single migration stream and the relationship between two places suggests to its audience the centrality of family to African-American History.

a picture of a girl in a chicago apartment

To understand the Great Migration from the perspective of participants who understand it as a transforming moment in their lives, we might reflect on T.S. Eliot's observation in Four Quartets: "We have had the experience, but missed the meaning." Playwright August Wilson, in his own reflections on the Great Migration, has urged all of us to look for our own 'song,' our own understanding of how and where we fit In our world. Goin' to Chicago suggests the ways in which the Great Migration fits into the search of some African-Americans for their song, their place in American life.

© January, 2001
James R. Grossman
The Newberry Library, Chicago

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