A History of The Great Migration of African Americans from The South to The North Helping Set The Stage for The Civil Rights Movement

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Words: 1105 |

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6 min read

Published: Nov 16, 2018

Words: 1105|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Nov 16, 2018

The Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early half of the 20th century was a pivotal social event in the history of the United States, helping set the stage for the modern Civil Rights movement. It was characterized by a massive exodus of African Americans from the Southern United States, one with a starting date difficult to pinpoint. Most scholars say it began around the onset of WWI, in the 1910s, but a greater migration started during WWII, lasting through the Vietnam era to the 1970s during which African Americans left in unprecedented numbers. Close to five million people left between 1941 and the late 1970s, and in doing so they shaped their lives and those of their descendants. As with any such migration, the movement of people changed a great deal. People previously in the agricultural center were now in the core of the American economy, and those lacking political rights and influence were swiftly gaining both. As southern African Americans moved into the northern cities, they made the postwar black cities centers of innovation in music, literature, and art to create a new influential black urban culture best exemplified in the Harlem Renaissance.

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The relocation of African Americans dramatically reshaped America’s major cities, where they went from being a small minority to accounting for more than 40% of some northern cities known as ‘black metropolises’, cities within cities. The experience of the Great Migration and these new cities created the artistic movement called the New Negro Movement, later known as the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem in New York City was one of the most prominent examples of these metropolises, a formerly entirely white neighborhood that saw a radical change of demographics. James Weldon Johnson called it the “flowering of Negro literature”, and it was truly that; the Great Migration united authors and writers from racially stratified communities in cities where black culture was increasingly popular. Plays like those by Ridgely Torrence rejected the stereotypes of blackface and minstrel shows, instead showing African Americans being just as human as whites. Poets like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes all came together to shape the Harlem Renaissance; were it not for the Great Migration, it is entirely possible that the black population would have remained diminished and spread across the country where such unified communities could not have taken root.

Seminal cultural changes were not limited to specific fields; writers, actors, musicians, artists all had a major impact. Langston Hughes wrote as a jazz poet, ignoring the influences of white writers to make something with a rhythm and meter that had never before been seen. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, was vibrant and astonishing in its rejection of the racial uplift program, which advocated for improving the image of African Americans in society but stigmatized and muted black female sexuality. As Langston Hughes put it, however, defraying racial prejudice was secondary to the “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves”. Singers like Ethel Waters, one of the most renowned female black performers, grew to be not just accepted, but immensely popular in white audiences, a hitherto unimaginable phenomenon. While racism was still alive and thriving and blacks still experienced “de facto segregation”, these social advancements came in leaps and bounds; as more and more blacks were accepted, old African American traditions were glorified and new ones were created.

Visual artists played a key role in depicting the modern African American, alongside their counterparts in literature, music, and theater. Painters like Laura Wheeler Waring made bold, stylized portraits of black Americans, as well as scenes of black life that became Harlem Renaissance imagery. These images and artworks were striking and fierce, in a way resembling the cultural explosion of the Renaissance itself, which was nothing if not extreme.

No mention of the Harlem Renaissance is complete without jazz and blues, which shaped America and indeed the entire world. Just like Langston Hughes flouted literary conventions of the time in his poems, jazz ignored and deconstructed musical conventions; for instance, the Harlem Stride Style was developed for playing the piano, with a wider range of tempos and a greater emphasis on improvisation than other piano styles. Since the Great Migration allowed more exposure to better education and opportunities, jazz musicians found their niche in the flourishing African American community of districts like Chicago’s South Side. One musician who found their home due to the Great Migration was Florence Mills, born Florence Winfrey; her parents had been slaves on a Virginia tobacco plantation, but when they were freed and took the opportunity to move to New York, she formed a singing group with her two siblings and became an immensely popular hit as a young star. Louis Armstrong, who grew up in the poverty of segregated New Orleans as the grandson of slaves, moved to Chicago during the Migration and – despite continued racism – became one of the first and most influential jazz artists who played in integrated bands, in front of integrated audiences.

The Renaissance was more than just an artistic movement, however. W.E.B. DU Bois, an editor of the journal of the NAACP, encouraged the Great Migration and published the poems, stories, and visual works of many artists of the Renaissance. The upswing in black culture resulted in racial pride, fueled by the achievements and success of free black communities who could demand civil and political rights. Even though the legal system of the northern states did not have Jim Crow laws on the books, there was still prejudice and racism; new migrants found themselves segregated in urban slums, one of which was Harlem. In a sense, without that segregation, the Harlem Renaissance may never have needed to occur. This massive internal migration changed the political, social, and cultural scene of the United States.

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African Americans created the Harlem Renaissance through poetry, works of art, stage and theater productions, jazz clubs, music, and more, many of which found mainstream success. Even under the restrictions of slavery and later Jim Crow laws, black Americans kept their culture alive; when given the opportunities offered by the Great Migration and northern freedom, that transformative creative potential was unleashed. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson described the migration as “six million black Southerners [moving] out of the terror of Jim Crow to an uncertain existence in the North and Midwest.” This existence was surely fraught with uncertainty, but despite, or perhaps because of, their suffering, struggles to adapt, and tribulations in a new life, those migrants shaped the cultural landscape of America for many years to come.

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A History of the Great Migration of African Americans From the South to the North Helping Set the Stage For the Civil Rights Movement. (2018, November 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 19, 2024, from
“A History of the Great Migration of African Americans From the South to the North Helping Set the Stage For the Civil Rights Movement.” GradesFixer, 15 Nov. 2018,
A History of the Great Migration of African Americans From the South to the North Helping Set the Stage For the Civil Rights Movement. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 Jul. 2024].
A History of the Great Migration of African Americans From the South to the North Helping Set the Stage For the Civil Rights Movement [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Nov 15 [cited 2024 Jul 19]. Available from:
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