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The Great Migration and Its Causes

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Since the first arrival of Africans in America there has always been a striving for a better life. Through the institution of slavery, denial of natural rights, and the use of dehumanizing practices by slaveholders made African Americans socially invisible in America. To survive such depressing conditions it is seen that the slaves had wild imaginations of a better life, which was expressed through ritual and song. After the Civil War and a Union victory African Americans finally earned their freedom allowing them to begin their own lives as Americans, attempting to find the dreamland they once sang about. African American life was deeply rooted in the farms and plantations of the Deep South. The lack of exposure to most African Americans allowed for them to have an idealistic view of all they have not seen, like the north and urban areas. During the 20th century America began to change from an agriculturally dependent nation to an industrial super power. This change fed African Americans optimistic view of urban life. American industrialization became the catalyst for the migration of thousands of blacks from the rural south, to the urban north, throughout the 20th Century. The industrialization of the United States indirectly fueled the idealistic view of the city held in the imagination of most African Americans calling for urban dwelling, leading to the Great Migration. The great movement of African Americans from rural areas to urban areas allowed for blacks to become a prominent part of American industry.

The black imagination has been a powerful tool within the African American community, especially among families. Lorraine Hansberry shows the significance of dreams in her play, A Raisin in the Sun. The play tells a tale of a family, the Youngers family, living in the south side of Chicago in a white neighborhood. The head of the family, Mama, only dream was to own a house and for her family to be happy. Mama strongly believes in the value of dreams, to her, dreams and striving to achieve these dreams is more important than any material possession. Dreams are an essential aspect, of this highly autobiographical work. A Raisin in the Sun accurately portrays the role dreams play in African American families. The title of the play is directly tied to what happens to the dreams of most African Americans; they eventually dry up like a raisin in the sun. Dreams and the imagination of African Americans was one of the greatest factors in the Great Migration to go along with American industrialization. Many African Americans held the same dream and determination as Mama to make their dream, of a lucrative life in the city, a reality. The Journal of Negro History, edited by African American historian Carter G. Woodson, published many letters from migrants in the south. One man wrote in his letter, “I notice in the Chicago defender that you are working to better the condition of the colored people of the south. I am a member of the race & want too come north for to better the condiction of my famely.” Most African Americans had no experience or knowledge of the north and the cities, all that they knew was what they heard or hoped it to be like. Cities mostly in the north received an ideal perception in the eyes of most African American families in the south striving for something better. The cities of the north seemed to have all the things most African Americans hoped for and have dreamed about for many years.

The rural areas of the south were the root of African American life in America. These northern cities began to represent a “promised land” or a “land of hope”. The way of life between the north and the south was very different aside from its look. The south provided very depressing conditions not far from the conditions experienced during the solemn times of slavery. The southern radicals were atop of southern society once again, placing African Americans in a position of economic dependence, removing rights, placing them in a position of social invisibility. Many practices to keep slaves under control, like lynching, were still practiced long after the slaves were granted freedom and legal forms of discrimination arose. In attempt to prevent migration a southern newspaper wrote “We have long since learned that the racial prejudices and problems are not local, sectional or even national, but are world-wide, and as such they must be handled with that sanity that is filled with patience and wisdom” . This newspaper called for patience and wisdom, which had been shown by most African Americans for many years and have little to show for it. Most who opposed the Great Migration tried to persuade the African American community of discrimination also practiced in the north but the Great Migration was not solely to escape racial discrimination it was a product of striving for economic prosperity most African Americans had dreamed about. The oppressing conditions of the rural south and the new found American industrial movement of the north called for change in the African American community. With the American change from an agriculturally dependent nation to what is to eventually become an industrial international super power caused the undeveloped south to decline and the industrial cities to flourish.

This ideal perception of the north and major cities was seen in the eyes of most African Americans in the rural south. Most beliefs about the north held by most southern African Americans had no primary basis. The most well known source of information about the north was the Chicago Defender, this newspaper told of all the opportunity of factory jobs available and forwardly put down the southern lifestyle. The north was believed to be a way for African Americans to escape the extreme racism they received in the south. The north and the union were the liberators of freedom for all blacks making it only natural for the African Americans who are still struggling to reap the benefits of their new found freedom to migrate to live with the people who fought to protect them. Northern cities, like Chicago did not have legally protected racial institutions, as they did in the south. The focal point of this migration was the plethora of jobs and higher wages offered in the northern cities. A young black man, Percy H. Stone wrote in the Outlook, “Our plans for economic independence have been thwarted in these abnormal times, and the higher wages, the novelty of new surroundings, and other things attracting some of us away from the Southland.” In the imagination of the African American community of the rural south the urban north was the “promise land” as they seek freedom and economic independence. These beliefs about the urban northern areas were not completely unrealistic. Urban areas were to become the most important aspect of the American economy. In the early 20th century, the earlier stages of the Great Migration, there were a large amount of job opportunities. This was a result of the beginning of World War One (WWI). James Grossman wrote in the online encyclopedia of Chicago, “Factories opened the doors to black workers, providing opportunities to black southerners eager to stake their claims to full citizenship through their role in the industrial economy.” This war caused there to be a many job openings in which most African Americans hoped to fill. WWI caused for pressing need for labor and workers. This was a time of economic prosperity for most African Americans that moved to the northern cities.

The driving reason for the African American communities’ determination for the large migration of African Americans out of rural areas in the south to urban cities mostly in the north was the perfect view of the north and the United States industrialization. In the 1930’s, the political program, the New Deal, paid planters to reduce acreage, calling them to decrease their production. The north provided more opportunities for African Americans and there were many more reasons to move north than to stay but the northern cities did not fulfill the dreams of most migrants who came from the rural south. The urban areas of the north did have all that they imagined. In Ira Berlin’s work, The Making of African America, she quotes Richard Wrights reaction of Chicago:

“My first glimpses of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies,……Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built on slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie.”

The real north was much different from what most had hoped it to be. Before moving, African Americans marveled at the potentially prosperous life they hoped to live in the north but that soon changed upon arrival. African Americans were not free to live where they pleased; the areas of living were defined by race. African Americans were forced to live in ghettos, which were tougher living conditions compared to the white members of the area. There was a large amount of job opportunities but it was soon found that these job opportunities were not available for African Americans. African Americans were denied access to the industrial revolution of the north because of the alliance made by white employers. African Americans were given low-level, unskilled jobs, which seemed to take the form of urban servitude and were barred from the more lucrative jobs. Also there was never a true escape from racial discrimination, racial subordination was still a large part of the north but did not take the form of extreme violence as the African Americans of the rural south were accustom to. The north had always been able to help the African Americans of the south from a far but was not pleased with the migrations of hundreds of thousands otf African Americans to their land. Even though the north did not take the form in which most had imagined it they still reaped the benefits of some new found freedoms, Ira Berlin writes, “the simple act of taking their seat of choice in a public conveyance or having their vote courted. The promise of steady work, reasonable pay, and equal treatment seemed so utterly different” African Americans could part take in politics and social clubs without a great fear of personal violence taken against them.

The movement of blacks to the north allowed African Americans to become a political power and bring about national change. LeRoi Jones states in his work, Blues People, “What seems to me most important about these mass migrations was the fact that they must have represented a still further change within the Negro as far as his relationship with America was concerned. It can be called a psychological realignment, an attempt to reassess the worth of the black man within the society as a whole, an attempt to make the American dream work, if it were going to. It was a decision Negroes made to leave the South, not an historical imperative. And this decision must have been preceded by some kind of psychological shift; a reinterpretation by the Negro of his role in this country.”

The mass migration of African Americans not only changed the lives of those who migrated but also affected the urban areas they migrated and forever changed America. The vote of the African American community became very important in politics a freedom they never saw living in the south. The complaints of the African American community were not silenced by extreme violence allowing for organized protests from the community to be felt by the larger white structure. The African American community would become a factor in all decisions on a national scale. The African American problem was not just a problem of the south, with the Great Migration, it them became a problem of America. The Great Migration placed African Americans at the heart of the industrial centers of the world, making African American consumption and production a vital part of the American economy. The segregation of African Americans in the cities allowed for African American entrepreneurs to move in to fulfill their needs with barbershops, beauty salons, restaurants, and dance halls.

The industrialization of America was the greatest cause for the large movement of African Americans to urban areas. With a newfound freedom the African American community sought economic independence. African Americans sought jobs for which they could sustain a comfortable life and fulfill the needs of their family. These dreams were seen to only have an opportunity to be fulfilled in the cities of the north where the African American community had more control of there own destiny. 

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