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Summer 2004
A Publication of the St. Louis Public Library

Vol. 4   No. 2

Ethnic Spotlight

The Great Migration

The Great Migration is the term used to describe the journeys of thousands of black Americans from their homes in southern, mainly agricultural, states like Mississippi and Louisiana to new homes in northern industrial states like Illinois and Michigan. This migration began in the late 1890s and early 1900s as southern state legislatures acted to hold in check the growing power of black and white farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural workers. Most black migrants came north on uncomfortable Jim Crow trains to cities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit. The number of persons migrating grew after 1910. A boll weevil infestation of southern cotton fields during much of that decade forced many sharecroppers to seek employment in the north.

The coming of World War I brought increasing numbers of southern blacks to northern states to fill industrial jobs paying relatively good wages. There was some white reaction to the influx of southern blacks into traditionally white areas, and occasional riots like the one in East St. Louis in 1917, served to remind all concerned that the north was not the Promised Land. It was, however, in many areas a better place than the ones that had been left behind, and many black workers got better jobs and their children better educations than they could have received had they remained in the south.

gfhtrailsmap.jpg (59975 bytes)The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 destroyed thousands of southern farmers, share-croppers, and agricultural workers, many of whom had no choice but to pack up and seek employment in the north. World War II also saw an increase in the demand for black factory workers in northern factories and brought many more blacks from their homes to new jobs and lives in the north.

How large were the numbers involved in the Great Migration? The black population of Detroit, for example, increased from 6,000 in 1910 to more than 120,000 in 1930. The destination for many southern blacks, however, was Chicago. That city also experienced an explosive growth in its black population. Chicago's black population increased from 14,271 in 1890 to 44,103 in 1910.

By 1930, Chicago's black population was 233,903, an increase of 530 percent!

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