A Brief History of the Great Migration, when 6 Million Black People Left the South

The Great Migration in the 20th century changed the face of America. For the past few decades, it's been reversing.

Over roughly 60 years from the 1910s to 1970, 6 million Black Americans packed what they could and took the nearest train, bus, or horse and buggy out of the South.

Many were searching for better lives for their families, economic parity, to get away from Jim Crow laws — "everything that was stifling to them in the South," said Gwen Harmon, manager of the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. "They migrated to the North to get out of the actual field environment as a sharecropper and as a cotton picker, looking for some type of job that, we say, had dignity to it."

This period in American history is known as the Great Migration, when African Americans from rural areas in the South moved to cities in the North and West — including my family.

"The majority of our family did leave Mississippi to make life better," my aunt Bernice Henderson told me. "Life was better for them and other families that I know. They made it work for them."

Auntie Bea grew up in Acona, an unincorporated community about an hour away from Mississippi's capital, Jackson. She's the 12th of 16 children, most of whom moved to Chicago once they became of age. 

"We went through some hard times, and the adults knew that in order to make it, they were going to have to do something else, especially if they wanted to change," she recalled.

At the time, Chicago had job and housing opportunities not available in the South. When my family participated in the Great Migration, it was a few decades after the first wave, which started around 1910.

"It really begins in earnest [around] World War I," said Robert Luckett, Ph.D., history professor at Jackson State University. "By the early 1900s, Jim Crow [was] really getting a foothold, and it's not just Jim Crow disfranchisement. It's also segregation. ... African Americans [were] saying, 'We've got to do something better for ourselves, for our children and for our grandchildren.'"

Depending on where they lived, Black Southerners typically migrated to a certain area. For example, people in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas largely moved to the Midwest and Western cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and St. Louis. Folks from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee followed the train lines and moved to Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago, while people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina went Northeast to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

After moving, men took jobs in factories, steel mills, slaughterhouses and railroads. Most women worked as maids or in the garment industry. By 1940, many cities in the North and West had seen a 5% to 9.9% increase in their Black populations.

"Black Americans switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party ... beginning in the 1930s because of the New Deal," explained James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. "This [changed] the landscape of American politics."

Grossman said the shift in population also "changed the landscape of Northern cultural development," from arts to literature, because of contributions by Black people, which never would've happened without the Great Migration.

With the end of World War II came the mechanical cotton picker, fueling the second wave of the Great Migration because it pushed Black sharecroppers out. This time around, most Northern cities' Black populations increased by an additional 10% or more. In 1940, the U.S. Census reported that Newark, New Jersey, had a Black population of 10.6%. By the end of the second wave, it was 54.2%.

But this growth didn't come without pushback.

"One of the things we know is that white people are much less racist when there aren't very many Black people around," Grossman said. "White communities in the North ... had been very sympathetic early on to abolition, to the plight of Black Southerners living under Jim Crow, but as their communities become more diverse, they [felt] threatened."

As a result, Northern states started to implement segregation, too.

"The rise of redlining, used as a tool [to] control populations moving into communities, [to] keep Black, immigrant and poor populations out of white areas to maintain white supremacy — that's intentional," Luckett said. "That [was] almost always the response ... in cities across the country."

By the 1960s, packing houses and steel mills that once employed Black people started to close. Millions of Black people were still living in poverty, and the civil rights movement was making waves. In the early '70s, hundreds of thousands of Black people chose to move back to the South, including Auntie Bea.

"Coming back home and still seeing signs that said 'Black only' and 'White only' was kind of devastating to me," she said. 

Thirty years later, Black populations are on the rise once again in Southern cities like Houston and Charlotte. In fact, Grossman and Luckett said the Great Migration has been reversing since the '80s, largely due to the breakdown of Jim Crow laws. Add on the South's lower cost of living, more job opportunities and being closer to family, and for many, the decision to return isn't a hard one.

"That's the irony. ... If you look back at the reasons Black people left in the first place, they're coming back with the same reasons. ... People are saying, 'I could start a business that nobody's ever thought of here that I saw in Chicago. I can take that back home.' And it is home, the operative word being home," Harmon said.