The Great Migration
In the early 1900s, 90% of African-Americans lived in the Jim Crow South, bound by debt to planters in a rigidly racist and segregated world where lynching and other forms of intimidation and violence were used to enforce the social order. The first major opportunity to leave came when World War I cut off immigration from Europe and created demand for labor in the booming wartime economy at the same time as the cotton economy was starting to decline. Employers needed African-American workers to fill jobs and sent agents to bring them north. At the same time, African-American newspapers like the Chicago Defender, often brought South by black sleeping car porters, were encouraging African-Americans to come north. The Pennsylvania Railroad brought 16,000 African-Americans north in the summer of 1916 alone.
African-Americans took trains north and west to cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland, which promised more opportunities and greater freedom. Between 1916 and 1970, approximately seven million African-Americans made the journey out of the South, the tide slowing during the Great Depression and then becoming a flood during World War II and after. Jacob Lawrence, whose painting above depicted the Great Migration, arrived as a child in Harlem in 1930; his mother and many other black women worked as domestics in New York City.
What the children of slavery found in the North was not the Promised Land. Although opportunities increased and legal segregation did not exist, racism limited their employment, education and housing possibilities, confining them to ghettos. African-American workers were central to the economies of northern industrial cities, but they often worked in the lowest paid and most unpleasant jobs, such as janitors, assembly line workers, coal miners, longshoremen, and stokers in steel foundries. Many white union members opposed black workers being employed in their industries or joining their unions. In the late 1930s, unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations began to recruit African-American members, helping to create a black middle class in the prosperous post-World War II era. Interestingly, many of their descendants are now returning to the South in search of greater economic opportunity and a lower cost of living.