The Great Migration represented a sustained effort on the part of Black Americans to escape the
stifling oppression of the Jim Crow South. Between 1916 and 1970, about six million Black
residents left the rural South, the largest internal mass migration in U.S. history.
The Northern Black press played a major role in recruiting Black southerners to move North during the
Great Migration, publishing job postings and rail schedules and documenting stories of the migrant
experience. Key publications included the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the New
Amsterdam News, and the Philadelphia Tribune. The major papers boasted weekly circulation of more
than 500,000 copies, with a readership several times higher.
The Black Press
Union Terminal Railroad Depot Concourse, Jacksonville, Florida, 1921.
Source: Florida Memory
Particularly during World War I
and World War II, Black
migrants sought to leave the
horrors of Jim Crow and seize
economic opportunities in
growing industries in the North
“The Arthurs, an African American family moving to the urban North
from the rural South, arrive in Chicago, Illinois, in 1920. The family left
their hometown of Paris, Texas, after two family members were
murdered.” (Chicago History Museum via Getty Images)
In 1916, a factory worker in a
Northern city could earn three
times what might be possible
working the land in the South.
Though many imagined the
North as a “promised land” free
of Jim Crow’s overt racist
oppression, they quickly
realized that white supremacy
was a defining feature of
American life everywhere.
National Urban League
Created from the merger of three
similar organizations, the National
Urban League (NUL) was founded
in 1910, prior to the onset of the
Great Migration, to help
newcomers to Northern cities
acclimate and find employment,
housing, and other resources. It
established chapters in many major
cities and would play a large role
in efforts to address housing
discrimination during the civil
rights movement of the 1960s.
The Red Summer of 1919
Racial violence erupted in dozens of
U.S. cities, including Chicago and
Washington, sparked by resentment over
competition for jobs and housing, as well
as perceived violations of de facto
segregation. These tensions were made
worse by an economic recession and the
return of soldiers from World War I,
including many Black veterans who
found they were treated no better as a
result of their military service. Writer
and activist James Weldon Johnson
referred to this period of racial terror as
New York Tribune (27 July 1919)
This map illustrates the racial demographics
of Chicago in 1934, revealing a clear pattern
of racial segregation in housing. Enforced by
practices and customs such as restrictive
housing covenants, rather than by law, so-
called de facto ( “in fact”) segregation
resulted in the concentration of most Black
residents in the so-called “Black belt” on
Chicago’s South side. Black residents
generally preferred the term “Bronzeville,”
coined by newspaper editor James Gentry.
Chicago tenement housing, 1941
As tens of thousands of Black
Southern migrants arrived in
Chicago in the early 1940s, housing
in Black neighborhoods became
increasingly scarce. Landlords were
therefore able to charge exorbitant
rents for poorly maintained,
overcrowded units. In many cases,
apartments were subdivided and
occupied by multiple families, who
would share a single bathroom in the
hall. Residents were often forced to
live without heat, adequate lighting,
or running water. Rats were common
and fires frequently broke out—
caused by flammable construction
materials and the use of kerosene
lamps—in some years occurring
nearly twice a day in Bronzeville.
“Negro family living in
crowded quarters, Chicago,
Illinois, April 1941.”
Photo by Russell Lee
Novelist Richard Wright, a migrant from
Natchez, Mississippi, documented the
socioeconomic conditions in Chicago’s
Black communities in his 1940 classic
Native Son. In the literary style of
naturalism, Wright’s story depicts the effects
of poverty and racial oppression on Bigger
Thomas, a Black man driven to commit
murder in an effort to survive the system of
white supremacy that structured every aspect
of his environment.
The Harlem Renaissance (1920s)
• During the 1920s, the Harlem section of New York was home to a flowering of
Black culture: literature, art, music, and theater. Similar artistic movements
occurred in Chicago, Washington, and other cities of the Great Migration.
• Writer Alain Locke coined the term “New Negro” to refer to a new Black
consciousness working to use art to capture the Black experience as a tool for
• Key figures of the movement included Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright,
Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Jessie Redmon Fauset,
Louis Armstrong, and Jacob Lawrence.
• Jazz and blues music were central to the arts scene, and venues like the Cotton
Club and the Apollo Theater drew celebrities and crowds.
• Many Black artists were sponsored or commissioned to work for white patrons,
capturing glimpses of a Black experience often as rendered for white eyes.
By the 1930s, the nation’s largest Black community was in Harlem, New York, home to the NAACP,
the UNIA, and the National Urban League. Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
At the age of 23, painter Jacob
Lawrence produced a collection
of sixty prints known as The
Migration Series (WPA, 1941).
It documented the social and
economic conditions of the Jim
Crow South that pushed
migrants to leave, and the harsh
realities of race relations in the
North, imagined by many
would-be migrants to be a
“promised land” free of racial
oppression. The child of
Southern migrants, Lawrence
lived in Harlem.
Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series (1941)
In groups of three or four, select one to two paintings to examine.
• How does Lawrence tell a story in his paintings?
• How does he portray the conditions of the South?
• How does he portray the promise of the North?
• What does he emphasize about the physical process of migration?
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library (1168439)