The Great Migration
Mass African American migration to the Midwest in the early 20th century disrupted the region’s established social and economic order and presented challenges for both the black and white community. Starting during World War I and continuing for the next several decades, the Great Migration saw more than one million Southern African-Americans move to the urban north (Martin). Midwestern cities such Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and a host of smaller industrial towns saw enormous rises in their black populations. The U.S. Department of Commerce census table shows that while there were only 44,103 black residents of Chicago in 1910, by 1930 that number had increased to 233,903. Detroit’s black population rose even more drastically, from 5,741 to 120,066 over the same twenty year span. While some moved to escape southern racial discrimination and intimidation and others moved to seek out new job opportunities in the rapidly urbanizing midwest, all had a profound impact on the society they entered.
The large-scale migration of African-Americans to the midwest represented an enormous new pool of available workers that threatened northern whites. Though some of the new migrants were agricultural laborers, an overwhelmingly large majority were urban, industrial laborers (Trotter, xi). The 1930 letter to the pastor of Detroit’s Second Baptist Church R.L. Bradby highlights the plight of one member of this new black urban working class. The letter to Bradby indicates that the writer knows the Ford Motor Company plant is hiring and requests that the pastor help him get a job there. Business owners such as Henry Ford took eager advantage of this new labor supply willing to work for low wages and hired the new migrants in large numbers. While prejudice and stereotypes regarding black workers kept them confined to largely unskilled and menial jobs in midwestern factories’ like Ford’s, these migrants nevertheless posed a threat to northern whites who believed them to be taking away available jobs from white workers. Many white responded angrily to this perceived attack on their economic stability, with one white northerner writing that blacks were “ignorant [and] deficient in practical ability,” and that low economic standing was “inherent in the negro character” (Trotter, 3).
The mass entrance of black migrants into midwestern cities challenged existing social dynamics in addition to economic ones. Though the north did not have the systemic legal segregation that drove many African-Americans to leave the south, it nevertheless featured virulent racism and policies of de facto segregation designed to keep whites and blacks apart (Grossman, 2). Policies such as redlining–in which banks would refuse to offer loans to blacks trying to buy a house in a “white” neighborhood–ensured that African-Americans in cities such as Chicago and Detroit were kept living together and separated from the white population. While these unwritten patterns of discrimination existed long before the Great Migration, the sheer number of African-Americans that entered white cities during the early 20th century placed a strain on this delicate racial balance (Grossman, 3). Whites and blacks were now working together in large numbers, with blacks increasingly challenging the social boundaries that sought to oppress them outside the workplace. The Chicago Defender (an African-American newspaper founded in 1905) headline from November 16, 1940 demonstrates one instance of such resistance. The headline’s announcement that the “Hansberry Decision Opens 500 New Homes to Race” celebrates the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hansberry vs. Lee that allowed the challenge of a Chicago neighborhood’s restrictive covenant agreement that prevented homeowners to sell their house to African-Americans. The neighborhood’s 500 homes were now open to black purchase, though legal protection meant little in the face of violent commitment to de facto segregation.
The intensity of whites’ social and economic fears were made clear by the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, a week of bloody attacks on black citizens that an Illinois government commission would later ascribe to the tension caused by the significant new presence of the “Negro in Chicago” (Trotter, 10). Where whites feared economic and social instability brought on by the new migrants, African-Americans’ feared the racist prejudice and violence (as well as the resulting economic damage) these white fears helped fuel. The Great Migration had brought two formerly separate populations into close contact, giving both sides reasons to fear for their economic and social safety.