When more than six million African Americans left the South for better opportunities in the North and West, between 1916 and 1970, their relocation changed the demographic landscape of the United States and much of the agricultural labor force in the South. This decades-long, multi-generational movement of Black Americans, known as the Great Migration, impacted southern labor to such a degree that white landowners resorted to coercive tactics to keep African Americans from leaving.
After Reconstruction ended in 1877, Jim Crow segregation became the law across the South, restricting political, economic and social mobility of African Americans. According to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a comprehensive history of the migration by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson, in 1900, nine out of every 10 Black Americans lived in the South, and three out of every four lived on farms. Despite a concerted effort by white southern landowners to make them stay, by 1970, nearly half of all African Americans, about 47 percent, would be living outside of the South.
Restricting Wages and Access to Information
Post-slavery, white southerners still depended on Black people as their main labor force. From picking cotton, working in rice plantations and tobacco fields, logging or serving as domestics, African Americans performed the same grueling tasks as they did while enslaved. And options for upward mobility under Jim Crow were bleak and dangerous. Black sharecroppers paid rent to live and work on the land of white planters, who took a percentage of their harvest and charged for seeds, tools and food, leaving Black sharecroppers in crippling debt. By law, sharecroppers could not leave the land until the debt was paid—effectively forcing them to stay.
But the fate of southern Black Americans changed in 1916 when news of better jobs and conditions up North started spreading in rural communities. Black newspapers, like The Chicago Defender, ran stories about opportunities for African Americans in steels mills and factories and encouraged them to leave the South.
Because white southerners could not afford to lose a cheap and subservient workforce, they attempted to cut off access to the Chicago Defender.
“They actually interfered with the U.S. Mail to prevent the Defender from being distributed,” says James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association and author of Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and the Great Migration.
Ordinances and Intimidation
With a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915—largely tied to the release of the film “A Birth of a Nation” that depicted Black men as savages, and the economic gains of Black entrepreneurs that threatened the social order of white supremacy, violence against African Americans erupted across the United States. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, at least 4,075 African Americans were lynched across the South between 1870-1950.
Black Americans who fled racial oppression either returned to retrieve the rest of their family or sent train tickets back home. In response, as white southerners observed train platforms packed with African Americans, several cities passed ordinances that made it illegal for trains to accept pre-paid tickets. There were ordinances put in place to also prevent group travel, if Black families or clusters of African Americans tried to purchase group rates.
“Police literally went up to the platforms and rounded people up,” says Grossman, to dissuade Black people from traveling. And the intimidation tactic worked.
“It was based on the concept of place, which was the word that whites and Blacks used to talk about where Blacks often stood in the social order,” says Grossman. If African Americans left the South, then there was “a threat both to economic interests and to the white way of life.”
A common belief among white southerners was that Black people were intellectually inferior and would not think to move to the North in search of better opportunities.
“They believed, incorrectly, that what was really happening was Black people were being stirred up by labor agents from northern industries coming South to round up Black workers. This is in part because their genuine belief in the lack of agency of Black people, and that Black people can’t possibly be figuring these things out themselves,” says Grossman.
Although there were instances of African Americans being recruited to work as Pullman porters on railways and seasonally on tobacco farms in Connecticut, the true northern labor agents were African Americans themselves, says Grossman. Black Americans who had migrated to the North and worked for better wages would visit family in the South and tell them about available jobs. But white southerners would try to persuade Black people that life wouldn’t be better up North and that the jobs conditions were terrible, even invoking a myth that African Americans couldn’t survive in cold weather.
Still, the Great Migration powered on. With a promise of a better life, more dignity and employment, African Americans began to leave from a train station further away, so they wouldn’t be recognized by locals or police officers.
Although migration slowed down during the Great Depression, because of the lack of jobs, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which banned federal agencies from discriminatory employment practices for war-related jobs, launched a massive wave of Black people leaving the rural South for defense jobs during World War II.
White southerners, anticipating more labor shortages, utilized the mechanical cotton picker more in the 1940s, often evicting Black sharecroppers from their land, who in turn migrated elsewhere in search of work. These developments cemented the African American pilgrimage from the South until the 1970s.