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The Great Migration began about 1910 and only began to slow and reverse itself in the 1970s and 1980s. Some historians have described this demographic phenomenon as the shifting of the Black Belt from the South to the North. In large numbers, African-Americans abandoned the South for economic, political, and social reasons. The North represented to the South's blacks a promised land. In the promised land, there were economic opportunities, enfranchisement, and a freer racial climate in contrast to the South, which they knew all too well.
Both "push" and "pull" factors caused more than a half-million African-Americans to relocate to the North. The "push" factors are associated with the conditions of the South, and the "pull" factors are associated with the conditions of the North. In the decade 1910-1920 the economy of the South plummeted because of an insect from Mexico known as the boll weevil. The boll weevil entered the United States through Texas and migrated east, destroying cotton crops throughout the South. The damage caused by the boll weevil has been memorialized in Enterprise, Alabama, by a statue monument as a reminder of a quest to find economic opportunities in place of cotton production. The boll weevil's destruction had devastating financial ramifications which adversely affected African-Americans, whose primary occupations were sharecropping and tenant farming. Many of these sharecroppers and tenant farmers now sought economic stability that was in the North.
A second push factor was the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the South. The reconstruction KKK, first established by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest as primarily a social organization for Confederate veterans, had dissolved by the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1915, William Simmons revamped the KKK, not as a social organization but as a group that terrorized blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants and so-called "infidels." Although during the first decade of the twentieth century the number of lynchings in America decreased, the brutality of the lynchings increased. This led to pushing African-Americans to the North in search of a safer and freer racial climate.
A third push factor was discrimination and prejudice, which pushed blacks to the North. Segregation had so divided society that the South was unequal and unjust. Suffrage rights were denied African-Americans by the implementation of unconstitutional policies, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Judicial cases were not always decided fairly, and in many cases arbitrary "justice" was the order of the day.
There were also factors that pulled African-Americans to the North. Industrialization and World War I contributed significantly to the pulling forces. The demands of war required factories to develop and produce needed materials for Europe and eventually the United States. America had closed its doors to European immigrants during the war, diminishing the North's labor force. The war industries looked to the South to replenish its work force. Agents were sent to the South to recruit workers and because of the failing rural economies, many people (black and white) were attracted to the urban North. These agents paid the relocation expenses of the migrants and offered them improved earning potential. The agents were so successful that the South developed policies that required them to purchase recruitment licenses, which ranged in price from $500 to $2000. The cost associated with the licenses were insignificant to Northern industries when compared to the return on their investments.
A second pull factor was the media. Newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and the NAACP's Crisis magazine published editorials that encouraged blacks to abandon the South for greater economic prosperity, and political and social freedom in the North.
This was an effective campaign coupled with the letters written by newly relocated Northern African Americans to their Southern relatives. Both the media and African Americans sent messages that the North was a more conducive environment for "real democracy" than was the South.
The fourth and fifth factors were a freer racial climate and enfranchisement. Segregation was not as prevalent in the North as in the South. Jobs were plentiful. The KKK was less powerful in the North than in the South, even though it had a strong presence in states like Indiana and Illinois. Blacks were allowed to exercise their right to vote without unconstitutional restrictions. For example, Oscar DePriest, who migrated from Alabama, was elected to the U.S. Congress three times as a Representative from Chicago due to the black vote. He had also been elected to the county commission and the city council during the first decade of the Great Migration. This was a clear indication that Blacks achieved political power and experienced a freer racial climate in the North.
The white reaction to the Great Migration was diverse. Many Southern officials and businessmen were resentful and could not understand why large numbers of blacks fled the region that was their home for over two hundred years. To prevent migration, these officials placed financial burdens upon emigrating African-Americans. Other whites felt that forcing blacks to remain in the South was not an option. An editorial appeared in Birmingham's Weekly Voice, which read:
If the Negro feels that he can better himself in the steps he is taking, why should
we not grasp him by the hands and bid him Godspeed instead of prognosticating
an ill will toward him.
Still others believed that the conditions of the South should be improved to prevent the migration of blacks from the region. Thomas Kilby, an Alabama governor, attempted to gain some clarity regarding this mass movement. Governor Kilby enlisted Thomas Monroe Campbell as an extension agent to report on the conditions of Alabama's emigrants in the Midwest. From Campbell's report, Kilby established a network program between Auburn University and Tuskegee University and sought Booker T. Washington's advice and leadership to develop a program that would improve the conditions in Alabama for its black citizens.
In summary, blacks fled the South for the North in order to find "authentic" freedom. African-Americans from the Piedmont and coastal plains migrated to the Mid-Atlantic states, whereas those from the Deep South moved to the Midwest. African Americans from the Southwest tended to move to the West. More than half a million blacks left behind unfavorable economic, political, and social conditions of the South to go north and west, where they found these same conditions more in their favor. World War I, blatant racism, and the transition from agriculture to industry, led blacks to abandon the South in the early twentieth century. The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed the trend, but during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s migration again intensified, and for many of the same reasons that led to the beginning of the Great Migration.