“The migration spread,” Jacob Lawrence
Image credit: The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

“We must have the Negro in the South … It is the only labor we have; it is the best we have—if we lost it, we [would] go bankrupt.” –Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, 1916

Prior to World War I, African Americans had plenty of reasons to want to leave the South.  But they had little reason to believe that life would be better in the North.  But the “War to End All Wars” created unprecedented labor opportunities for southern blacks.  Labor agents enticed many migrants with free transportation, but it was The Chicago Defender newspaper that probably did the most to encourage African Americans to move.  Its portrayal of a comfortable Black Chicago, and advertisements of a “Great Northern Drive,” led many southerners to write letters like this one:

Dear Sir: Please Sir, will you kindly tell me what is meant by the Great Northern Drive to take place May the 15th on Tuesday? It is a rumor all over town to be ready for the 15th of May to go in the drive. The Defender first spoke of the drive the 10th of February. My husband is in the North already preparing for our family, but hearing that the excursion will be $6.00 from here north on the 15th, and having a large family, I could profit by it if it is really true. Do please write me at once and say is there an excursion to leave the South. Nearly the whole of the South is getting ready for the drive or excursion as it is termed. Please write at once. We are sick to get out of the solid South.

Southern whites expressed alarm and anger that their valuable Negro labor was fleeing. Black leaders also questioned whether migration was the best course.  But there was little they could do to stop it.

Recommended Reading
The Warmth of Other Suns:  Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow:  Richard Wormser covers a lot of ground in a relative few pages.  It opens with Reconstruction and ends at 1954.


I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Benjamin ‘Pap’ Singleton,” Kansas Historical Society

The Journal of Negro History, Volume IV, 1919

The Journal of Negro History, Volume VI, 1921

Blowing the Trumpet: The ‘Chicago Defender’ and Black Migration during World War I,” James R. Grossman

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration,” James R. Grossman

Black Workers and the Great Migration North,” Carole Marks

The Defender: How a Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, Ethan Michaeli

Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, Brian Kelly

The Great Black Migration:  A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Steven A. Reich

Negro Migration During the War,” Emmett J. Scott

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