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The African-American Migration to Northern Cities

Between 1914 and 1918, more than 500,000 African Americans left the farms of the South for jobs in Northern cities. The movement was part of the “Great Migration,” which stretched from the 1890s to the 1960s, and eventually resulted in more than 6 million black people leaving the South.

This migration was spurred first by the Jim Crow laws, the lynchings, and the poverty of the post–Civil War South. Then, as the war in Europe simultaneously sparked U.S. industrial expansion and cut off the flow of immigrant workers, Northern jobs opened up by the thousands.

Henry Ford, for example, offered to pay the astronomical sum of $5 a day in his plants, and despite his racist views, he hired blacks. The black populations of Northern cities swelled. In Chicago, for example, the African American community grew from 44,000 in 1910 to 110,000 by 1920.

But moving North didn’t mean that African Americans left racism behind. Many Northern whites resented their new neighbors. The resentment was fueled in 1915 when the wildly popular new movie, The Birth of a Nation, portrayed blacks as deranged and dangerous creatures who lorded their emancipation over white Southerners.

Nor was there much interest in black issues among Progressive leaders. When a delegation of black leaders met with Pres. Woodrow Wilson in 1914 to protest segregation in federal offices, he all but pushed them out the door.

Racial unrest led to race riots. In 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois, white rioters went on a rampage in the black community. When it was over, 39 blacks and 9 whites were dead.

In the summer of 1919, more than 25 race riots broke out in cities across the country. The worst was in Chicago, where an incident at a segregated swimming beach sparked a six-day riot that resulted in 38 people dead and more than a thousand left homeless by riot-sparked fires. The beachfront riots didn’t stop until federal troops were called in.

Still, when President Wilson called on Americans to “help make the world safe for democracy” in 1917, more than 375,000 African Americans entered the military. “If this is our country,” explained black leader W.E.B. DuBois, “then this is our war.”

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