Black History Month celebrates the triumphs and remembers the tribulations of African Americans in the United States. One such instance of hardship, juxtaposed with achievements of upward mobility, was the Great Migration.
|“A man seated on bales of cotton, Memphis, Tennessee” June 1, 1967, Dept. of Conservation Photograph Collection|
The Great Migration was a period of large scale African-American population movement from rural areas in the South to urban industrial centers of the North. The racism inherent in the installation of Jim Crow laws, segregation and growing violence against African Americans were driving factors in the migration. Additionally, incentives proposed by northern companies with labor shortages and the lack of social mobility and economic prospects in the South caused African Americans to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Responses to the African-American migration were conflicting. On the one hand, many southern white citizens believed that the migration solved the “negro problem” in the South – in other words, the fewer African Americans, the better. However, many people recognized that African Americans were the economic backbone of the South because they provided abundant, cheap agricultural labor. With the steady decrease of farm laborers, southern economically agrarian states faced possible bankruptcy.
“Special Subject: Night Riders in Lake County, Tennessee – 1908,” Governor Patterson Papers – This is an example of how Southern farms depended on the black population for labor to support the agriculture economy. It also brings focus to the racial violence prevalent in the South which in part instigated the migration.
Upon realizing the potential for economic disaster, southern leaders were called to action in an effort to retain the African-American population. Inducements to stay included addressing poor living standards and racial oppression, increasing wages to match those in the North and finding ways to oppose the worst of the Jim Crow laws. Some leaders turned to more nefarious means of stemming the migration – that is, white citizens fearing the rise of black nationalism tried to force African Americans to stay. Some attempts included refusing to cash checks sent to finance black migration, limiting railroad access and publishing newspaper articles that highlighted the negative aspects of black life in the North. Some organizations posted agents in the North to report on wage levels, unionization and the rise of black nationalism. And local and federal directives restricted African-American mobility through vagrancy ordinances and conscription orders.
|“The Grim Business of Today is Winning the War” Nashville Tennessean and Nashville American, Sept. 15, 1918, page 9 - African Americans had the opportunity for a free college education if they chose to enter the Students’ Army Training Corps.|
One such federal order during World War I was “work or fight.” This was an effort by the government to motivate the war effort both at home and abroad. Farmers, often southern African Americans, were considered “non-essential” labor by the Selective Service Board, meaning many agricultural laborers were drafted first. The draft also caused a labor vacuum in industry – with young white men leaving for military service, African Americans were able to move into urban areas and take empty positions in factories. Occupying those jobs allowed for economic opportunity and upward social mobility. The war effort also created educational opportunities. African Americans had the option of joining the Students’ Army Training Corps, a government program which operated at certain colleges. The program paid for tuition and provided uniforms, lodging and monthly stipends.
|This article, published in The Nashville American, Oct. 30, 1900, discusses the Union League’s plan to bring more African Americans into skilled trades and business.|
As the African-American population grew in urban centers and factories, so did participation in labor unions and other skilled labor organizations. In 1900, the Union League, an African-American organization based in Washington D.C., began surveying the black population to find out how many were engaged in business, what type of business and for how long. According to an article in the Nashville American, the data from the survey was meant to aid the league in devising “ways and means to induce a larger number of colored persons to go into business and the skilled trades.” Black Tennesseans became vocal advocates for increasing hiring rates, earning fair wages and creating better workplace conditions for African-American workers. For example, in 1900, a local Memphis chapter of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America asked the Tennessee state government if a minority job opportunity program could be created in the state labor department. This was in response to construction companies refusing to hire skilled African-American carpenters.
Local Union No. 1986, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America to Governor Frank Clement, March 18, 1954, Governor Clement Papers
Nashville was unique in its geography during the migration. Nashville presented more opportunities for Africans Americans than cities in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Migrants from the “deep South” found that moving to Nashville gave them access to better healthcare, housing they could own and better education. While Nashville was not an industrial metropolis, men and women could find work in local factories for both skilled and unskilled labor.
The Great Migration redefined the cultural and political landscape of the South. It extended from the early 1900s to the 1970s. The Great Depression of the 1930s stemmed the migration because of decreased opportunities in northern urban centers. However, jobs became available again with the start of World War II and movement northward became steady through the 1960s.
The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State