Long Trek to Freedom - The African American Great Migration
“Scott and Violet Arthur arrive with their family at Chicago’s Polk Street Depot on Aug. 30, 1920, two months after their two sons were lynched in Paris, Texas. The picture has become an iconic symbol of the Great Migration. (Chicago History Museum)” – undetermined; published in The Chicago Defender on September 4, 1920, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The African American Great Migration, spanning from 1916 to 1970, is one of the most significant and transformative movements in the history of the United States. This mass exodus of approximately six million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West reshaped not only the demographic landscape of America but also its cultural, political, and social contours. This story is a testament to the search for dignity, opportunity, and a better life away from the oppressive Jim Crow laws and the pervasive racism of the South.

The roots of the Great Migration lie deep within the post-Civil War era. Despite the end of slavery, the South was quick to establish a new system of racial subjugation. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation and disenfranchisement, while the constant threat of violence and lynching created a climate of fear and oppression. For many African Americans, the South was less a home and more a land of unfulfilled promises and dangerous living.

The North and West, while not free from racial prejudice, offered the allure of industrial jobs, especially as World War I and later World War II created labor shortages by drawing millions of men into military service. Cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles became beacons of hope for African Americans seeking not just employment but also a chance to escape the agricultural and sharecropping bondage of the South.

The African American great migration was not an easy journey. It involved leaving behind families, communities, and a familiar way of life. Many traveled by train, bus, or car, often carrying little more than the dream of a better future. Upon arrival in the North and West, the migrants faced new challenges. They were often confined to overcrowded and under-resourced neighborhoods, known as ghettos. The jobs, while better paying, were often the most dangerous and least desirable. Moreover, they encountered hostility and racism from white residents and institutions, leading to race riots and tension in several cities.

Despite these challenges, the Great Migration sparked a profound cultural renaissance. African Americans brought with them rich cultural traditions, reshaping the music, literature, and art of the cities they settled in. The Harlem Renaissance, a cultural, social, and artistic explosion in the 1920s, was directly fueled by the migration. Figures like Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith became not just African American icons but also architects of American culture.

The impact of the Great Migration extended beyond culture. It fundamentally altered the political landscape of the United States. As African Americans gained political power in the cities, they began to influence elections and policy, laying the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement. Leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. emerged from this milieu, driving the quest for equality and justice.

The Great Migration also changed the African American family structure, with an emphasis on education and upward mobility becoming more pronounced. It led to the creation of a substantial African American middle class and a reshaping of the African American identity, with a new consciousness and a renewed resistance against racial oppression.

The legacy of the African American Great Migration is enduring and complex. While it brought about significant opportunities and advancements, it also led to new challenges, such as urban poverty and racial tensions. Nevertheless, the Great Migration stands as a powerful narrative of a people’s determination to seek freedom and prosperity against overwhelming odds. It’s a story of courage, resilience, and the unyielding pursuit of the American dream, echoing through the generations that followed. The Great Migration didn’t just move people; it moved a nation towards a more complex understanding of its moral and social fabric.

Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!