Other statutes in the state further reinforced the lower status of African Americans. Virginia state law required the separation of riders in railroad cars, on steamboats, and in streetcars. It also barred black and white children from attending the same schools and authorized the creation of "segregation districts" in cities. Under this law city councils were to prepare maps showing the boundaries of the segregated areas and detailing the numbers of white or black persons living within each segregation district. African Americans were not to move into white districts and whites were not to move into African American districts.
In the years leading up to the Great Migration, two-thirds of African Americans in the South lived in rural areas, working in lumber camps, as farm laborers, or as sharecroppers who rented land on which they grew crops to make a living. While cotton was the primary crop in most southern states, it did not dominate in Virginia, which was more agriculturally diversified through the cultivation of tobacco, wheat, and vegetables. This work provided a meager existence for most black laborers, who were fortunate when they earned enough merely to cover expenses for the year. But employment options were limited since access to the better-paying industrial jobs was not available to them.
Urban and Northern Realities
At the start of World War I, large numbers of African Americans made the decision to leave the South and to take advantage of new opportunities in the North. It is estimated that between 1910 and 1920 more than four hundred thousand people left, and that between 1920 and 1930 at least another half million people relocated north. A majority of these migrants were residents of Deep South states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where living conditions were particularly harsh. Floods, boll weevil attacks on cotton, lynchings, and segregation were among factors pushing them to leave. These migrants traveled either by boat up the Mississippi River or used the Illinois Central Railroad to go to Saint Louis, Missouri; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Chicago. Residents of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia who made the decision to leave used the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Southern Railway, or boats on the Ohio River for transport to Gary, Indiana; Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and Detroit, Michigan.
The pathway north was not usually a straight journey from southern rural locations to northern cities. Migrants made several stops along the way, often during the course of several months, before they reached their final destination. Most often the first move in this process of "step migration" was to towns and cities within their home state, particularly to places where job opportunities were expanding because of the war. In Virginia, Richmond and Norfolk experienced significant increases in African American residents during this period. Richmond's population grew by 12 percent and Norfolk's by more than 70 percent. Richmond was home to one of the largest locomotive plants in the world, a major flour mill, significant tobacco operations, and important iron manufacturing companies. Early in the war Norfolk was selected as one of the key embarkation points for troops and supplies going to Europe. As one of the primary naval bases on the Atlantic Coast, it needed workers. Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock, Texas Oil, and British-American Tobacco, among others, sought dock workers and laborers to help them manufacture and ship materials.
The chance to make more money and improve one's circumstances was a strong draw. African American workers hoped in the process to gain access to jobs in well-established companies that might stretch out into the future. For some this move met their expectations and they settled into their new lives for the long term, but for others this proved to be only a temporary stop. Whatever those residents found in these cities did not provide enough incentive to stay. A number of issues impacted the decision whether to stay or to go.
While some residents chose to protest to city officials, others decided to seek a new life elsewhere. For them the offer of better wages was just one of many factors that drew them north. Better educational opportunities and greater personal freedom also proved enticing. These factors made potential migrants more open to the encouragement of relatives, friends, and others in the North who suggested they relocate.
African American newspapers also served as sources of encouragement. The Chicago Defender, run by Robert S. Abbott, circulated widely throughout the nation and actively encouraged migration. It offered editorials and stories extolling the virtues of life in the North, and also included advertisements from northern companies highlighting their need for workers and noting the high wages they paid. The Pittsburgh Courier played a similar role in that city. In Virginia the Richmond Planet, operated by John Mitchell, strongly supported migration. Mitchell, who once was threatened with lynching, actively campaigned against it and also led a turn-of-the-century boycott of Richmond's streetcars. As a staunch opponent of segregation, he counseled African Americans to consider leaving rather than submit to mistreatment.
Letters sent home offered one avenue of updates about jobs, wages, and living conditions. Even better was the direct exchange of information when individuals either traveled to Philadelphia to visit or when visitors came south for special occasions. African American newspapers like the Norfolk Journal and Guide carried regular reports of these travels, illustrating a constant stream of people traveling between Norfolk and various locations in the North. The visits insured a consistent flow of information between southern residents and people they knew living in the North. This connection enabled Virginia residents to make informed decisions about where to go and the best times to leave if they hoped to optimize their chances of finding work.
Having family or friends to assist newcomers did not insure the success of the move. Migrants found a very different world in the North. While overall salaries were higher, migrants often were unable to get the higher-paying or more-skilled jobs. They primarily wound up in lower-paying positions as common laborers, stevedores, janitors, or warehousemen. Women most often worked as cooks, maids, and laundresses. Housing frequently was crowded with minimal sanitary conditions and the cost of living often was higher. It was not unusual for a family to live in a one- or two-room apartment or to share living accommodations with others. Predominantly African American enclaves like Harlem in New York, the South Side in Chicago, and the Seventh Ward in Philadelphia emerged as a consequence of the arrival of these waves of migrants.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Crew, S. R. The Great Migration. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Great_Migration_The.
- MLA Citation:
Crew, Spencer R. "The Great Migration." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 12, 2010 | Last modified: October 27, 2015