Beginning in the late 18th century, black Americans began the transformation from a largely rural, Southern culture to a highly urbanized population. The journey North reflected African Americans’ continual pursuit of improved economic opportunities and social justice.
The first wave of black migration followed the Civil War and the end of slavery. Many African Americans equated relocation with the beginning of new lives as free citizens. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, Florence and Gabriel’s mother was born into slavery, and following her freedom “it occurred to her that there was no longer any reason to tarry here. She…walked out through the big gate, never to see that country any more.”
The late 18th and early 19th century continued as a period of primarily rural-to-rural migration: many freed slaves sought industrial jobs such as mining the Tennessee coalfields, harvesting lumber or working on the railroads. By 1910 nearly 90 percent of black Americans still lived in the South. Twenty-six-year-old Florence, however, had a “deep ambition” to head North, and in 1900 she would have been among a small population of African Americans in New York.
It was not until the years following World War I that black migration to Northern cities including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia began to increase dramatically. Factory and labor jobs were plentiful in these cities due to wartime restrictions on European immigration and an increased need for manufactured goods. With African Americans continuing to face racial oppression and limited job prospects in the South, many viewed the North as a “Promised Land” of opportunity. Migration fever spread through family correspondence, news from railroad employees and black weekly newspapers. One such paper, the Chicago Defender, played a crucial role in encouraging migration by comparing injustices against African Americans in the South with glowing images of everything Northern cities had to offer, from jobs to entertainment to education. Calling itself the “World’s Greatest Weekly,” the Defender was widely read throughout the South and proved so influential that many families arrived in other cities with images of Chicago in mind.
Between 1917 and 1920, 700,000 to 1 million African Americans left the South with another 800,000 to 1 million heading North during the 1920s. By 1930, the decade in which Go Tell It on the Mountain is set, the black population in Chicago had increased fivefold to 234,000 and New York’s had tripled to 328,000.
Despite the Defender’s encouragement of migration, African Americans still faced racial segregation and violence in Northern cities. Discrimination in the housing market contributed to the rise of urban ghettos such as Harlem, and race riots occurred in cities such as Chicago and East St. Louis. Black unions, mutual aid societies and other organizations, especially churches, played important roles in strengthening black communities and confronting racism.
Like the characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain, millions of black Americans sought to improve their lives by moving North during the Great Migration. As the 20th century progressed, African Americans would become one of the country’s most urbanized populations.
- Grossman, James R. “Great Migration.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
- Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and the Great Migration. University of Chicago Press, 1989.
- Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America. Knopf, 1991.
- Trotter, Joe W. Jr. “Migration: U.S. Migration/Population.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Thomson Gale, 2006.
Content last updated: April 30, 2007