Go to the Digital Library top page!

Social Studies

Click here to go to Great Migration introduction

Lecture Menu > The Great Migration

12. Measuring the Great Migration

By the 1960s, the economists had become sufficiently interested in the Great Migration to develop equations, and that I definitely do not suggest that you try to do with your students, you know multiple regression equations.

One particularly diligent young scholar, from the University of Chicago in fact, created an equation that would allow him to measure a wide variety of variables across time and space in the South and the North to find the most significant factor. But he decided that since racial discrimination was always present in the South and it can't be measured, it couldn't have caused the Great Migration. Well, see it falls out of the equation: it's a constant [laughter] so it can't explain anything, it's a constant. Now it never occurred to him that even though racial discrimination was always there, it might have changed its shape, it might have changed in degree, it might have changed in spatial dynamics. But as far as he was concerned it was a constant. And in fact I once, he was a student here in the 1960s I think, and I once asked John Hope Franklin, who taught African American history and Southern history at the University of Chicago, how this guy could possibly have done this and he just looked at me and said, "he never talked to me," [laughter] he said, "he never came into my office."

Now another economist, this one out at Stanford, took a different tack. Based not on what the economist could measure but on what the migrant could measure, so you still have to measure. She came up with the following, which I again suggest you don't try to teach to your students as a model approach. "Dealing with a particular case of poor, unskilled laborers, it is surmised that the non-pecuniary attributes of the residential environment constitute luxury items in the consumption basket, and thus are largely beyond the effective consideration of the analyzed population." In other words, poor people respond only to economic motivation, poor people can't think about anything else.

Now, oddly enough, I think that this economist was on the right track. In terms of trying to think about history in a particular way that I think is useful, to try to get your students to think about history, not just the Great Migration. She was asking the humanist question but was locked into the economist way of answering. If we are to understand what these newcomers to northern cities did when they arrived and hence their politics, their religious institutions, their decisions regarding work, leisure, family, residence, whatever, we need to separate what you might call the macrohistorical, the larger historical question of causation, which as I said, I think in this case it's pretty easy even without the equation, and the more slippery concept of motivation which is actually what she was getting at. What she was trying to get at is how could she quantify, how could she figure out what it is that made people do what they did.

Amiri Baraka has put it, I think, in a very interesting, very straightforward way saying that we need to recognize that migration was a decision, a decision to leave the South, not a historical imperative. In other words, not something that something called history said they had to do but a human decision, something people had to mull over in their minds. What were these people thinking? Why did they make a decision to leave a familiar world? And that again goes back to these letters. That's where a source like these letters can help you try, at least begin to do, to try and figure out what is going through these people's minds.

«previous 12 of 30 next »

Need help searching?
Search help

Search eCUIP:

Examples: or
Contact eCUIP!

Need help?

Return to the eCUIP top page!