Go to the Digital Library top page!

Social Studies

Click here to go to Great Migration introduction

Lecture Menu > The Great Migration

20. Historical Perspectives

So here again, it's worth thinking about what constitutes history. With the benefit of hindsight and multiple sources we know, as historians, we can look at these sources, we can do all kinds of neat analysis, and we can learn that in fact it was very difficult for most white southerners to accumulate land. It was very difficult if you were a white southerner to gain any kind of mobility, and in fact it was nearly as difficult for white southerners as it was for black.

We know that because of the fancy analysis that we can do. The folks who are good with numbers can do that. We also know that, not only because there have been numbers, but we know that during this period that textile labor, textile mill labor was plentiful and it was cheap and it was all white. So why were all these southern white folks eager to work in these awful textile mills for virtually no money, breathing this awful air, having their children work, their wives work, was largely because mobility into land ownership was very difficult; this was a way to make a living.

But again, thinking this other way about history, about how it looks to people at the time, what actually matters is not what whites actually could do, what really matters is what black southerners thought whites could do; because that tells us what they think of how the system works. And the poorest whites, who were most likely to fall into tenancy or to head to the mills, lived in the Upcountry, which is where black folks didn't live. So the white southerners that black southerners had some familiarity with, were the ones in fact who were able to make it.

And, black southerners had evidence that African-Americans could make it in the North. They read black newspapers; they read letters from friends describing a world in which black men, and then beginning in 1920, black women could vote; they earned enough money; they had a sense that black northerners earned enough money to live in homes that were larger, better equipped, than southern urban or rural black homes. The sense that northern black children went to school for nine months every year. And one of the reasons for this is that if you think about it, once people start moving to the north, which people did start doing in modest numbers in the 1890s, who goes back home to visit; the people who make it, right? If you leave Mississippi and you go to Chicago in 1913, and it's 1915-1916 and you're going back to visit, it means that you've either done pretty well or you pretend you've done pretty well.

[Female voice] Was there any real, serious re-migration ____ that they found that they didn't?

Very few people go back; people who don't make it in Chicago go somewhere else. There is considerable movement around--within the North. And one reason for that is that, there is the selectivity of migration. The people who leave the South during this period are really people who want to leave the South. So going back is--they have very little intention to go back so there's very little return migration. In fact, after the Chicago race riots, when you would think people would go back in 1919, the Urban League sent someone to stand at the railroad stations and count people and they counted two hundred and fifty some-odd people. So, even when you would think people would be heading back in 1919, when people were losing their jobs, when people were getting killed--beat up on the streets of Chicago, there aren't a whole lot of people going back.

«previous 20 of 30 next »

Need help searching?
Search help

Search eCUIP:

Examples: or
Contact eCUIP!

Need help?

Return to the eCUIP top page!