It began between 1916 and 1918, when more than 400,000 southern blacks went north; at times, entire communities and church organizations packed up and moved virtually intact to New York, Detroit, Chicago and other northern cities. During the next 50 years, net migration of blacks from the South totaled over five million, with additional millions leaving but returning after a relatively short stay. In 1900, 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South, compared with about 50 percent by 1970.
Substantial migrations had occurred before--for example, the movement to the Oklahoma Territory between 1890 and 1910-- but nothing on the scale of the mass exodus of 1916¿1918. Northern industry, newly deprived of immigrant labor from Europe by World War I, precipitated the migration, but conditions in the South made migration possible. At the time, southern blacks were coping with the devastating effect of the boll weevil on the cotton crop, which had thrown hundreds of thousands off the land. Industrialization in the South, much of it financed by northern interests, made obsolete many black-dominated occupations, such as blacksmithing. Meanwhile importation of cheap goods from the North had eliminated local manufacturing firms and, with them, jobs. Expanding Jim Crow laws further oppressed blacks.
This article was originally published with the title The Great Migration.