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Major Migrations of the U.S. Population, Black Migration

grandfather clauses, Rust Belt cities, poll taxes, boll weevil, sharecroppers

After the Civil War the majority of African Americans continued to live in the South, where most farmed as sharecroppers or tenants. A smaller number were ministers, teachers, doctors, and nurses. This way of life eventually broke down for several reasons. African Americans in the South were confronted daily with the many indignities of segregation, which the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled constitutional in 1896. Their opportunities for employment were restricted, their schools were second-rate, and their voting rights were trampled by policies such as literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and primary elections that were open to whites only. Then in the late 1890s, the boll weevil began to spread through the South, destroying the cotton crop that sustained most black families. African Americans began to leave the South. Entire communities moved to Northern cities, drawn by the possibility of industrial jobs, better schools, and fewer legal restrictions. The pace of black migration increased substantially during World War I, when employers in Northern cities experienced labor shortages. By 1920, 450,000 blacks had moved north. Three out of four of those could be found in Detroit; Cleveland; Chicago; Philadelphia; New York; Indianapolis, Indiana; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Southern employers opposed this great exodus of black Americans from the South and tried to keep their laborers by persuasion or force. African Americans who moved north also often met hostility. Race riots were triggered by whites who feared competition for jobs and residential integration, particularly in the years of labor unrest following World War I. Through fear and discriminatory rental and hiring policies these violent episodes served to confine blacks to segregated ghettos within cities. Still, the migration continued, aided by effects of the 1930s depression in the South and by the jobs and high wages that came with World War II and the early Cold War.

Young adults typically led the way to the North, and other family members would follow once the first venturer found work and housing. It often happened that small, rural communities would recreate themselves in the urban North, living in the same neighborhoods and worshiping at a single church. The migration ended in the 1960s when the successes of the civil rights movement reduced the differences between Northern and Southern racial attitudes. In the 1990s some Northern blacks left the Rust Belt cities behind and moved back to a revitalized South, with its newer cities and expanded job opportunities.

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