The Exodus of African Americans From the South: 1916-1970



Black History Month Feature
By Chaitram Aklu

Black Migrations is the theme of this year’s Black History Month celebrations. Proclaimed in February 1976, Black History Month honors the history and contributions of African Americans in the development of the United States.

The U.S Civil War ended in 1865 and the passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment lawfully ended slavery in the U.S. The 14th Amendment ratified July 28, 1868 grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and forbids any state to deny any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Further Freedmen (all former slaves) had equal rights with all other citizens. The 15th Amendment passed in 1870 guaranteed African American men the right to vote and that right could not be taken by any state.

Yet in spite of emancipation being the law of the land, and the guarantees provided by the Constitution, very little had changed for African Americans in the Southern states. These states “had full control of the political, legislative, judicial, and executive machinery.” And they immediately began to enact Black Codes and other laws to force segregation and ensure the disenfranchisement of black voters.

Between 1860 and 1870 there were 360 000 deaths in the North and 260 000 deaths in the South – casualties of the Civil War. During the same period there was a 73 percent increase in wealth in the North while there was a 48 percent decrease in the South. Conditions in the South declined significantly and continued to deteriorate while life in the North improved. Some five million African Americans from the rural South migrated to urban/industrial areas of the North and West between 1916 and 1970.

Between 1870 and 1965 there were numerous Jim Crow laws – laws that enforced racial segregation between 1877 when reconstruction ended, and the 1950s when the civil rights movement began. There were the Poll Tax, Property Test, Literacy Test, Grandfather Clause, and White Primary Elections.

Tennessee was the first state to pass Jim Crow laws – 20 beginning in 1866, six of which required school segregation. Other Jim Crow laws that were passed included separate schools (1870) and separate seats in railroad cars (1891) in Georgia; unequal spending for education (1915) in South Carolina; no funding for schools not segregated (1965) in Louisiana. Data shows that there was great disparity in education spending for Whites and African Americans by 1910 in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.

By the beginning of the 1900s floods devastated farms on an increasing frequency because of the failure of the Federal government to build or maintain levees. The boll weevil which first appeared in the US in Texas in 1892 spread hundreds of miles each year and destroyed the cotton crops. Carter G. Woodson wrote in 1918: “The damage it does varies according to the rainfall and the harshness of the winter, increasing with the former and decreasing with the latter. At times the damage has been to the extent of a loss of 50 percent, of the crop, estimated at 400,000 bales of cotton annually, about 4,500,000 bales since the invasion or $250,000,000 worth of cotton.”

There was grave injustice in the Southern courts for African Americans and many of them paid with their lives. Never mind the 14th Amendment guarantees. Ida B. Wells Barnett estimated that 5 000 were lynched between 1882 and 1968. Isabel Wilkerson, reported in the Smithsonian in 2016 that “between 1880 and 1950, an African American was lynched more than once a week for some perceived breach of racial hierarchy.”

And status did not matter. Thurgood Marshall, the Civil Rights lawyer who represented black clients in the South, and appointed the first African American Justice on the Supreme Court n 1967, recalled in a television interview how he escaped being lynched during one of his trips to the South. He was waiting on the platform of a train station. He said a white man in plainclothes came up to him with a big pistol and said, “What are you doing here boy? And I said well I’m waiting on the train. And he said what did you say boy because I did not say ‘Sir’? I said, sir, I am waiting for the train to Louisiana, Shreveport. And he said, well, there’s only one more train comes through here and that’s four o’clock and you’d better be on it because the sun is never going set on no live Nigger in this town.”

There was little opportunity for quality education for African Americans. Land owners treated black tenants harshly and unfairly, Children had to join their parents during harvesting time laboring in the fields. This explains why school vacation begins in May and ends in August in the South. It guarantees maximum availability of labor during the crop harvesting season.

The onset of the WW I led to food shortages and sent food prices skyrocketing. Add to this was the destruction of crops by floods and the boll weevil. At the same time there was an increasing demand for workers in the industrializing North created by working men for leaving to fight in the war. By then agents from the North were frequenting the South to recruit workers.

The Southerners saw the opportunity of a better life in Northern and Midwestern cities and they began the first wave of the Great Migration. There was guaranteed employment even though it meant changing from an agrarian way of life to an urban/industrial way of life. Moving North also meant better housing, children were able to go to school and they could not be prevented from voting.

Still Southerners arriving in the North faced problems which they had to overcome. There was overcrowding as the influx of migrants overwhelmed existing accommodations. Northern workers saw the massive numbers of new arrivals as competitors and resented them. For example between 1916 and 1930 one million migrants had arrived in Northern and Midwestern cities. To overcome their problems they looked to their church which provided safety and guidance for families.

Jacob Lawrence the great African American painter who paid tribute to this unprecedented movement in a 60-panel artwork entitled the Migration of the Negro, told the story of the suffering in the South and the problems the migrants encountered when they arrived in the North between 1916 and 1919. Lawrence who was born in New Jersey became interested in the stories his mother told him about life in the South. In an art essay in 1992 he wrote, “My family left the South on quest for freedom, justice and dignity. If our story runs true for you today, then it must still strike a chord in our American experience.”

Between 1916 and 1970 a total of some five million Southerners had left the rural South for cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York, Detroit, Cleveland and other cities. This massive movement brought about a significant change in the human geography of both Northern and Southern states. Statistics show that “the black population in New York increased 66 percent between 1910 and 1920. Chicago’s increased 148 percent, Cleveland’s 307 percent, Detroit’s 611 percent, and Gary Indiana’s 1,283 percent.”

The Great Migration wave subsided after the long fight against Jim Crow laws led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.