April 17, 2014

Wednesday Open Thread: The Great Migration

Happy Hump Day!

We continue to explore “The Great Migration” including paintings from the series of the same name by the great Jacob Lawrence.

The journey north was made by train, boat, bus, sometimes car, and even horse-drawn cart. It was most often a long, grueling experience; the travelers confronted segregated waiting rooms, buses, and train coaches, as well as unfamiliar procedures and unfriendly conductors. Very little food or drink was available. Fares were expensive, deterring many would-be migrants from making the trip. Regular passenger fares – 2¢ per mile in 1915 – skyrocketed within three years to 24¢ a mile. Rarely did young and old, able-bodied and dependent, parent and child migrate together. It was too expensive. Young men between eighteen and thirty-five who had worked as unskilled industrial laborers were usually the first to go. Many were married and had children and expected to reunite with their families as soon as they had “made their way.”

The reasons for leaving varied: “freedom and independence,” better wages, educational opportunities for their children. Still others intended to stay only long enough to save some money and return. One migrant, asked why she left the South, replied: “I left Georgia because I wanted better privileges.” Did that mean mixed schools and association with white people generally? “No,” she responded, “I don’t care nothing about that, but I just want to be somewhere where I won’t be scared all the time that something is going to break loose.”


Getting to “the Promised Land” did not come cheap, so many migrants made the journey in stages, stopping off and working in places in the South, then continuing on their way. This so-called step migration could take a very long time. Painter Jacob Lawrence recalled that his family was “moving up the coast, as many families were during that migration . . . . We moved up to various cities until we arrived – the last two cities I can remember before moving to New York were Easton, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia.”

During the early period, northern employers assisted the migrants with transportation. Their agents gave out travel passes whose cost was often deducted from future wages. These agents, who were paid a flat fee for each worker they produced, were selective, favoring those who appeared in good health, men over women, the young over the old.

The railroads, in dire need of workers to transport war material and maintain the rail lines, were among the first employers to recruit. In the summer of 1916, the Pennsylvania Railroad brought sixteen thousand southern African Americans north to do unskilled labor. The agents from the Illinois Central Railroad issued passes to bring workers to Chicago. Other industries central to the burgeoning war economy, such as the steel mills, made great and unprecedented promises to prospective African-American employees. These workers were poor and eager to take advantage of any opportunity. “Just give us a chance” was their common refrain.

So many southerners made their way north on their own that employers soon cut back on travel passes. Meanwhile, local authorities were trying to deny the agents access to the black community. In some cases, their passes were not honored at the depots. On many occasions, travelers were pulled off trains to prevent them from leaving the South. Many African-Americans were threatened, beaten and families harmed to prevent them from leaving the south.

The real opportunity for African-American workers came during World War I, when immigrants from European countries ceased and labor demand was at an all-time high. Factory managers in these circumstances had to hire African-American job-seekers in order to keep their plants running. Mass production lines, because they did not require special education or great skill, enabled unskilled and semi-skilled Black migrants to “make good” on this opportunity almost immediately. Whereas in 1910 only 183 Blacks in the entire nation were employed in the auto industry, by 1920 there were eight thousand Black auto workers in Detroit alone. By 1923 no fewer than five hundred Detroit firms employed African-Americans. Ford was the largest employer, having sixteen thousand African-Americans on its payroll in 1925. The city government employed 2,745 African-Americans in 1926, including 486 in the Post Office and 2,200 in the Department of Public Works, most of whom worked as street-cleaners or did minor repair work.

Not surprisingly, the blatant discrimination that kept African-Americans out of factory jobs before the war did not disappear simply because labor was in short supply. Although more jobs were now available to Blacks, they were usually the jobs with the longest hours and most grueling duties. Employers used stereotypes about Black migrants to justify placing them in the least desirable positions. Some employers gave Blacks the toughest assembly line jobs, claiming that African-Americans were faster than anyone else at performing “rhythmic tasks.” Others, conversely, complained that the African-American worker was “too slow. He does not make the speed that the routine of efficient industry demands. He is lacking in the regularity demanded by the routine of industry day by day. Employers also complained of a disinclination on the part of migrants to work outside in cold weather. Some employers used this stereotype as an excuse to put all Blacks in the hottest jobs in the factories, while construction companies often used it to justify excluding Blacks altogether.

Stereotypes also kept African-Americans out of skilled positions. Although Blacks by the mid 1920s could find work in a few skilled and semi-skilled trades, as molders, riveters, furnace operators, cement finishers, machine operators, plasterers, brick layers, carpenters, and motor men on streetcars, most skilled migrants had to accept jobs in the North that were beneath their skill levels. To make matters worse, African-American natives of Detroit who had held skilled positions before the migration were often unable to convince white employers that they were skilled enough to hold on to those positions. As a result, Northern-raised Blacks often resented the southern newcomers. “These damn southern `niggers’ have spoiled the jobs for all of us,” complained one skilled Negro molder. “Some of us used to have good jobs here, but so many unskilled niggers from the South have come in that none of us have a chance now. They think we are all the same. I used to do all sorts of skilled molding but now I’m kept on the machines.

By contrast, unskilled workers who migrated were likely to see their employment opportunities improved as a result of the move. When demand was high, almost all migrants could find jobs as garbage workers, construction laborers, excavators, dishwashers, packers, sweepers, yard workers, car unloaders, paper balers, street repairers, alley cleaners and morgue attendants. Though the hours were longer than those worked by members of other ethnic groups in the North, they were still shorter than the hours migrants had worked in the South. And although a higher cost of living in the North as compared to the South lessened the impact of higher wages on the family budget, migrants still took home more pay in real terms than they had prior to the move.

The advances made in employment of Blacks were neither universal nor permanent, however. African-American women did not experience the gains that men did: throughout the 1910s and 1920s they could find few jobs beyond those of domestics, day workers and laundry workers. As far as factory jobs were concerned, African-American women were the last hired and the first fired. Even Black men lost any advantages they had gained when the supply of Black workers exceeded the demand for labor.

Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series (1940–41), a sequence of 60 paintings, depicts the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World War I and World War II—a development that had received little previous public attention. Lawrence spent months distilling the subject into captions and preliminary drawings and preparing 60 boards with the help of his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight. He created the paintings in tempera, a water-base paint that dries rapidly. To keep the colors consistent, Lawrence applied one hue at a time to every painting where it was to appear, requiring him to plan all 60 paintings in detail at once. The series was the subject of a solo show at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan in 1941, making Lawrence the first black artist represented by a New York gallery. Interest in the series was intense. Ultimately, The Phillips Collection and New York’s Museum of Modern Art agreed to divide it, with the Phillips buying the odd-numbered paintings.

Read more about The Great Migration:

Detroit and The Great Migration, 1916 – 1929

The Great Migration


  • acklebee

    amazing artist and history