The Great Migration: Chicago

migration 1 onthemove

Thousands Flee the South for Chicago

Between 1915 and 1970, six to seven million African Americans left their mostly rural homes in the South to start new lives in the cities of the North, Midwest and West. Many moved to Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Often, they followed the train lines.

These immigrants had strong reasons to flee the South.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, state legislatures throughout the South had  passed laws to limit liberties of blacks and to keep the races socially separate–in marriage, housing, education, healthcare and government. Known as Jim Crow, these laws, combined with social mores of the times, created a racial caste system.

Blacks had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, couldn’t contradict a white person or speak first, were relegated to the lowliest jobs, had sub-par schools and were virtually barred from social/financial upward mobility. Even though black men had been legally granted the right to vote in the 15th Amendment, (ratified on February 3, 1870), they were dissuaded from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and out-right physical violence. Without being registered voters, black men could not serve on juries; and, thus, those accused of crimes had little chance of a fair trial from all-white juries.

Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable. … They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left. — Isabel Wilkerson

Migrants fled Jim Crow laws to more racially tolerant cities. They fled for the right to vote. They fled for the chance to make something of themselves. They fled to take jobs in the burgeoning manufacturing sectors–jobs that had now opened up due to WWI, as borders were closed to European immigrant workers and many white males workers joined the fight “over there”.

And they fled in fear.

Lynchings were again on the rise in the South. Fear of losing their cheap labor, and increased resistance spurred by disgruntled sharecroppers and returning black servicemen, spurred white Southerners to a campaign of terror.

“Every time a lynching takes place in a community down south you can depend on it that colored people from that community will arrive in Chicago inside of two weeks.”  — Secretary Arnold Hill of the Chicago Urban League (As quoted in Carl Sandburg’s book The Chicago Race Riots)

So many black men, women and children were murdered in race riots in 25 towns across the country from April – October 1919, (especially in the September 1919 Elaine massacre in Hoop Spur, Arkansas), that the summer of 1919 was named “The Red Summer”.

Chicago: Beulah Land

Chicago already had an established black community going back to the 1840s. And in fact, Chicago was founded by a black man–Jean Baptiste Point du Sable–who started a muddy settlement on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1770s.

Between 1916-1918, at least 110,00 migrated to Chicago alone, nearly tripling the city’s black population. At its height, ten thousand blacks every month overflowed the Chicago railroad platforms and overwhelmed the already crowded Black Belt. Ultimately, more than 500,000 Great Migration immigrants settled in Chicago.

There was an almost reverant attraction for Chicago, as divinely inspired deliverance from the land of suffering, likened to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It was viewed as “The Promised Land” and called “Beulah Land”.

Employers, Relatives and the Chicago Defender

Early on, companies sent recruiters to encourage black workers to come for factory jobs, sometimes even paying train fare. Southern towns eventually taxed labor agents out and word of mouth drove enough new labor that businesses no longer needed to offer incentives.

“Pioneer” immigrants wrote glowing letters of ample and high-paying job opportunities, sent back photos of themselves in fancy clothes and sometimes even traveled back to bring their families North. These “migration chains” linked Chicago with many southern communities, especially in Mississippi.

Declaring May 15, 1917 as the date of the “Great Northern Drive,” the Chicago Defender waged an aggressive recruitment campaign, reporting lynchings in detail and and lauding life in the North. The newspaper listed jobs and trains schedule to facilitate relocation. With a circulation of over 100,000, the Defender was the country’s premiere black newspaper, with a large Southern readership, and is credited with driving thousands of Southern readers to move North.

Travel by Train

The Illinois Central train line ran directly from New Orleans through Jackson, Mississippi to Chicago, so many new Chicagoans heralded from Mississippi. It was not always easy to get away. Blacks were forcibly removed from the trains and their tickets torn to shreds by white landowners fighting to keep their labor in place. To escape, blacks walked miles to the next town so they would not be recognized, often under cover of darkness. When the trains crossed the Mason-Dixon line, black travelers murmured prayers or a few even flexed their new-found freedom by moving into train cars that just minutes before were deemed segregated by law.


Adjusting to City Life

Train travelers were met by family members or former townspeople. Sometimes whole congregations moved to Chicago en masse, forming an instant network. The newly established Chicago Urban League often met travelers at the train station, first, to help them find housing and jobs; and, secondly, to help with employer problems and to better assimilate into their new surroundings.

The adjustments were huge. Rural blacks were not used to the crowded conditions, indoor factory work, constant noise and cold winters. There was also an inherent cultural difference. In the Jim Crow south, for example, a black woman seeking maid work would be viewed as “uppity” if she arrived at an interview dressed in nice attire. She was supposed to arrive “dressed to work.” Yet, in the North, if she arrived at a job interview dressed in her work clothes, she was viewed as unprofessional and not really wanting the job as she didn’t even bother to make herself presentable.

The Chicago Urban League held “Stranger Meetings,” where black club women secured pledges from migrants to dress and act appropriately in public. They distributed a “Self-Help” handout listing rules: Do not loaf. Get a job at once. Do not carry on loud conversations in street cars and public places. Do not keep your children out of school. Cleanliness and fresh air are necessary for good health.

Still Far to Go

Although the migrants enjoyed more freedoms and better paying jobs than in the South, living in Chicago was not exactly as rosy as relatives and newspapers painted it to be. These newly relocated blacks were forced into already overcrowded, over-priced and under-kept tenement housing in Chicago’s “Bronzeville” neighborhood.

Despite the best efforts of the League, the Defender and the established middle class, the influx of such a large number of rural, mostly uneducated blacks raised racial tensions, especially with Irish gangs who viewed them as competition for jobs and housing. Violence and discrimination ran rampant. August of 1919 would push opposing sides to the breaking point.



The Warmth of Other Suns; Isabel Wilkerson

On the Laps of Gods; Robert Whitaker

Chicago and the Great Migration, 1915-1950; Hana Layson with Kenneth Warren; The Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom

Great Migration;

Great Migration; Encyclopedia of Chicago,

Newspapers: The Chicago Defender, Founder Editor Robert S. Abbott;



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s