In 1910, 83% of African Americans lived in the South, about the same percentage that had lived there since at least as far back as 1790.
In the 60 years that followed, growing racism and a lack of economic opportunities in the South led more than 6 million African Americans to migrate north. The pull northward was also compounded by World War I, which boosted the demand for northern industry, but left the North with a shortage of workers.
By 1970, the percentage of African Americans living in the South had fallen to just 40%.
This mass exodus of African Americans to the North, known today as The Great Migration, represents perhaps the largest demographic shift in American history. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes:
“What started as a march of the impatient, became a rite of passage, and would become the biggest under-reported story of the 20th Century”
Visualizing the Great Migration
Bubble size = % of the country’s African American population.
As the map shows, migrants from the South were particularly attracted to the North’s big cities: Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. To this day, more African Americans live in Chicago than in the state of Mississippi.
The Warmth of Other Suns recounts an examination by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations regarding African American perceptions of the North. The responses offer some insight into the racist climate that persisted in the South as well as the challenges black Americans faced acclimating to urban life in the North.
Do you feel greater freedom and independence in Chicago? In what ways?
- Yes. Feel free to do anything I please. Not dictated to by white people.
- Yes. Can vote; no lynching; no fear of mobs; can express my opinion and defend myself.
- Freedom of speech and action. Can live without fear, no Jim Crow.
- The schools for the children, the better wages, and the privileges for colored people.
- The people, the freedom and liberty colored people enjoy here that they never before experienced.
What difficulties do you think a person from the South meets in coming to Chicago?
- Getting accustomed to cold weather and flats.
- Rooming and “closeness” of the houses.
- Growing accustomed to being treated like people.
- Getting used to the ways of the people; not speaking or being friendly; colder weather, hard on people from the South.
- I know of no difficulties.
Are you advising friends to come to Chicago?
- Yes. People down here don’t really believe the things we write back; I didn’t believe myself until I got here.
- No. I am not going to encourage them to come, for they might not make it, then I would be blamed.
- Wish all the colored folks would come up here where you ain’t afraid to breathe.
The Great Migration is truly an incredible story, worth reading more about if you are not familiar with it. Considering the profound influence it had (and continues to have) on countless aspects of American life, it’s amazing that the Great Migration is not a better known part of American history.
My latest project is launching soon: Blueshift, a platform for designing and publishing dynamic maps for the web. If you'd like to give it a try, request a pre-launch invitation.
- Thanks to Daniel Barnekow (who also made this cool site: Overlap Maps) for the suggestion to look into this topic.
- Since the publication of The Warmth of Other Suns in 2010, there have been several good articles online about the Great Migration. If you would like to read more about it, here are a few: Priceonomics, The New Yorker, NPR.
- Data for the map comes from the Decennial Census, IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota, www.ipums.org.
- Other sources show different breakdowns between the North and South, depending on how the South is defined. The 12 states used here are based on this analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
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