Written By: Audrey Perry Williams, President
Hampton Roads Branch, ASALH
Human migration is the movement by people from one place to another with the intention of settling, permanently or temporarily, in a new location. The movement is often over long distances and from one country to another, but internal migration is also possible.
ASALH’s 2019 theme for Black History Month, Black Migrations, emphasizes the movement of people of African descent to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities. While inclusive of earlier centuries, this theme focuses especially on the Twentieth Century through today. Beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, African-American migration patterns included relocation from southern farms to southern cities; from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West; from the Caribbean to US cities, as well as to migrant labor farms.
ASALH’s theme for the 400th Commemoration of the First Landing of Africans in English- Occupied Territory is “400 Years of Perseverance: 1619-2019.”
Let’s look at the Great Migration during the 20th Century to see the status of African-Americans after almost 300 years of perseverance.
The Forced Migration—The Middle Passage
African-Americans were the subjects of different migration periods in our history. Before we can discuss the Great Migration of the Twentieth Century, which is broken down into two periods, we must discuss the Forced Migration of our African Ancestors, which was a negative form of migration, resulting in oppression, persecution, and exploitation.
The largest and most devastating Forced Migration in human history was the African slave trade. In the 360 years between 1500 and the end of the slave trade in the 1860’s, 12 to 30 million Africans were taken from their homes and transported to various parts of North America, Latin America, and the Middle East. Those Africans were taken against their will and forced to relocate.
These first enslaved Africans in English-occupied territory landed at Point Comfort, present day Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA on August 25, 1619. They did not land at Jamestown, a misconception that is still being taught by historians. If you say the Virginia Colony is the location of the First Landing, then that is acceptable, but not the Jamestown Colony. Jamestown was a settlement and so was Point Comfort. Both were settlements in the Virginia Colony.
This, the largest forced migration in human history, relocated 50 ethnic and linguistic groups. Only a small portion of the enslaved – less than half a million – were sent to North America. The majority went to South America and the Caribbean. In the mid-1600’s, Africans outnumbered Europeans in emerging cities such as Mexico, Havana and Lima.
This journey across the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and the Americas was known as the Middle Passage. It could take from 4-6 weeks but sometimes lasted between 2-3 months. The Africans were chained and in crowded conditions with no room to move. They were forced to make this journey under terrible conditions, naked and lying in filth, the abhorrent conditions resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 to 2 million men, women and children in route to the New World.
Knowing these conditions that existed, how can anyone say that the first Africans in English- occupied territory voluntarily migrated to this country, which has been voiced by some politicians and others. Kanye West stated that “slavery was a choice.” This is not a true statement. Our ancestors did not come willingly; they were kidnapped and forced from their homeland.
The Great Migration (First Period -1910-1940)
Some historians divide the Great Migration (voluntary) into two periods: the first from 1910 to 1940, numbering roughly two million migrants, and the second from 1940 to 1970. (Scholars differ on these dates.) Not only was the Second Migration larger, with five million or more African-Americans relocating, but the demographics differed, with migrants moving to different destinations.
During the Second Great Migration, many moved from Texas and Louisiana to California, where there was a new range of jobs in the defense industry. This period was one of the largest voluntary migrations of African-Americans in the history of the United States.
From 1910 to 1970, approximately 6-7 million African-Americans migrated from the Southern United States to the Northeast, Mid-West, and Western states in search of a better life. They were fleeing a world where they were restricted to the most menial of jobs, underpaid if paid at all, and frequently barred from voting. Between 1880 and 1950, an African-American was lynched more than once a week for some perceived breach of the racial hierarchy.
The first period’s major reason for leaving the South, 1910-1930, was work, both lack of it and for better opportunities. World War I was creating jobs at factories and railroad companies in the North, thus creating a demand for workers. African-Americans also left the South due to lynching, discrimination, segregation, and the denial of basic human rights. Another reason was an insect known as the boll weevil, which damaged crops throughout the South between 1910 and 1920. As a result of the boll weevil’s work, there was less of a demand for agricultural workers, leaving many African-Americans unemployed.
When the United States decided to enter World War I, factories in Northern and Midwestern cities faced extreme labor shortages for several reasons.
First, more than five million men had enlisted in the army. Secondly, the United States government had halted immigration from European countries.
Since many African-Americans in the South had been severely affected by the shortage of agricultural work, they responded to the call of employment agents from cities in the North and Midwest. Agents from various industrial sectors arrived in the South, enticing African-American men and women to migrate North by paying their travel expenses. The demand for workers, incentives from industry agents, better educational and housing options, as well as higher pay, brought many African-Americans from the South. For instance, in Chicago, a man could earn $2.50 per day in a meat packing house or $5 per day on an assembly line in Detroit.
During the first period of the Great Migration, African-Americans settled in urban areas such as New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. As they settled in communities filled with people of the same race, many found job opportunities which led to an increase in prosperity and overall sophistication. It was the most massive internal migration in American history.