The Great Migration Is Forgotten By Most People 

The Great Migration not only shaped the history of Alabama, but it also helped to shape the history of the United States.

However, the facts surrounding these events remain to this day one of the best kept secrets in Alabama, as well as the rest of the country.

The Great MigrationThe Great Migration

While this event is known to some people, there are very few that know that it has happened not just once, but on three separate occasions, and the third is very recent.

Both the first Great Migration as well as the second not only shaped our political and economic scenarios, it also shaped the social and cultural scene as well.

The History of the Great Migration

Map of The Great MigrationMap of The Great Migration

According to most historians, the first Great Migration started in the year 1915 and ran until the beginning of World War II in 1940, and the second ran from 1942 until 1970.

Both of these events had one major theme in common; millions of African Americans moved from the southern states to northern and western states.

Alabama was hit especially hard by this mass exodus, as it had huge impacts on cities like Birmingham and Montgomery.

History shows us that these blacks moving were trying to escape life under the Jim Crow segregation laws, which were so oppressive in the south at the time.

Most historians estimate that during the first Great Migration, over 1.7 million African Americans left their homes in the south to move to the faster growing metropolitan areas located in the north and the west.

The towns in the north included Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.

The towns in the west that saw the effects of this exodus included Seattle, Los Angeles as well as other towns located in California.

In the early stages of the first Great Migration, those fleeing the south found two of their major objectives; political and economic freedom.

However, they also found that in most all cases, the living conditions they were forced to live in were nothing short of horrendous.  

The real triggering point to this first Great Migration centered of three major factors; economic and political oppression, as well as ecological depression.

While the northern and western parts of the United States were thriving during the early part of the 1900’s, the south was really struggling.

This was especially true in states like Alabama, were African Americans faced several factors such as legal segregation, as well as out right discrimination.

However, with the growth and activity of the Ku Klux Klan, they were also facing severe voting challenges, as well as beatings and even death by lynching.

The Great Migration From the SouthThe Great Migration From the South

But to add insult to injury during this time period, they also faced severe ecological depression as well.

The vast majority of blacks in the south during the first Great Migration were either sharecroppers or tenant farmers, and Mother Nature also hit them very hard.

In the year 1909, the south was hit by massive flooding, only to be followed one year later by a huge boll weevil infestation, as a result of these floods.

As the rural parts of the south were struggling to survive, the northern and western states were exploding.

Both areas of the country were experiencing rapid industrialization but were faced with a massive shortage of workers.

To attract the blacks in the south to move to these areas, several industries reached out to the black leaders in these states for help.

However, the jobs in the northern and western states were not the final triggering point for the first Great Migration, as there were others as well.

They included the opportunity to own a home for the first time, as well as better education and a chance to finally affect public policy.

The blacks in the southern states, including Alabama, had been suppressed for so long in any type of real voting, that they seized this opportunity to let their voices be heard through the ballot box.

However, there was one other major factor that caused the shortage of workers in these states during this economic boom, the suppression of European immigrants.

Because of World War I, the country had virtually stopped immigration from Europe, which only added to the lack of workers in these booming states.

African American leaders in these states, especially the northern ones, also acted as inspiration and role models for the blacks in the south.

This list was headed by two Alabama natives, Oscar De Priest, and Arthur Mitchell.

Oscar De Priest was a Chicago Republican who later became a member of the United States Congress, and Arthur Mitchell, who became a famous Democratic politician.

There were also other factors that helped to attract the southern blacks during the Great Migration, such as major newspapers at the time.

This included the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, and the California Eagle of Los Angeles.

All of these papers published on a daily basis, testimonies from blacks about the major advantages of leaving the segregation in the Southern states.

The Reactions to the Great Migration

Pictures From the Great MigrationPictures From the Great Migration

The reactions to the Great Migration from the white population in the country at the time were mixed, according to history.

One of the first things the white leaders in the south did was impose migration fees on any black that was leaving to go to the north.

However, this was extremely hard to manage, and did not last very long.

The Governor of Alabama at the height of the great migration, Thomas Kilby, tried a more realistic approach.

He tried to help improve the farming conditions the blacks faced in the state at the time, by reaching out to two very distinctive Alabama educational programs

These programs included Auburn University and Tuskegee University, both which had very strong farming programs, but it was too little and too late for most blacks.

One of the major reasons for this was the other side of the coin; the white supremacists.

The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists not only celebrated the Great Migration, they also encouraged it by prodding the blacks in the south.

They helped to initiate even tougher standards for the black population at the time, many of whom had just lived through the very unfair Convict-lease system.

Then there were employers in the only major growth industry in Alabama at the time, coal mining, which excluded blacks from working in their industry.

This was led by the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, which had lived for years on the corrupt Convict-lease system, to help pad their profits.

But the African Americans in the south had had enough, and the Great Migration was alive and well, and helped to develop several national organizations.

Some of these included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the NAACP, as well as the National Urban League.

These organizations were the leaders in the black community for community development, as well as political activism.

However, because of the Great Depression that occurred in the 1930’s, many blacks were forced to move back to the south after only a few years.

But this would soon be followed by a second Great Migration, which occurred as a result of World War II.

This second Great Migration was all centered on the federal government, who desperately needed workers in shipyards and industries.

Most all of these were located in the same northern and western states, and between the years 1942 and 1970, another estimated 5 million blacks left the south again.

However, unlike the first mass exodus, after the second one ended and jobs begin to grow scarce again in these areas, they did not return to the south.

But it can be argued that there was a third great migration that history has shown us, and that is the return of thousands of blacks moving back to the southern states like Alabama, in recent years.

It is estimated that since 1975, there have been close to a million blacks move back to the south, because of the high costs now associated with living in these northern and western states.

The crime is also much higher in these areas, and the south now offers a much-improved race relations atmosphere and stronger economies.


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