The Great Migration
is a seminal event in United States history, part of a larger African
diaspora that has resonance for our understanding of race relations,
immigration, labor, and the wartime homefront. This session will explore
the movement of black Americans from the southern United States to urban
northern destinations during World War I and the 1920s. Some half million
black citizens left their rural homes in the South for destinations
in northern cities. Acute labor shortages caused by the draft led northern
factory managers to recruit black migrants to the expanding industrial
centers. Black workers eagerly left low-paying jobs as field hands and
domestic servants for the chance at relatively high-paying work in meatpacking
plants, shipyards, and steel mills. They also willingly left a south
mired in Jim Crow racism, lynching, and racial violence. This session
will identify macro-historical forces contributing to the migration,
but explain it from the point-of-view of black southerners. Migrants'
journey to the northern "promised land" was no mere product
of impersonal economic forces, but rather the product of conscious calculations
of racial attitudes, southern racism, and structural forces in the North.
Decisions that migrants made, first about migration and later about
northern institutions reflected their ideas about themselves as black
people, Americans, and workers. We will also discuss the ways in which
migrants' aspirations for the promised land were checked by the imperatives
of northern racial etiquette, the creation of black ghettos, and white
rioting. In so doing, we will ask tough questions of historical actors
striving for equality at the moment its nation fought a war to make
the world safe for democracy.
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R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration.
Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
The Great Migration: An American Story. Paintings by Jacob Lawrence
with a poem in appreciation by Walter Dean Myers. New York: The Museum
of Modern Art, New York, and The Phillips Collection, 1993.
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1. Immigration history
suggests that migrants' decisions are grounded in a set of push (away
from homeland) and pull (attraction to destination) factors. Which do
you see as most predominant in the Great Migration? In what ways are
the migration experiences of black southerners similar to those of European
immigrants during the same time period? How do they differ?
2. What, exactly,
were the goals of migration? To what degree were black southerners'
aspirations met when they arrived in this purported promised land? Is
it appropriate to characterize this journey as a success or failure?
3. How did migrants
seek to integrate into Chicago culture? In what ways did they resist
assimilation? What do you make of these strategies?
4. What are the
migrants' views of capitalism and democracy? To what degree does this
journey reflect an embracing of American political and economic values?
5. What were the
differences between northern and southern racism?
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