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The Great Migration: African Americans and the Growth of the Urban North
Content Session Material

Theme: The Peopling of America: Migration and Immigration
Topic: The Great Migration: African Americans and the Growth of the Urban North
Date: December 2, 2004
Scholar: Andrew Darien, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of History, Salem State College

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selected and syllabus created by Andrew Darien, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of History, Salem State College (adarien@salemstate.edu)


OVERVIEW

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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REQUIRED READING

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Lawrence, Jacob. 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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ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS

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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