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The Great Migration: African Americans and the Growth of the Urban North
Primary Sources

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

Primary Sources from Partner Collections
Primary Sources from Local Archives and Collections
Additional Primary Sources Used in Content and Follow-up Sessions

Selected and annotated by SALEM in History Staff.

Primary Sources from Partner Collections


  “Letter of Instruction.” 10 November 1863 and Letter to the President of the United States. 6 November 1863. Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society Papers, 1863-1873. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.


In this letter to Reverend H.D. Fisher, the Western Sanitary Commission provides directions to travel to Boston and “other leading cities of New England” (including Salem) to secure the establishment of Freedmen’s Aid Societies. In December of 1863, a committee for this purpose was organized at Mechanic Hall in Salem.


  Belton School Report, 31 July 1866. Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society Papers, 1863-1873. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.


This society was organized to aid freed slaves in the Mississippi Valley. Peter L. Walker was hired by the organization in 1866 to teach at a school for African-American children in the town of Belton, Mississippi. His reports on the school activities include how many days of instruction he taught, how many students attended classes, and what their racial “type” is (whether or not they are of “mixed” parentage). The collection contains additional reports and correspondence with Mr. Walker, including receipts of payment for his services (at $30 per month).


  “To the Friends of Impartial Suffrage”. 22 September 1866. Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society Papers, 1863-1873. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.


This document was among the miscellaneous papers in the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society collection. It includes the constitution of the Boston organization, which seeks “impartial suffrage” for all men as “the only safe method of reconstruction.”


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Primary Sources from Local Archives and Collections


  Primary Sources from Other Local Archives and Collections “Whites and Blacks Clash Fatally Sunday in Noted “Black Belt” in Chicago.” Salem Evening News. 28 July 1919.


On July 27, an African-American boy swimming in Chicago’s 29th Street beach on Lake Michigan drowned, and witnesses stated that the boy fell into the water because white boys hit him with stones. The beach was shared by blacks and whites, “although the two races are separated by an imaginary line.” Apparently, the deceased boy had crossed that line. This article estimates that about 50 people were injured, and two African-Americans died.
Note: These articles are available on microfilm at the Salem Public Library.


  “Twenty-seven Deaths in Frenzied Riots of Whites and Negroes in Chicago.” Salem Evening News. 30 July 1919.


The Chicago race riot that began on 27 July 1919 spread from the 29th Street beach to the rest of the city. Police were called in to clear rioters, and 8,000 armed troops were ready to step in if called upon to do so. The reporter claims that “The whites again seemed to be the more aggressive, the negroes having been converted to peace….”


  “Chicago Is Comparatively Quiet After Four Days Rioting Among the Races.” Salem Evening News. 31 July 1919.


After five regiments of state troops were brought in to quell the conflict, aggression subsided. Thirty deaths and 1,000 injuries were cited during the race riots.


  “2 Killed, 50 Hurt in Furious Race Riots in Chicago” New York Times. 28 July 1919.


This article presents an in-depth account of the rioting that began at the 29th Street beach on Lake Michigan in Chicago. It also discusses racial tensions prior to this eruption.


  Richardson, Franci. “Salem’s Black Picnic: A Feast of Pride.” Salem Evening News. n.d. Salem Public Library, Salem Collection Room.


This article discusses the history of the Black Picnic tradition that occurs each year at Salem Willows Park. This article is located in the vertical file in the “Salem Room.”


  Peters, Andrew J. to Mrs. Fitzallen, 28 December 1927. Women’s Service Club Archives, Boston, MA.


Andrew Peters writes on behalf of the Plymouth Hospital Campaign Committee that seeks to generate support to purchase the Plymouth Hospital (closed in 1925) and re-open the institution as a “negro” hospital.


  Cobleigh, Rolfe to Mrs. Fitzallen, 26 January 1928. Women’s Service Club Archives, Boston, MA.


Rolfe Cobleigh expresses his support for changing the Boston hospital policies to exclude “colored” staff from training and practicing medicine. He also expresses concern over proposal for Plymouth Hospital to serve a segregated African-American populace because he is instead in favor of creating inter-racial institutions.


  “Women’s Service Club Aids Boston’s In-Migrant Domestics.” Bay State Banner. 31 December 1966.


This article describes the role of the Women’s Service Club in assisting women who move to Boston from other states to become domestic workers. The article notes that there are advertisements in the South promoting such work, and the challenges and legal issues that the Club tries to face in assisting the workers.

The Women’s Service Club was organized in 1918 by Mary Evans Wilson originally “to assist servicemen of color during World War I.” The organization continues to offer resources and support to the community today. The Club is located on Massachusetts Avenue in the South End. For more information, see their website.


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Additional Primary Sources Used in Content Session and Follow-Up Session


  “The Flag, Hubert Eaves and the Chicago Defender.” Cleveland Advocate. 1 April 1916.

This editorial from a Black, Republican weekly (published in Cleveland) exposes the complexities of race, racism and notions of citizenship among Black Americans in the early 20th century. This editorial condemns The Chicago Defender’s editorial staff for not speaking out against a black boy who allegedly refused to salute the flag out of a conviction that it represented a nation which did not protect or honor black Americans. Available online at


  Hall, T. Arnold. “The Dilemma of Negro Workers. Opportunity. February 1926. 39-41.


Article explores the conflicting attitudes of African Americans toward organized labor. Discusses the choice to ally with employers. Available online at
(Note: from here click on “View this item” then click on “The Dilemma of Negro Workers”)


Lawrence, Jacob. The Migration Series, oil on canvas, 1940-41.


This series of paintings (completed in 1940-1941) tells the story of the Great Migration from the point of view of the migrants who, in the years surrounding WWI , left their homes in the rural South for the promise of a better life in the industrialized North.

Note: These paintings are accessible in book form in Lawrence, Jacob. The Great Migration: An American Story. New York: Harper Trophy, 1993. A complete online version of The Great Migration: An American Story is available at the Columbia University Website.
Paintings and other information are also available online at the Whitney Museum Website.


  Niagara’s Declaration of Principles. 1905.


This statement is the result of a meeting of black intellectuals and professionals (organized by W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter) in Niagara Falls, Canada in 1905, to demand full citizenship rights and equality for African Americans. Clearly challenges the ideas/methods put forth by Booker T. Washington. In 1909 the Niagara Movement joined an interracial group to create the NAACP. Online transcription available at


  Plessy vs. Ferguson. Judgement. Decided May 18, 1896; Records of the Supreme Court of the United States. Record Group 267. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163, #15248. National Archives.


Transcriptions of both majority and dissenting opinions available online at or The first site offers a scanned version of the original which can be examined in detail; the latter offers teaching ideas.

Following an 1883 Supreme Court decision to overrule the 1875 Civil Rights Act, in an era in which states were increasing legislation that codified segregation in public and semi-public places, a young black Louisiana man (Homer Plessy) became the central actor in a test case challenging the constitutionality of segregated railroad cars traveling across state lines. Despite a powerful dissenting opinion which likened Jim Crow laws to a “mischievous” way of avoiding the Constitutional rights of all citizens, the majority decision of the Court upheld the segregation law by suggesting—in part—that segregation of the races did not in and of itself mark one race as inferior and upheld the segregation law. In so doing, the Court made systematic segregation legal. Such segregation was not successfully challenged until the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case in 1954.


  Rodgers, Leslie. “People We Can Get Along Without.” Chicago Defender. 19 July 1921.


Cartoon from Rodgers’ Defender comic strip “Bungleton Green.” Like his other cartoons, this one features the experiences and misadventures of migrants from the South. Suggests the differences and tensions between established middle-class blacks and new migrants. Available online at


  “The Shame of America.” New York Times. 23 November 1922.


A full-page ad taken out by the NAACP to push for passage of the Dyer anti-lynching bill which was before Congress. Despite efforts such as this by the NAACP, the Dyer bill was filibustered and Congress never passed any such legislation. Available online at


  ’Sir I Will Thank You with All my Heart’: Seven Letters from the Great Migration” <> Accessed December 12, 2004. (Original source: Journal of Negro History. Vol. IV, 1919: 417, 302, 317, 327, 307, 59.)


This group of letters, typical of those sent to The Chicago Defender from Southerners speak to the migrants’ desire to “better their condition.” Valuable source for understanding motivation.


  Times Is Getting Harder.” 1940. Written by Lucious Curtis. Lyrics and audio recording online at “Times is Getting Harder”: Blues of the Great Migration.”
<> Accessed December 12, 2004.


(Note: the online audio file is of a 1940 recording of this song written earlier by Curtis. Recording is from Mississippi River Blues Vol. 1, Matchbox Label reissue)

The lyrics of Curtis’ blues tune describe various factors prompting migrants to leave the South in the years around WWI.


  True Sons of Freedom. Color-offset poster. Chicago, 1918. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


Poster depicting as heroic, the actions of a segregated unit of African American soldiers during WWI. Available online at (Note: scroll down webpage to see this poster. Click to enlarge)



“Vickburg, Mississippi, Disgraces Civilization with Lynching.” The Chicago Defender. 24 May 1919.


Online transcription at
Article offers graphic details of a lynching. Highlights the brutality and injustice of the practice.


  Washington, Booker T. “Speech Before the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition.” October 18, 1895. In Louis R. Harlan ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol.3. Urbana: University Illinois Press, 1974: 583-587.


Available online at
In this famous speech, given before a predominately white audience, Washington challenged every African-American to “cast down your bucket where you are” and suggested that African-Americans needed to “be content with living by the work of [their] hands.” Considered an accomodationist by some other African-American intellectuals, Washington offered a solution to race relations that he believed would, in the ling run, prove most beneficial for African-Americans—especially those who lived in the South.

  "‘We Tho[ugh]t State Street Would Be Heaven Itself’: Black Migrants Speak Out.” <> Accessed December 12, 2004. (Original source: Charles S. Johnson, “Chicago Study, Migration Interviews,” [1917], Box 86, Series 6, Records of the National Urban League, Library of Congress.)


Collection of seven interviews of the many conducted by Charles Johnson, researcher for the Urban League, with migrants in Chicago and Mississippi. These interviews, begun in 1917, describe a range of responses to life and opportunities in Chicago.


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