Scholars and other observers have long used the Great Migration to refer to a significant movement of African Americans from the South to other parts of the United States from 1914 until the early 1920s. People chose to leave the South in response to a combination of broad difficulties since the late 1800s—disfranchisement, segregation laws and Jim Crow practices, the rise of lynching and other forms of violence, and the gradual but clear decline in chances for owning land. People were also responding to the lure of jobs that opened up during World War I, when many northern industrial workers went to Europe and immigration of potential workers came to a halt. The availability of jobs was the specific reason for the timing of the Great Migration, but African Americans left Mississippi with a mixture of relief about putting many of the difficulties and fears of southern life behind them and excitement about the possibilities of city life.
Many migrants left Mississippi and the South after a series of internal moves—from the farm to the city or from sharecropping to seasonal work on levees or other construction projects. Members of sharecropping households had moved from place to place looking for labor arrangements with less debt and more possibility for owning land, but such opportunities diminished as the boll weevil destroyed crops and as large-scale agribusiness developed. Individuals often left Mississippi for Chicago or other northern cities where acquaintances lived and then became contacts for other migrants. South Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood became home to a large community of African Americans from the South, especially Mississippi.
One of the greatest advertisers of life in the urban North was the nation’s leading African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, which had high circulation in Mississippi and especially in the Delta. The Defender touted the economic, cultural, and political potential of urban life and kept migrants in touch with news from Mississippi.
As historian Neil McMillen has detailed, Mississippi’s population changed relatively little as a consequence of migration from 1880 to 1910. In fact, from 1880 to 1900, white migration from Mississippi was slightly greater than African American migration, and the numbers of white and African American migrants were roughly equal in 1910. The net population loss of African Americans dramatically increased over the next decade, far outstripping the number of white Mississippians who left. Precise statistics about migration are always problematic, but it seems clear that from 1914 to 1920, about one hundred thousand African Americans left Mississippi—about one-fifth of all the migrants who left the South.
The Great Migration resulted in significant population declines in most but not all parts of Mississippi. The number of African Americans fell in most Mississippi counties between 1910 and 1930, but the African American population of Hinds County increased as a consequence of migration to the city of Jackson. More dramatically, several Delta counties saw substantial population increases.
Black and white commentators on Mississippi life used the Great Migration as a way to discuss the place of African Americans in the United States. In Black Boy, Richard Wright divided his life into two sections, before and after he moved from the South, and near the end of the southern section, he wrote, “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown, to meet other situations that would perhaps elicit from me other responses. And if I could meet enough of a different life, then, perhaps, gradually and slowly I might learn who I was, what I might be.” African American religious leaders compared train travel from the South to biblical stories of movement to the Promised Land, and numerous blues musicians sang about the pains and potential of ramblin’, sometimes with “Sweet Home Chicago” as a destination. African American leaders in Chicago, including antilynching activist and club organizer Ida B. Wells-Barnett, counseled migrants on how to find jobs, where to live, and how to reject appearances and mannerisms the leaders associated with rural poverty and Jim Crow. White Mississippians had varying responses to African American migration. Some condemned labor agents, and many agreed with the man who told Wright, “The North’s no good for your people, boy.” Greenville native William Alexander Percy, who identified himself as a “planter’s son,” wrote of African Americans who left Mississippi on a whim, suffered as individuals when they were accustomed to the community of plantation life, and were likely to need help returning to the South. Grisham continues to publish books at an extraordinary pace of one and often two books per year, mixing more Theodore Boone books with mysteries about lawyers, collections of short stories, and other works.
In recent years, some scholars have questioned whether the Great Migration was quite as distinctive as it long seemed. First, African Americans had left the South in substantial numbers in the decades before and after the Great Migration period and then in even greater numbers in the 1940s and 1950s. Second, larger numbers of white southerners moved to the North and West, but social commentators at the time generally neglected that migration, as have scholars until recently. Despite those important points, the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s stands as a turning point in black migration from the 1910s through the 1960s and as a dramatic response to the injustices of the Jim Crow South.
- Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (2007)
- John M. Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875–1915 (2008)
- James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (2005)
- James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1989)
- Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles from Slavery to the Great Migration (2005)
- Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1990)
- Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach, Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape (2012)
- Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2011)