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Great Migration

The Great Migration saw the migration of around six million African-Americans from Southern areas of the United States to more urban areas in the North and the West, as well as cities in the South. It occurred in two significant waves and was a response to the oppression Black Americans continued to experience even after the abolition of slavery in…

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Great Migration

Great Migration

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The Great Migration saw the migration of around six million African-Americans from Southern areas of the United States to more urban areas in the North and the West, as well as cities in the South. It occurred in two significant waves and was a response to the oppression Black Americans continued to experience even after the abolition of slavery in 1865. Historians often label this historical movement the ‘Black Exodus’.

We will look in-depth at the causes of this mass migration: what were the push factors, and what were the pull factors? Further, what were the impacts on race relations and the US at large?

Great Migration dates in America

The Great Migration does not have set dates, but it began around 1915 and continued well into the 1960s. Some say even until 1970.

The two waves were:

  • 1915-40: around 1.6 million African-Americans moved away from the rural South to industrial areas.
  • 1940-c1970: around 5 million African-Americans moved to the North, West, and Midwest. This second wave of migrations is mainly attributed to the Second World War.

The push factors of the Great Black Migration

The Great Black Migration was not in response to a specific instance of persecution but rather centuries of oppression. Let’s look at this historical context to really understand the causes of the Great Migration.

The American Civil War

The American Civil War (1861–65) was a conflict between the Union (North) and the Confederacy, formed of 11 southern states. Although the war was not initially motivated by the issue of slavery, this soon became the basis on which the war was fought, with the Union fighting for its abolition and the Confederacy desperately fighting to maintain it.

Chattel slavery was the backbone of the Southern agriculture-based economy, so their fight was motivated by economic survival as well as racism.

Chattel slavery

A form of slavery where one person has complete ownership of another, and their children, and their children’s children, and all their descendency.

In 1864, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively freed all slaves in Confederate states. In 1865, after the South lost the war, slavery was officially abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment.

Reluctantly, the Southern states adhered to the abolishment of slavery but found ways to get around this and continue to subjugate Black Americans.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States (4 March 1861 - 15 April 1865), was the man who led the nation through the American Civil War (12 April 1861 – 26 May 1865). Among other achievements, he was also responsible for abolishing slavery in the US.

Great Migration Abraham Lincoln VaiaFig. 1 - Abraham Lincoln.

On 15 April 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Booth held the belief that the Confederacy should/could be restored.

Reconstruction and discrimination

After the Civil War, the US entered a period of Reconstruction, which attempted to reform Southern states and offered African Americans many civil rights which they had not previously experienced. However, these were threatened by the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as sharecropping and the Black Codes.

The Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a white supremacist terrorist group that initially emerged after the Civil War to prevent African-Americans from taking advantage of their new rights. For example, they used violence and intimidation to prevent Black people from voting or running for political office.

Their power declined in 1871 when the Ku Klux Klan Acts were passed to tackle their activities. The Klan re-emerged in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, but it continued to operate underground. Their racist ideology expanded, and widespread lynching occurred mostly in Southern states. Historians estimate that over 4,000 African-Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968.


The killing of someone without legal grounds, usually by hanging.

Sharecropping and Black Codes

After emancipation, African-Americans were, for the first time, able to work for themselves and earn their own living. This, however, was far from the truth.

Most Black families did not own their own land, so they would rent plots from white landowners and were subjected to sharecropping. Sharecroppers often had to pay more back to landowners as the cost of renting combined with the tools and supplies ended up accounting for a large proportion of their salary. The alternative was labour contracts called the Black Codes: a set of laws that required Black people to sign yearly labour contracts, to avoid being arrested, getting fined, or even being forced to do unpaid labour.


A legal arrangement in which a landowner allows a tenant to use some of their lands for agriculture in return for a share of the crops produced on that land.

African Americans, therefore, had little to no chance of economic advancement in the South under these systems.

Jim Crow laws

The Reconstruction Era ended in 1877 as many politicians had retreated from the ideas of racial equality they had supported after the Civil War. This same year, the Jim Crow laws were implemented, which essentially legalised segregation and the political oppression of Black Americans.

This meant that:

  • There were barriers to African-Americans’ access to voting.

  • African-Americans were not allowed to occupy white spaces, and they were kept separate from white people.

Jim crow laws worked to exclude African-Americans from the freedoms of white America and made them second-class citizens, giving Black people huge motivation to leave the South to less oppressive areas of America.

The pull factors of the Great Northern Migration

Although the main reason why African-Americans migrated to the North, Midwest, and West was the racial discrimination and violence they faced in the South, the pull factors revolved around economic opportunity.

The US intervened in the First World War in 1917. As a result, they were left with huge labour shortages in the industrial labour markets in the North, Midwest, and West. This was due, in part, to the fact that the workers had been drafted to fight in the war but also because there was an increased demand for the production of ships, ammunition, steel, and automotive factories.

The need for workers pulled African-Americans to these areas as many of the companies offered them incentive packages that included free transportation and low housing prices. The average factory wage in the North was also much higher than what a person could make from farming in the rural South.

The First Migration was also encouraged by publications such as The Chicago Defender, which encouraged Black Americans to move North.

The Second Great Migration was also initially motivated by the labour needs of the Second World War. Around 1.5 million African Americans migrated during the 1940s alone.

Migration slowed during the 1929–39 Great Depression, which hit African-Americans particularly hard. There was a lack of jobs, so when the Second World War offered job opportunities, many African-Americans were keen to head North.

What challenges did African-Americans face after migrating?

When African-Americans first migrated to the North, they were not met with the same racial hostility that they faced in the South, but the North was not without racism, as would soon become apparent.

Lack of social mobility

Although Black people now earned a relatively decent wage, it was incredibly difficult for them to improve their social status due to restrictions on housing.

Restrictive covenants

One method used to prevent African-American social mobility in the 1920s–30s was restrictive covenants. These were clauses in housing contracts that made it illegal for African-Americans to buy, lease or live in properties in white neighbourhoods. The only exception to this was if the person was a servant.

These restrictive covenants became a widespread practice in the majority of white neighbourhoods. By 1940, around 80% of properties in Chicago and LA used such clauses.

This meant that although Black people now earned a relatively decent wage, it was impossible for them to improve their social status.

Rising house prices and redlining

From the 1930s, it became much harder for African-Americans to acquire mortgages even within the neighbourhoods that were not restricted by covenants. This was due to the federal housing policy commonly referred to as redlining.

  • The Federal Housing association made area colour codes. These colours indicated whether or not it was safe for a lending institution to insure mortgages in a particular neighbourhood.
  • Anywhere where African-Americans lived was coloured red, and this meant that it was too risky for a bank to insure a mortgage there.
  • This meant that African-Americans were forced to stay in unfavourable living conditions or move to non-restricted (non-covenant) white neighbourhoods. However, this was practically impossible as the housing prices were high.

These policies were a new form of racial segregation. They allowed for generational inequality and denied African-Americans the social chances afforded to other Americans.


As a direct result of housing covenants, redlining, and the rise in housing prices, African-Americans were confined to the most run-down housing in the least desired locations of the cities to which they fled.

Race Riots

Black migration to cities caused increasing white discontent, leading to race riots in some instances; some of the most notable are listed below:

The East St. Louis Illinois Riots - July 1917
  • There was high white American discontent due to the surge in African-American employment.
  • White Americans killed around 40 African Americans, and around 6000 were driven away from their homes.
  • Around 8 white people were killed.
Red Summer - 1919
  • Around 38 race riots occurred during the summer of 1919.
  • This period was named ‘Red Summer’ due to the extremely violent and bloody nature of these race riots.
Detroit Riot - June 1943
  • Increasing US involvement in the Second World War led to an influx of African-American migrants from the South, but they faced housing shortages, and accommodation in public housing was usually in white neighbourhoods, creating racial tension.
  • Competition between ethnic groups was fierce for both jobs and housing.
  • 25 Black people and 9 white people died

The causes of riots varied depending on location, but the increasing population of African-Americans in urban centres angered white people who felt they were taking their jobs and their housing.

Great Migration significance

The Great Migration was a massive demographic shift, so how exactly did this alter American society, culture, and politics?


Describing the structure of a population.

World WarsAfrican-American work in factories during the First World War was fundamental and assisted America in helping its allies win the war. Their work on the homefront remained integral in the Second0World War. Nearly two million African-Americans were working in war plants by 1944.
Political participationIn the North, African-Americans faced fewer barriers to voting. They were individually empowered, and their collective vote gave African-Americans political influence.Additionally, African-Americans were able to protest and make their voices heard with less fear of persecution. This activism eventually led to the Civil Rights Movement.
Arts and CultureMass migration allowed African-Americans to counter the forces of subordination and build a Black urban culture. The 1920s was a revolutionary period of Black artistic expression in literature, music, and art. For instance, the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s happened thanks to the Great Migration. The Harlem Renaissance represented a flourishing of African-American art, culture, literature, poetry and music. It began in the New York area of Harlem. Some of the biggest names in African-American, American, and Black history were part of this cultural movement, including poet Langston Hughes, writer Zora Neale Hurston, scholar and intellectual W. E. B. DuBois, and journalist Ida B. Wells.

Great Migration - Key takeaways

  • The Great Migration, which is also commonly referred to as the Black Migration or 'Black Exodus', was the relocation of over six million African-Americans from the rural South to the North, Midwest and West of America.
  • The Great Migration is often split into two periods. The first migration occurred between 1915–40. Around 1.6 million African-Americans moved from the rural South to industrial cities. The second migration occurred between 1940–c70 when around five million African-Americans left the South.

Frequently Asked Questions about Great Migration

The Great Migration was largely due to the oppression and segregation African-Americans experienced in the rural south, through exploitative labour systems, the Jim Crow laws, and intimidation by the KKK.

The Great Migration fundamentally changed the population structure of America; it led to racial tensions in cities, the creation of Black urban centres, the development of Black arts and culture, more political rights for African-Americans, and benefitted the war effort through Black employment in war plants.

The Great Migration was a twentieth-century mass movement of around 6 million African Americans from the rural South to urban areas of America.

The Great Migration saw around 6 million African Americans move to urban areas of America to escape oppression in the rural South.

The Great Migration began in around 1915 and had two distinct waves: the first from 1915 to 1940 and the second from 1940 to around 1970.

Final Great Migration Quiz

Great Migration Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


When was the Great Migration?

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When was the first migrational period?

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What areas did African-Americans migrate to?

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North, Midwest, and West of the United States.

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How many African-Americans migrated in total?

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Six million

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List the push factors that encouraged African-Americans to migrate.

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Great Depression; Jim Crow and Segregation; Sharecropping and Blackcodes; Lynching and underground KKK.

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List the pull factors that encouraged African-Americans to migrate.

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First World War, increased job opportunities and wages.

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List the challenges African-Americans faced after migrating.

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Rising house prices, redlining, ghettoisation, race riots, and covenants.

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What was the historical significance of The Great Migration? 

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  1. First World War front
  2. Improvements in Culture and Arts 
  3. African Americans gained Political Insurgency

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What is Redlining?

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Redlining was a discriminatory practice in which services were withheld from African Americans who resided in neighborhoods classified as 'hazardous' to investment.

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When was the second migrational period?

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