Skip to main content

Migration of Negroes Into Northern Cities 1917

The Migration Of Negroes Into Northern Cities


By George E. Haynes, Ph. D.,

Executive Secretary of the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes


A Presentation at the 44th Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare,

Pittsburgh, PA, June 6-13, 1917 (pp. 494-497)
During World War I there was a great migration north by southern Negroes [View Image]
[View Image]
During World War I there was a great migration north by southern Negroes
Photo: National Archives at College Park
National Archives Identifier 559091

In opening this discussion I suppose it is only expressing the point of view shared generally by social workers that the problems confronting the Negro are simply special phases of our complex adjustments: economic, civil, and racial, that we are called upon to make today as the old order changes and the new day of a larger world dawns. The problem of Negro migration is an integral part of the economic and social readjustments which the world upheaval of today is making in our country as in all other lines.

In discussing the migration of Negroes into northern cities three fundamental facts stand out clearly before us, viewing the movement as a whole.

In the first place, this movement of Negroes, while it is larger and more widespread due to the present unusual conditions, has been going on for the past three or four decades. It may not have attracted as much attention because it was going on quietly and at a slower rate. But there has been a steady stream and the moving causes are the same. An indication-of this fact is the increase of Negro population since.1880 in the following nine northern and border cities: Boston, Greater New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Evansville, Indianapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis. Between 1880 and 1890 the Negro population of these nine cities increased about 36.2 per cent. From 1890 to 1900 it increased about 74.4 per cent and from 1900 to 1910 about 37.4 per cent.The Great Migration, 1900-1929 [View Image]
[View Image]
The Great Migration, 1900-1929
Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division

The increase of the Negro population for the country as a whole 11.2 per cent for the last decade. While figures for sixteen southern cities show an increase above that of the general increase of the Negro population, the increase is not as great as that of the northern cities. The increase of Negro population in both northern and southern cities, however, ranges from nearly twice the increase of the total Negro population to more than four times as large. This movement has been in harmony with the great trend of populations the world over during the past forty years.

During the past winter I have secured information on this southern exodus from seven of the southern states. Both rural districts and the cities show that the migration has been widespread and has been due to certain fundamental causes. The first cause has been economic: Those districts that have suffered most in the past two years from the boll weevil, floods and droughts, and that consequently have had the worst economic conditions to face, have lost large numbers of their Negro population. Some investigations made in New York in 1910 bear out the same conclusions about the causes of migration in the preceding three decades.A negro family just arrived in Chicago from the rural South [View Image]
[View Image]
A negro family just arrived in Chicago from the rural South
Photo: New York Public Library
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division

Over against these unfavorable economic conditions in the places from which Negroes are coming there stands in bold relief the larger wages and better hours and conditions of work offered in the northern centers to which they are being drawn. When a day laborer is offered from two to three dollars a day by agencies in northern cities, in contrast with his present wage of $1.50 a day, the temptation to leave is irresistible. It does not count in the wage earner’s mind that there is a relative increase also in the cost of food, shelter, and clothing necessities of life, for he thinks in terms of money wages, not real wages. I may mention that these same economic influences are moving large numbers of the white population from the South into northern cities. Little has been said about the migration of whites into the North. Perhaps we cannot get track of it, but it is nevertheless a movement taking place in response to economic conditions similar to those influencing the Negroes.

While economic causes are very important, let us not blink the fact that there are other powerful influences that are moving the Negroes from the rural districts to southern cities and from the South to the North. In the cities the Negro feels greater protection for his life and for his hard earned although limited property; in the northern city he has a feeling of greater security than in the southern city.

A survey of the seven states mentioned a few minutes ago shows that those districts which have had race disturbances and in which race relations are more critical, have had the largest exodus of Negroes. This is true not only for the past 12 months, but also probably for the past 20 years. Poor schools for their children, Jim Crow cars, lack of justice in many of the conditions of everyday life, have created a feeling of unrest that is deep and widespread. Because of these conditions, in some localities, even where wages are good, Negroes have left in large numbers. Philadelphia, New York and Boston have long been meccas for the Negroes along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida seaboard. West Virginia, Cincinnati, Akron, Ohio, and Pittsburgh have not just begun to draw Negroes from Alabama, Tennessee, and inland Georgia; Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit have been a haven for Negroes from the Mississippi Valley for almost a generation. In a word, along with the call of higher wages offered by communities of the North there has been a moving cause of unrest, racial friction and dissatisfaction.

The second fundamental fact in this matter comes partly as a conclusion from the one I have just discussed. This movement and settlement of Negroes in northern cities is not a temporary migration, but a movement likely to continue for an indefinite period. The difficulty in economic opportunity in the two sections and the difficulty in the civil, educational and race relations of the Negro and the white people will take time for readjustment, while the unrest of Negroes in the South passes away. So our discussion of methods and plans to meet the problems that arise need to be thought of as methods and plans for making permanent adjustments for large numbers of newcomers to these northern centers.

The third fundamental fact we need to bear in mind grows out of the first. It is this: The Negro is really feeling his way toward a better and larger life. He is seeking larger opportunities-“Not alms, but opportunity!” is his cry. I have copies of a large number of letters written from various southern cities by Negroes who wanted to come North. There is not a letter that does not breathe the desire to get a better job, have a better home, and live a larger life.

Let me quote a few as illustrations: Here is one from Raleigh, North Carolina: “Willing to work at anything or place if there is a chance for advancement.” Here is another from Lake, Mississippi: “I am not a mechanic, but I want to learn the trade and will do most anything to get on the job.” Another from Macon, Georgia: “I desire to come north to better my present condition.” Here is another from Tampa, Florida: “Please rite me about the work as bess you can. I want to come and make it my home, and rite me please as to weather I can get a job or not.” And so they go. We are sometimes told that this migration is due to some racial tendency; to a roving disposition; to instability of race character. But as one of our folk songs expresses it, the Negro is inching along like the poor inch worm, hoping that Jesus will come with freedom and opportunity bye and bye somehow, somewhere.

Like downtrodden masses the world over, they are groping after better things. When people are poorly paid, half fed, poorly clad, live in huts, have poor schools for their children and limited liberty for themselves; and when they believe they see opportunities to get better wages, better food, better clothes, better houses, better schools for their children and greater freedom-they may be mistaken in what they think they will get and may blunder in trying to get them, but there is no doubt about what they long for.

So, friends, whatever we have to say here today good, bad, or indifferent about these Negroes and their migration, let us keep before us the three facts: (1) That here is a part of our population moved by fundamental forces; (2) that this is therefore no temporary matter to be met by temporary expedients; (3) that these people are seeking as best they can under the circumstances the opportunity for larger life in our common democracy. They are striving for larger incomes and the opportunity to spend those incomes for greater satisfactions along all lines of life. They want a better future for themselves, their children ‘and their childrens children.

Just how far those who have flocked North have shown any of these indications I have mentioned will be brought out in the discussion. From correspondence and conversation with a number of those present, I have the impression that we want to exchange experience here that each of us may go back to his community with clearer vision for the delicate problems of race adjustment confronting us now.

Source: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings On-Line: The web site for this resource is:

The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The web site for this resource is:




Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

View graphic version