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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The Black Migration

In 1910, 89 percent of all African-Americans lived in the South. Their departure from the South - from separate but equal laws, the Jim Crow restrictions, and the lack of opportunity-gradually picked up speed. The percentage of African-Americans in the South had declined to 85 percent in 1920, 77 percent in 1940, and 53 percent in 1970. [Taeuber, Karl E., and Taueber, Alma F., "The Black Population in the United States," The Black American Reference Book , Smythe, Mable M., editor, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976, p. 165]

World War I gave African-Americans a glimpse of possibilities outside the South. In a book issued by the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with an exhibit on the migration, Spencer R. Crew explained the origin of the movement:

The start of World War I opened up new economic opportunities for black workers. Before the war northern industrialists primarily relied upon the labor of native-born whites and European immigrants. Prejudice against black workers and limited demand for their labor made it difficult for Afro-Americans to find work. The fighting in Europe [which began in August 1914] changed things. Demands on American firms to provide munitions and food for European customers increased as the fighting spread. At the same time, many European workers who might have come to the United States chose instead to stay home and defend their homelands. Furthermore, in this country, the accelerating war effort siphoned off more of the industrial work force as men volunteered or were drafted into military service. [In April 1917, the United States entered the war, which ended in November 1918.]

Faced with a shrinking work force, northern companies . . . quickly began to seek out Afro-Americans living in the South, whom industrialists had occasionally used as strikebreakers in the past . . . . As managers and company owners suppressed open prejudice against blacks to attract the workers they needed, news of the willingness of northern companies to hire black workers spread across the South. [Crew, Spencer R., Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915-1940 , Smithsonian Institution, 1987, p. 5-6]

By the end of World War I, about 500,000 black Southerners had moved north. Crew discussed their destinations:

A migrant's place of residence in the South often influenced where he or she settled in the North. Since most migrants had little money, they used the cheapest and most direct route north. Afro-Americans living along the Atlantic seaboard usually traveled up the East Coast to live in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and sometimes Boston. Many residents of Georgia and Alabama settled in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Mississippi and Louisiana residents frequently relocated to Chicago. [Field to Factory , p. 28]

The migrants used all means of transportation, especially railroads:

Railroads like the Illinois Central, the Pennsylvania, and the New York Central carried many migrants north. Train travel was relatively inexpensive if migrants took advantage of the special promotions railroad companies offered. Because many companies gave special fares to groups of people riding together, migrants often formed "clubs" that capitalized on these group rates. [Field to Factory , p. 28-29]

Rail travel, while inexpensive, carried the same disadvantages as always:

[Black] railroad passengers traveled in segregated cars in the South. Since these cars were located near the locomotive, passengers who opened their windows for fresh air received a shower of soot and cinders. In addition, people in these "special" sections received little or no service. On overnight trips they were barred from sleeping cars and had to rest as best they could in their seats. Unable to buy food on the train, they purchased quick meals during stops or brought their own food in a basket or cardboard box.

The railroads were not the only option:

Thousands of migrants also traveled north on buses, automobiles, and trucks. Along the East Coast, many migrants sailed on ships between southern ports and cities like New York and Washington, D.C. Traveling by water was less expensive than train travel and included sleeping quarters in the price of the ticket. [Field to Factory , p. 29-30]

This migration is one of the largest movements of population in the history of the United States, comparable to the better known western migration along the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe Trails. About 1.6 million people joined the Black Migration through World War II.

A more widely dispersed migration took place after World War II, spurred by defense industry jobs, and changing Civil Rights laws. Crew wrote:

From 1940 to 1960, nearly three million Afro-Americans left the South. Many of them traveled to West Coast cities, though Midwestern and eastern cities received their share of new residents. Afro-American communities in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland more than tripled in size as a result of this new wave of migrants. [Field to Factory , p. 73]

Just as remarkable was the migration of southern blacks within the South. Hundreds of thousands living in rural areas moved into southern cities; hundreds of thousands living in the "core" South moved to the rim southern States, especially Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia.

Writing in 1941, one of the pre-World War II migrants, the author Richard Wright, said, "Perhaps never in history has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city; we were barely born as a folk when we headed for the tall and sprawling centers of steel and stone." [Wright, Richard, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States , Viking Press, 1941, p. 93]

Although the northern States had not adopted Jim Crow laws, the migrants "found social conditions in the North sometimes a mirror image of what they were fleeing in the South." As Packard explained, the "etiquette" of Jim Crow was absent, but, "many facets of Northern life involved a high degree of discrimination aimed at blacks, discrimination that was just as humiliating, and often just as brutal as anything they had known in their former homes."

The small number of African-Americans in the north prior to the war tended to be relatively educated and had been subject to "a kind of truce that had for many years kept racial disharmony at a mere simmer." Shifting demographics changed the balance:

Sadly, if predictably, the blacks who surged into the North's cities changed white Northerners' perceptions of these communities' racial equations, leading whites to see what had before been a "stable" situation as now a "problem." Not only were the new black migrants dramatically less educated than those who had long lived in the North, they were also suddenly viewed as rivals for the low-paying jobs held by poorly educated whites and, even more dangerously, were sometimes suspect as potential strikebreakers. The result was vastly increased racial tension in the North, more discrimination and racism, and all too often racial disturbances leading to rioting and mass murder. [American Nightmare , p. 112]

African-Americans were crowded into substandard housing, often with the connivance of real estate agents and loan officers at banks. In the north, the migrants did not see separate water fountains or segregated transportation as in the South, but individual whites could still refuse service, whether in a restaurant or theater. These were actions by white individuals, with no recourse for African-Americans to remedy the discrimination. "White Americans everywhere were free in those years-free to practice racism as they were free to reap the enormous benefits that were the birthright of their white skin." [American Nightmare , p. 112-113]

The mass exodus of African-Americans from the South to northern jobs during World War I began to raise their hopes. These hopes were dashed shortly after the war as 25 race riots took place in the last 6 months of 1919 around the country, not just in the South. Woodward described this period:

In the postwar era there were new indications that the Southern Way was spreading as the American Way in race relations. The great migration of Negroes into the residential slum areas and the industrial plants of the big Northern cities increased tension between races. Northern labor was jealous of its status and resentful of the competition of Negroes, who were excluded from unions. Negroes were pushed out of the more desirable jobs in industries that they had succeeded in invading during the manpower shortage of the war years. They were squeezed out of federal employment more and more. [Strange Career , p. 101]

Journalist Nicholas Lemann, in his book on the Black Migration, quoted Wright's comment, but said of the changes in society during the two migration periods:

The lives of the millions of participants in the great black migration to the cities have been limned by sweeping historical trends: the mechanization of the cotton fields, the end of legal segregation, World War II and the booming labor market it created in the urban North, the death of consensus liberalism as America's reigning creed, and the collapse of our manufacturing economy. [Lemann, Nicholas, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America, Vintage Books, 1992, p, 345; Wright quoted on p. 52]

The new residents, many not accustomed to city life, put a drain on public services that exceeded their tax contribution. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education , and subsequent Civil Rights legislation (to be discussed later) accelerated the trend of "White Flight" that began after World War II. Middle and lower class white residents sought new housing in suburban areas, in part to leave minorities behind and escape the desegregation of urban schools. The urban riots of the mid-1960s added to the racial divide between city and suburb. Often, these trends were accelerated by real estate interests that used such tactics as blockbusting to "churn" neighborhoods from white to black.

In the days of Toll Roads and Free Roads and Interregional Highways , Federal highway officials were trying to get their new program up and running in cities even as other Federal officials were touting a new housing concept for revitalizing the urban core. Within cities, public housing had begun in the early 1950s to move minorities and low income groups from aging housing stock into high rise apartments.

The "projects," as they were often called, did not provide the benefits their idealistic proponents had expected, and have been discredited long after they had reshaped the urban core in negative ways. Lemann described the result:

The one government program that can fairly be accused of having gone wrong . . . is public housing, especially the deadly effect of having no tenant screening in massive high rises that are segregated and filled with large families. Living in public housing doesn't absolutely doom people . . . . But the atmosphere of these federally funded projects-the rampant crime, the drugs, the emphasis on an exaggerated and misguided version of masculinity that glorifies gang membership and sexual conquest-clearly helped to cause the troubles . . . . [Promised Land , p. 346]

(In recent years, many of the "projects" built with the idea of instilling pride in their occupants have been torn down to considerable public applause.)

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000