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The Great Migration

The Great Migration began. Approximately two million Southern Blacks moved to Northern industrial centers in the following decades.

Between the turn of the century and 1930, more than 1 million black southerners set out on one of America's most important mass movements. These people migrated from the South's countryside to the cities in the North. They hoped to find better jobs, a new sense of citizenship, and a new respect for themselves, their families, and their people in the North.

In 1910 the North and the South were so dissimilar that they could have passed for two different countries. The southern states were isolated, economically backward, had fewer schools, and higher rates of illiteracy. Their northern counterparts boasted cultural attractions and booming industries.

Many blacks used the path to the north as an escape route from the menacing racism of the South. Racial segregation was the norm, and blacks were restricted to "colored" facilities that were inferior to the ones marked "white." Black southerners were also politically powerless and were terrorized by whites. From the last decade the 19th century through the first of the 20th century, more black people were lynched than in any other period of American history.

Other circumstances also drew black people away from the rural South. New farm machinery was created which could perform the field work, that had once been done by hand, faster and more efficiently. This pushed thousands of poor tenant farmers off the land and toward the city. In 1915, a severe boll weevil infestation destroyed millions of acres of cotton along with the jobs of those who raised it. New machinery and the boll weevil pushed the blacks away from the South, and World War I pulled the blacks toward the north.

In 1914, the war prevented European laborers from emigrating to the United States, so northern industries turned to the South for workers. Recruiting scouts were sent to the South and they found that recruiting was an effortless task. There was never a shortage of volunteers. Many agents found it easy to take advantage of these willing workers. They insisted that laborers sign harsh and unfair labor contracts which required back breaking work and yielded poor pay.

Not surprisingly, the Great Migration had a big impact on the South. Civil rights spokesperson W.E.B. DuBois regarded the mass movement as the end of the South's old order of black oppression and black compliance with racism. Southern gentleman took a bleak view of the Great Migration. "I do not know how the South could live without Negro labor," wailed a Georgia plantation owner. "It is the life of the South; it is the foundation of its prosperity...God pity the day when the Negro leaves the South."

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