World War I And The Great Migration 

Throughout American history, wartime necessity has often opened new political and social avenues for marginalized groups. This was certainly the case after the United States intervened in the First World War in April 1917. By participating in the war effort, women suffrage activists made a compelling, and ultimately successful, case for voting rights: After all, how could America protect democracy abroad without extending it to half the population at home? Likewise, African Americans furthered their claim for racial equality at home by their contributions on European battlefields and on the home front filling industrial jobs.

Congress passed the Selective Service Act on May 10, 1917, which required all able-bodied men ages 21 to 31 to register for military duty.113 On registration day, July 5, 1917, more than 700,000 black men enrolled. By war’s end, nearly 2.3 million had answered the call. In less than two years, more than 4 million draftees swelled the ranks of the U.S. military. Of these, 367,000 were African Americans who were drafted principally into the U.S. Army. On the battlefield, many infantry units in the all-black 92nd U.S. Army Division distinguished themselves.114 But the segregation they experienced in military service reflected the segregation in civilian life. African Americans were barred from the Marine Corps and the Army Air Corps, and in the U.S. Navy, they were assigned only menial jobs. African Americans had to fight to establish a black officer training program.115

African-American Troops Return from Europe/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_NARA_wwi_troops_ARC_533486.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration African-American troops of the 351st Field Artillery gather on the deck of the USS Louisville in February 1919 during their voyage home from Europe.
Arguably the most profound effect of World War I on African Americans was the acceleration of the multi-decade mass movement of black, southern rural farm laborers northward and westward to cities in search of higher wages in industrial jobs and better social and political opportunities. This Great Migration led to the rapid growth of black urban communities in cities like New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit.116 While relatively small groups of southern African Americans migrated after Reconstruction to border states such as Kansas and into the Appalachians, it was not until the imposition of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement in the South that large numbers of black residents left their homes and families to search elsewhere for a better life. Still, in 1910, nearly 90 percent of African American lived in the South, four-fifths of them in rural areas.

Emigration from the South gained more traction with the advent of several important and largely economic developments beginning in the second decade of the 20th century.117 In the South the depressed cotton market and a series of natural disasters reduced even the rare independent black landowner to sharecropping or tenant farming, trapping more and more people in a cycle of indebtedness. Military conscription and the slackening of European immigration caused massive labor shortages in the North, just as war production created an insatiable demand for industrial goods. Those labor shortages provided black Southerners with jobs in the steel, shipbuilding, and automotive industries as well as in ammunition and meat packing factories.

Many found the promise of economic opportunity irresistible, though this was not the only element pulling people northward. Contemplating departure from the South, Representative George White said to the Chicago Daily Tribune, “I cannot live in North Carolina and be a man and be treated as a man.” In an interview with the New York Times, he encouraged southern black families to migrate west, “los[ing] themselves among the people of the country.”118 Historian Steven Hahn has suggested that a “pronounced self-consciousness” encompassed both social and political motivations for emigrating, “searches for new circumstances in life and labor, new sites of family and community building, new opportunities to escape economic dependence.” Hahn explained that the movement not only created new political vistas but “also served as a large and powerful political transmission belt that moved and redeployed the experiences, expectations, institutions, and networks” forged in the black community during slavery and Reconstruction, which would fundamentally shape emerging centers of African-American culture and thought in the North.119

New York Homecoming Parade/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_NARA-WWI-ARC-533508.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration African-American families lined the streets of New York to celebrate the homecoming of the 369th Army infantry unit in 1919.
Whether their motivation was economic, political, individual, or communal, immense numbers of African Americans streamed northward. By one estimate, roughly a half-million southern blacks migrated to northern cities between 1915 and 1920, and between 750,000 and one million left the South in the 1920s. Chicago’s black population soared 600 percent between 1910 and 1930. In the same 20-year period, Detroit’s African-American community grew 2,000 percent—from 6,000 individuals to about 120,000.

This massive demographic shift dramatically altered African-American society, history, culture, and politics. During the 1920s it produced a revolutionary period of black artistic expression in literature, music, and thought known as the Harlem Renaissance. Among those who participated in this cultural moment in northern Manhattan, which raised black consciousness nationally, were poet Langston Hughes, writer Zora Neale Hurston, and scholar and intellectual W. E. B. DuBois. A new sense of African-American culture emerged, stoked by such leaders as Marcus Garvey, an advocate for black separatism and repatriation to Africa. Garvey had emigrated from Jamaica to New York City in 1916 and, within a few years, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), enlisting thousands of members.120 UNIA found much support in the recently transplanted community of southern blacks, who helped establish many UNIA chapters in the South by sharing the organization’s literature with their relatives back home.121 No longer subject to ubiquitous voter suppression like they were in the South, skyrocketing black populations in northern cities created new opportunities for political activism. Slowly, African Americans won election to important political offices, including Oscar De Priest, a native Alabamian and future Member of Congress, who became a member of the Chicago city council in 1915.

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113See Adam P. Plant, “Selective Service Act of 1917,” in Major Acts of Congress, vol. 3, ed. Brian K. Landsberg (New York: Macmillan Reference/Thompson Gale, 2004): 178–181; see also Robert W. Mullen, Blacks in America’s War: The Shift in Attitudes From the Revolutionary War to Vietnam (New York: Monad Press, 1973).

114Ibid., 366–374. Among these, the 15th New York Regiment of the 369th U.S. Infantry stood out. It was the first Allied unit to reach the German border on the Rhine River, and never yielded a trench or lost a member to capture. The French awarded the entire regiment the Croix de Guerre.

115Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: 361–362.

116For more on black migrations in the post-Reconstruction period and the 20th century, see Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (New York: Knopf, 1991); Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migrants to Kansas After Reconstruction (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986); Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). For a concise essay on the historical literature on this topic, see Joe William Trotter, “Great Migration: An Interpretation,” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, vol. 3, ed. Kwame Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 53–60.

117Migration was a long and vexing question in the South and among African-American communities generally. In 1822 the American Colonization Society (ACS) acquired a small tract of land in the British colony of Sierra Leone in sub-Saharan Africa and named it “Liberia”—a settlement of people “made free.” Approximately 15,000 free blacks from the United States migrated to Liberia over the next 20 years. Though the ACS initially received support from several prominent politicians, vocal objectors and an economic depression in Liberia killed the project by the 1830s. After Reconstruction, the issue of African migration was rekindled; however, many African-American leaders, among them John Langston, opposed foreign emigration. “Abuse us as you will, gentlemen,” Langston told Democrats. “There is no way to get rid of us. This is our native country.” Congressional Record, House, 51st Cong., 2nd sess. (16 January 1891): 1480–1482; see also William Cohen, At Freedom’s Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861–1915 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991).

118“Sees No Hope in South,” 26 August 1900, Chicago Daily Tribune: 7; “Southern Negro’s Complaint,” 26 August 1900, New York Times: 8. White lived in Washington and Philadelphia for the rest of his life. He was among eight black Congressmen in the 19th century who left the South after their service in Washington.

119See Hahn’s discussion in A Nation Under Our Feet: 465–476; quotations on pages 465, 466.

120Edmund David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955): especially pages 204–207, 212–220.

121Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: 470–473.