Twentieth century black migrations to the North represent the most critical mass movement of African American people in history other than the forced migration of slavery. Because of the huge impact of these migrations on African Americans and on the nation at large, it is important to understand the reasons for the migrations, white and black institutional responses to this movement, and the known consequences of northern urbanization.
Black migrants left the South for several reasons. Most studies blame economic troubles and abuse endured by the southern blacks as the main causes. Boll weevils, floods, employee machinations, mechanization, and minimum-wage laws were among many troubles. Racist abuse added to the troubles.
Migration made race a national issue; the sudden presence of blacks and the economic competition they caused forced northern whites to confront their own racism daily. The myth that race was only a southern problem was broken. According to Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land: The Great Migration and How it Changed America (1991), The very notion that an enormous racial problem existed in the North caused the whole consensual vision of American society to crumble. Many African Americans already knew this.
African Americans also desired to seize control of their destinies; black migrants looked to their own institutions for help in their new lives. Many black families in the North committed their children to the promise of education, again without significant reward. Finally, housing was almost completely beyond the control of black institutions. Small areas of African American settlement grew into large city sections. The making of the GHETTO was under way.
The arrival of large number of African Americans migrants from the south created numerous problems for northern communities. The Great Migration contributed to the deterioration of ghettos into slums and triggered intraracial as well as interracial tensions. The influx of large number of African Americans into few select cities in the North led to overcrowding and resulted in health and sanitation problems.
The Great Migration also contributed to increased interracial tensions. African American workers from the South were often willing to work for lower wages than whites. Thus, white workers feared that African Americans from the South were going to compete for their jobs, lower their wages, or serve as strikebreakers.
World War I did not change the status and conditions of African Americans. Throughout the war, the army remained segregated, the majority of African American soldiers served in labor battalions, and African American workers continued to be at the bottom of the wage scale. They successfully lobbied for combat troops, and African American soldiers participated on an unprecedented scale in the nation s military. Moreover, the training and commission of large numbers of African American officers signaled the opening of higher military ranks for African Americans. Following the war, however, African Americans did not receive civil rights in exchange for their patriotism. Nevertheless, the events many African Americans experienced after their support of World War I paved the way for the more African American soldiers in World War II..