This essay explores key dimensions of the Second Great Migration. Less is known about the second than the first sequence of black migration from the South and even the basic numbers appearing in encyclopedias and textbooks are often incorrect. New statistical data and new research by historians and sociologists enable us to clear up some of the confusion. This essay was published in African American Urban History: The Dynamics of Race, Class and Gender since World War II, eds. Joe W. Trotter Jr. and Kenneth L. Kusmer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)
“With a four-year-old boy and a ten-week-old girl I boarded a train bound for Oakland.” Thus begins Dona Irvin’s account of leaving Houston in September 1942. Her husband, Frank, was already in California and had taken a job in one of the shipyards that had recently started to hire African Americans. Full of anticipation, hoping for a better standard of living and freedom from southern Jim Crow restrictions, the young family instead found Oakland very difficult. Housing was a nightmare. Initially they squeezed into an aunt’s already crowded flat in West Oakland, which before the war had been the site of Oakland’s small black community. Dona felt lost in the frenzied wartime city where black people were finding certain kinds of jobs but struggled for living space. She appreciated the new freedoms. She could sit in the same seats on streetcars and shop in the same stores as white people. But Oakland crackled with racial tension. “I seriously considered returning to Houston,” Irvin recalls. Then things got much worse. Four-year-old Frank Jr. died during a routine tonsillectomy. The devastated couple had many reasons to think that they had made a mistake in leaving Texas.
Dona and Frank Irvin, their daughter Nell and son Frank Jr. were part of the Second Great Migration, a term historians use to distinguish between two eras of massive African America migration out of the South. The exodus began in the early part of the twentieth century, especially during World War I and the 1920s, and that first phase has long been called “The Great Migration.” The label may have been premature. By some measures a greater migration was still to come. Beginning during World War II and lasting through the Vietnam era, African Americans left home in unprecedented numbers, and in doing so, they reshaped their own lives and much more. Close to five million people left the South between 1941 and the late 1970s. More millions left farms and villages and moved into the South’s big cities. Within one generation a people who had been mostly rural became mostly urban. A people mostly southern spread to all regions of the United States. A people mostly accustomed to poverty and equipped with farm skills now pushed their way into the core of the American economy. And other changes followed. A people who had lacked access to political rights and political influence now gained both.
This essay explores key dimensions of the Second Great Migration. Less is known about the second than the first sequence of black migration from the South and even the basic numbers appearing in encyclopedias and textbooks are often incorrect. New statistical data and new research by historians and sociologists enable us to clear up some of the confusion. Much of what I will report is based on the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) that have been developed by Minnesota Population Center in cooperation with the Census Bureau. The pages that follow assess several issues: where people went and in what numbers; who moved and why; their impact on the cities they went to and on the South they left behind. And I also assess their experiences. Did most benefit from relocation? ...
Historians and demographers have typically underestimated the number of African Americans who left the South during the four decades associated with the Second Great Migration. Figure 1 provides an updated look at the volume of migration during each decade of the twentieth century. It uses IPUMS data and a more sophisticated formula than earlier studies, taking into account estimates of mortality and return migration in calculating how many new migrants left the South each decade. The volumes are low-side estimates. We can be confident that the actual numbers were higher.
Over the course of the twentieth century approximately 8 million African Americans left the South. The chart shows the relative size of the second great migration. From 1940 to 1980 roughly five million blacks moved north and west, more than twice the volume of the earlier sequence that is most readily associated with the label Great Migration. The war years and the rest of the 1940s saw both the start and the peak volumes of the second great migration as close to 1.5 million southerners left home. Migration rates declined a bit in the 1950s. This chart may underestimate somewhat the volume of the 1960s and overestimate by the same margin the 1970s. A badly worded question in the 1970 census seems to have generated some erroneous birthplace information. Most likely volumes of migration were steadier across the 1950s, 60s, and 70s than they appear to be in the census data. On average 1.2 million black southerners left that region during each post-war decade. Those numbers fell off dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s when a booming Sunbelt and a devastated rustbelt reversed regional patterns of economic opportunity that had prevailed for more than a century.
The five million southerners who participated in the Second Great Migration mostly followed pathways that had been established by the generation of southerners who moved north during World War I and the 1920s. The key geographic fact about both migration sequences is that they were tightly focused on big cities. This was a critical part of what made the great migrations “great.” The concentration of large numbers of African Americans in cities that were centers of the American economy and centers of political and cultural influence would give black Americans opportunities that would have been lost if migration patterns had been more dispersed.Here is the rest of the article