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American History II


The Great Migration

            Although slavery as the ownership of one person by another had been illegal for a quarter of a century before 1890, many southern African-Americans often felt that a new kind of slavery had taken its place. Lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and economic hardships made southern former slaves and their offspring feel as if very little had improved since the days of slavery. Beginning in the 1890s and lasting well into the 1970s, there was a "Great Migration" of southern African-Americans to the West and North that changed the demographic structure of the nation.

            In a poll by Book Week, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man was judged "the most distinguished single work" published in America between 1945 and 1965. Although it is a novel rather than non-fiction, Invisible Man examines the painful inability of African-Americans to understand their identity in a white world.  Ridiculed, rejected, and without a true sense of self, African-Americans have continually had to adjust to a world where the rules are made by someone else.  Never did this point become more clear than in the late years of the 19th century as African-Americans began moving from their homes in the rural South to Northern urban centers in search of jobs and better lives. As early as the 1870s, large numbers of African-Americans had migrated to states like Texas, Kansas, and other predominantly rural areas to escape the negative aspects of living in the Deep South.  By the 1890s, however, an increasing number of African-Americans were moving further and further from the land that had been their home since the days of the slave trade.  Almost a quarter of a million African-Americans moved to the North between 1890 and 1910, while about 35,000 African-Americans moved to the Rocky Mountain and trans-Rocky Mountain West ( Colorado, California, etc.).

            This "Great Migration" increased dramatically in the years between 1910 and the early 1920s. Between 300,000 and 1,000,000 African-Americans moved north in this period, largely in response to an increasing number of unskilled factory jobs opening as manufacturers increased production for World War I.  From 1916 through the 1960s, the migration remained strong, except during the years of the Great Depression, and over 6 million southern African-American people made the move to the North.

            The table below shows the general African-American population trends over seven decades and the extent of southern to northern and rural to urban migration.


As the migration took place, there also began a great national debate on what the place of African-Americans in white America should be.  Booker T. Washington emerged as a major spokesman for African-Americans in the late 19th century. Washington ultimately came to advocate a fairly conservative position--one that appeared to many to buy into the arguments many whites raised that African-Americans were inferior to whites and not ready for citizenship.

            While that is undoubtedly not what he meant, Washington did speak in language that called for his fellow African-Americans to prepare for and to earn what whites were entitled to by birth.
"The wisest among my race understand that agitation for social equality is an extremist folly. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of those privileges."--Booker T. Washington, speech at the Atlanta Exposition, 1895.

            W. E. B. DuBois, among others, challenged this position.  With his Souls of Black Folk in 1903, DuBois announced the intellectual revolt against the "accomodationist" principles of Booker T. Washington.  That revolt crystalized two years later in the founding, under Du Bois's leadership, of the Niagara Movement, which later merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Du Bois became editor of the NAACP's journal, Crisis, holding that position until 1932.  During the 1940s Du Bois began a move toward a Marxist and pro-Soviet point of view which culminated in his joining the Communist party in 1961. "By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men."--W.E.B. Du Bois. It is significant that where Washington spoke in terms of "privileges," DuBois spoke in terms of "rights." Ultimately, most African Americans came to take the position that the issues in question were "rights."

            A third African-American leader, Marcus Garvey, also emerged shortly after Washington and Dubois. Largely self-educated in contrast to the well-educated Washington and DuBois, Garvey had far more experience with working class and poor blacks in various parts of the world. Blacklisted after leading his fellow printers in a strike for higher wages, Garvey worked briefly for the government printing office and founded two nationalistic publications and a political club before leaving the United States for some time. He returned to Jamaica in 1914 and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Communities League. In 1916, Garvey moved to New York City, establishing the headquarters of UNIA there and founding branches during 1919-1920 in nearly every urban area of the country where there was a substantial African-American population. He also founded the Negro World, a weekly UNIA newspaper.

            Garvey urged African-Americans to accept a black deity, to exalt African beauty, and to expound on the lives and notable achievements of Negroes throughout history. Garvey was also involved in plans to resettle American Negroes in Liberia in a "back to Africa" movement. Garvey also began began the Black Star Steamship Line (the British White Star Line was one of the leading steamship companies of the day) and the Negro Factories Corporation, which he financed by the sale of stock to UNIA members. Garvey believed that African-Americans could develop a self-sufficient or nearly self-sufficient economy for themselves that would allow them to pursue a separate sub-cultural existence. "Up you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will! The Negro of yesterday has disappeared from the scene, and his place is taken by a new Negro who stands erect, conscious of his manhood rights, fully determined to preserve them at all costs."--Marcus Garvey.

            In addition to the arguments about the social and political equality of African-Americans, there was also some argument about the physical place of African-Americans within the United States. The growth of factories and the increasing unionization in the North meant that there were higher paying jobs available in the South for poor sharcroppers, whether African-American or white. In the early years of the migration, there were actually attempts to keep African-Americans from leaving the South for the North by force and intimidation.  It was not unusual for Klan members to prevent African-Americans from boarding northbound trains or to remove them after they boarded.  The motivation for this activity had to do with the South's continuing need for the cheap labor of African-American agricultural workers.  At the same time, Klan membership in northern states began to grow in part as a response to its growing African-American population.  As agriculture increasingy mechanized, however, the need for cheap sharecropper labor disappeared.

            In the post-World War II period, however, many southern states passed "right-to-work" legislation making it difficult for unions to organize and also reduced welfare benefits to extremely low levels to encourage unneeded agricultural and unskilled labor to migrate to the north.  The effect of this was to stimulate northward migration even further.

            All but the most staunchly racist whites were willing to accept Booker T. Washington's demands because Washington was essentially demanding that African-Americans be given the jobs that whites did not want anyway. Du Bois and Garvey, however, posed a real threat to the comfort of most whites. Du Bois's assertiveness and calls for aggressive pursuit of rights and Garvey's black nationalism and veiled threats of violence had many northern whites fearing that American society's very foundations were being shaken.

            Justifying second-class citizenship for any group on constitutional or purely logical grounds is quite difficult. In order to justify their racist attitudes, whites turned to the "evidence" of late 19th century "science" to justify their racist claims. One doctrine of both ethnology and anthropology that was widely accepted at the time was that all of  humankind had evolved from a common stock, but that at various points, that stock had become racially separated. The results of this racial separation were considered by early social scientists to be the Caucasian, Mongolian, Negroid, and Indian races. (Modern concepts of race are quite different from these early definitions and are based on variations in distribution of certain genetic patterns.) At least some of the early ethnologists and anthropologists maintained that the Negroid race had been the last distinct race to form, following the other three in chronological development.  These "scientists" then proceeded to argue that the Negroid race had not had time to develop the highly civilized society of the Caucasian race, and was therefore inferior. (Subsequent anthroplogical research has revealed that there were highly complex and advanced civilizations in Africa while Europe was in the Dark Ages and that the first humans were quite likely African.)

            Other ethnologists and anthropoligists contended that Negroes were the first offshoot of the common race. As such, Negroes could be viewed as the most "primitive" and "backwards" race. These "scientists" pointed to evolutionary "proof" that showed the first life forms on the planet were the simplest and least developed.  T. T. Waterman, a prominent ethnologist of the day, stated that Negroes were by far the most primitive race on Earth--so primitive, in fact, that they faced danger of extinction due to their inability to adapt to modern society.  As such, Waterman urged his fellow Caucasians to "save out a few good Negro types." (What we now know is that all cultures--including European cultures--have had advancing and declining periods that are influenced by warfare, disease, climate changes, etc., that are completely independent of the intellectual capacities of the people in the societies who share a particular culture.)

            The work of Charles Darwin sparked an interest in the means by which an organism's traits are passed to the next generation.  Eugenics and genetics began as attempts to explain such phenomena.  Early eugenicists and geneticists used "scientific proof" to strike fear in the white population by forecasting that the "purity" of white stock would be destroyed by intermingling blood. Since "white blood" was obviously superior, any introduction of other racial characteristics would result in the "weakening" of mankind, reasoned eugenicists and early geneticists. Such "scientists" as W.E.D. Stokes  and Germany's Ernst Haeckel, along with legitimate but misiformed social scientists such as Stanford psychologist Louis Terman, believed that the "best" traits of humans could be selectively bred into the next generation to produce a continuously improving stock of humans.

            Stokes was an experienced horse breeder, and in his book The Right to be Well-Born, or Horse Breeding in its Relation to Eugenics, Stokes compared the breeding of a fine racehorse to the breeding of a good Christian Anglo-Saxon.  Terman, who taught at Stanford, had studied with the French psychologist Binet, who invented the IQ test.  Terman lobbied state legislatures to pass laws mandating the sterilization of people who scored low on his version of the IQ test.  Haeckel's work in Germany was a major influence on Adolph Hitler.

            For many years, the ultimate triumph of psychology was considered to be the development of  IQ testing.  Psychologists invented what they believed to be an extremely effective means of finding out just how smart people really are and giving that intelligence factor a specific number which could be compared to other people's intelligence numbers.  Early psychologists believed that a person's IQ was fixed and unchangeable and also believed that there were real differences between a person with an IQ of 95 and a person with an IQ of 105.  Early psychologists relied on IQ tests to "prove" that African-Americans were, on average, less intelligent than whites. George O. Ferguson, in The Psychology of the Negro, claimed that the average IQ of a white was 100, while the average score of a black was 75. Those African-Americans that did have higher scores must have had lighter skin color attributable to some white ancestors, he reasoned.

            What both the scientists and social scientists were failing to do in this period was to differentiate between genetic characteristics and cultural traits. They also were operating on the basis of a somewhat faulty concept of race, often confusing linguistic stocks (e.g., Aryan), religious beliefs (e.g., Jewish), and genetically transmitted biological traits. They were also doing bad science. The IQ tests of the day were strongly culture-biased containing references to passages in the Bible, for example, elements that would be relevant to people in urban areas but not rural areas, and elements that would be relevant to people who lived well north of the Equator but not those living in tropical zones. It was not until the 1960s that psychologists even began looking at the possible cultural bias of standardized tests including IQ tests. In the 1950s, we also discovered that people's IQs were not fixed and could be dramatically affected by education and training. For their part, the biologists were operating without any knowledge of DNA and generally without adequate controls on their research such as proper sampling techniques, controls for age, sex, and other variables, etc.      Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould has written an interesting volume called The Mismeasures of Man exposing many of the errors of early science and social science that created a basis for many false beliefs about racial and physical differences among peoples still held today.

            For African-Americans who migrated from the Deep South to the North or West, conditions were still very difficult. Segregation of many different things had been made legal by the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1890. While Plessy set forth a doctrine of "separate but equal," in fact, "equality" of facilities was seldom found although segregation was rampant. Many states that were not a part of the Confederacy maintained school systems segregated by law and public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, theaters, public transportation systems, etc.) segregated by law. The armed services remained segregated until 1948 when President Truman ordered them integrated. The basis for segregation was sometimes not fixed in law in the North and West, as it was in the South, but rather fixed by social customs. But it was segregation, nonetheless. The college library has copies of the Wheeling newspapers on microfilm. Until the practice was made illegal by civil rights laws in the 1960s, real estate advertisements designated certain housing for sale or rent as "suitable for colored people," meaning that those units were in the area defined by local custom as the "ghetto" for the city's African-American population. Similar advertisements can be found in the real estate sections of many northern cities because real estate agents became the enforcers of the unofficial systems of segregation of housing. African-American workers were typically paid less than their white counterparts for the same work. Even the government's New Deal work programs permitted two pay scales, one for whites and one for non-whites (much to the consternation of Eleanor Roosevelt, who urged the government to end both the dual pay system and the segregated facilities system the government had instituted under southern-born President Woodrow Wilson).

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