Transforming the Nation: New Perspectives on the Great Migration
The Great Migration was the mass movement of more than six million African Americans out of the U.S. South between 1910 and 1970. This exodus, which Isabel Wilkerson calls “the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century,” had vast implications for the trajectory of the United States in the last century. Not only did this massive demographic shift redefine urban life in the U.S., it also transformed the African-American population from an overwhelmingly Southern to a national population. The papers in this panel offer new perspectives of the Great Migration by highlighting untold experiences and demonstrating the ways black Americans, whether southern migrants or those who remained in the South, transformed the nation.
Brian McCammack highlights how black Southern migrants literally transformed the Midwestern landscape, ditch by ditch and tree by tree. His presentation examines the manual environmental labor of black Chicago migrants in rural Illinois Civilian Conservation Corps camps and how they contended with ideas about race and labor in order to obtain fair work conditions. In recovering the forgotten stories of young black CCC laborers, McCammack draws connections between the North and South and demonstrates that their unique experiences with rural work in the North created a hybrid environmental culture amongst black Chicagoans.
Kendra Boyd’s paper explores the ways black Southern migrants transformed the urban and economic landscape of Detroit, Michigan by helping to facilitate the Great Migration through business. Migrant entrepreneurs carved out a space for themselves in Detroit’s industrialized economy by catering to newly arrived Southerners and providing specialized goods and services to a formerly rural clientele. In analyzing the entrepreneurial activities, rather than wage labor of black migrants in Detroit, Boyd demonstrates how black business ventures shaped migration patterns and allowed black migrants to build a strong community in Detroit.
Beatrice Adams addresses how blacks who chose to remain in the South amid the mass exodus sought to transform their region during the second wave of the Great Migration. Her paper demonstrates that Southern black educators and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) used the momentum caused by the mass movement of African Americans as an opportunity to advocate migration to the South from other parts of the country and world. The histories of those who worked to promote what they saw as increasing opportunities for blacks in the urban South will reveal that the Great Migration sparked campaigns for economic, political, and social changes to restructure the entire Jim Crow South.
This panel will highlight a range of new perspectives on the Great Migration. By Exploring the diverse experiences of migration and its impact on the rural Midwest, a Northern industrial center, and the American South, the panelists show how this movement of people blended rural and urban experiences, redefined urban space, and ultimately transformed the nation.