Not a Migration, but an Escape: Northern Industrialists, African American Migrants, and the First Wave of the Great Migration

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 9:10 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Karida Brown, University of California, Los Angeles
Why did it take nearly fifty years after the abolition of slavery for the African American Migration to initiate? This paper situates the first wave of the African American Great Migration—the period between 1910 and 1940 during which an estimated 1.6 million Black Americans migrated from the South to cities primarily in the North and Midwest—within the political economy of its migration industry. Data for this research come from a combination of state and federal court cases adjudicating the post-Reconstruction era “emigrant labor agent licensing laws”, a series of 1916 Bureau of Labor reports, and 153 oral history interviews conducted with a generation of African Americans who participated in a step-wise migration through the coalfields of central Appalachia between 1915 and 1970. I show that the first wave of this mass movement was not a migration at all; it was an escape. Further, I argue that northern industrialists were not merely passive receivers of black labor at the onset of the Great Migration, but instead that they, and the labor agents deputized under their purview, were the main initiators of the deluge of Black migrants from the South to the North during the first four decades of the twentieth century.
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