The Great Northward Migration and Social Transformation, Part I

Sometime during the mid-1910s, African Americans, until then almost exclusively concentrated in the Southern United States, began a mass exodus. Pushed out by poverty, oppressive Jim Crow laws, violence and disenfranchisement, Southern Blacks sought a better life in growing cities of the Northeast and Midwest. There, the booming war industry was in need of labor, and their prospects for socioeconomic advancement were, if not exactly bright, at least significantly better than the ones they faced in the South.

That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
So now I seek the North —
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.

Langston Hughes, “The South”

This Great Northward Migration was to last approximately 60 years, and constitutes the single largest internal migration episode in the history of the US. Between 1915 and 1970, more than five million Blacks left the US South, drastically changing the racial landscape of the country. The largest recipients of migrants were cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York, that were to become centers of Black American life and culture. The massive impact of the migration on the African American experience is expressed in literature, poetry, music and the arts (most famously in the Jacob Lawrence series of paintings from which the title picture is taken).

The economic drivers and effects of the Great Migration have been extensively examined in a growing literature in economic history (see a recent review piece by William Collins). Leah Boustan’s and, more recently, Ellora Derenoncourt’s work document how Black migrants made important gains, but also how the Great Migration gave rise to segregation and the birth of the urban ghetto, in turn lowering the intergenerational mobility of Black families in the North.

Less empirical work exists on the Great Migration’s social and political effects. In two working papers with Marco Tabellini and co-authors, we investigate some of those effects, seeking to better understand how the Great Migration contributed to the transformation of US society – and to answer some more general questions about migration, race, human behavior and intergroup relations along the way.

One of the more subtle effects of the first wave of Black migrants to Northern US cities that we identify in our paper with Shom Mazumder was that it promoted the assimilation and socioeconomic advancement of the large number of European immigrants who had arrived to the US North around the turn of the century. That Black migrants would have helped immigrant advancement is not entirely obvious. Immigrants and Blacks were frequently in competition – for similar low skilled jobs, in urban housing markets, and, more broadly, for status and a place in American society.

Immigrants in the early 20th C US, especially those coming from Eastern and Southern Europe, were positioned at the lower end of the social hierarchy. Racial pseudo-scientific theory, a then prominent current of thought that had a profound impact on US immigration policy during the Progressive Era, made fine distinctions across European races. Eugenicists that influenced the US nativist movement, like Madison Grant, considered Nordic immigrants superior to Alpine and Mediterranean races, and lamented that the US’s original settlers were “elbowed out of [their] own home” and “literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews.”

The first-time arrival of large numbers of African Americans to Northern cities presented Jewish, Southern-European, and Slavic-origin immigrants with a new source of competition, but also gave them the opportunity to climb up the social ladder. Historians have long connected immigrant assimilation into US society to the US’s racial profile. In his work “Wages of Whiteness” David Roediger argues that the concept of a white race formed, among other means, as members of various ethnicities intentionally distanced themselves from Black slaves in order to gain acceptance in the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. This was a strategy adopted by Irish immigrants already before the Civil War, as Noel Ignatiev documents in his book “How the Irish Became White”.

In our paper, we show that such strategies could be successful because African American migration to the North changed the perceptions of native whites, shifting attention from ethnicity to skin color as an in-group identifier. In places that received more Black migrants between 1910 and 1930 not only did local press feature fewer negative references to immigrants, but also tended to talk about them in a less stereotyped way. The Irish became less associated with Catholicism, and the Italians less associated with the mafia. This suggests that the Great Migration lowered the salience of features that distinguished immigrants from native whites (such as religion), increasing instead the salience of features that united them (such as whiteness).


Effect of Black migrant inflows on frequency of stereotypes in the northern press, 1910-1930. The dependent variable is the frequency of the co-occurrence of each term on the y-axis with the word “Irish” (black lines) or “Italian” (gray lines), normalized by the frequency of the word “and” (left panel) or by the frequency of the respective term (right panel).

As a result, immigrant assimilation was favored. We find that, in places that received more Black migrants, rates of intermarriage between immigrants and the native-born of native parentage increased. Immigrants naturalized at higher rates, they were able to move away from low-paid manufacturing and unskilled jobs, and assimilation continued into the second generation, with the foreign-born giving less ethnically distinctive names to their children.

Part of this effect is due to immigrants signaling assimilation in response to competition from Blacks. We see, for instance, that naturalization rates – at the time a relatively costless gesture of Americanization – were higher among immigrant groups concentrated in manufacturing or in lower skilled occupations prior to the Great Migration. Those were the groups most likely to face competition from Southern Black migrants. This evidence is consistent with what has been emphasized in historical work – Desmond King states that “those who were visibly or vaguely “white” eagerly sought membership within the Caucasian chalk circle.” Yet signaling did not necessarily translate into changes in social acceptance, as measured by intermarriage rates. Intermarriage increased the most for relatively more skilled “Old Source” country immigrants. This strongly suggests that immigrants’ efforts to distinguish themselves from Blacks could not have led to assimilation were it not for the changed attitudes of whites. Those attitudes favored the most culturally proximate Europeans (those considered “whitest”, and at the top of existing ethno-racial hierarchy of immigrants) and stood as barriers to the full assimilation of those further away.

In a 1993 Time magazine article titled “On the Backs of Blacks”, Toni Morrison describes the story of Stavros, the Greek immigrant protagonist of Elia Kazan’s film America America. The defining moment that turns him into a (white) American is when he ejects a Black man – a shoeshiner like himself – from his store in the words “Get out of here! We are doing business here!” Our data does not allow us to evaluate the extent to which adoption of whites’ racial prejudice worked as an assimilation mechanism for immigrants in the US North, but this is certainly a plausible scenario. As Gunnar Myrdal put it “[T]he development of prejudice against Negroes [was] usually one of [the] first lessons in Americanization for [new immigrants].”

What we do have evidence on is that the Great Migration altered the social hierarchy of the US North and, by inserting Blacks at the bottom, elevated immigrants to a higher position. Or at least European immigrants, since we find no evidence of assimilation among those born in China or Mexico.

The conclusion is rather grim, as it points to a zero-sum game played between minorities. In my next post I hope to offer a more optimistic picture on the social effects of changes in racial demographics. I will discuss how the second wave of the Great Migration, in the 1950s and 1960s, promoted the Civil Rights movement outside the US South, partly by increasing support for it among segments of the working class white population that in principle could have seen Black migrants as competitors. At that time, and at least for some whites, solidarity on the basis of class trumped competitive tension and divisions on the basis of race.


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