The Great Migration

An African American family arriving in Chicago from the rural South, 1920. Image: New York Public Library.

As the Great Migration brought African Americans to Chicago, whites conspired to relegate blacks to particularly undesirable areas of the city. By 1915, most African Americans lived within a narrow strip on Chicago’s South Side known as the Black Belt. By the time of the First World War—in which many black men served—Chicago had become a great industrial center, attracting both raw materials and new residents to support the war effort overseas. But the need for soldiers in the trenches and stricter immigration laws slowed the flow of immigrants from Europe. Employers hired thousands of black southerners who sought freedom from Jim Crow. In a few short years, fifty thousand African Americans from the South relocated to Chicago, dreaming of a fresh start promised by the city’s preeminent black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.

Black southerners found better wages in Chicago, but what else defined their experiences of possibility and constraint? As the Black Belt swelled across racial boundaries, whites formed neighborhood associations to pressure property owners not to rent or sell to black residents. Whites also turned to violence, throwing homemade bombs at dozens of African American homes, while working-class gangs from predominantly Irish neighborhoods policed racial boundaries by chasing, beating, and even killing African Americans simply for setting foot on white turf. In June 1919, two black men were killed in one night by white mobs on the South Side. Police investigators failed to make any arrests, despite numerous witnesses.