The Great Migration

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

Beginning in 1915, hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the South for Northern cities including Chicago, seeking both to escape the racist oppression of Jim Crow and to pursue new employment opportunities opened up to Black Americans by WWI-related labor shortages. In Chicago alone, some 50,000 Black southerners relocated to Chicago before 1920, dreaming of a fresh start as promised by the city’s preeminent Black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. The majority of these migrants settled on the city’s South Side in a narrow strip that came to be known as the “Black Belt.” In the 1930s, this neighborhood came to be called Bronzeville, which is still its name today. Thousands found work in nearby stockyards and meatpacking facilities, steel mills, farm equipment plants, and other factories, while still others served in other blue-collar jobs or as domestic workers.

Many of these new transplants did indeed find better wages and living conditions in Chicago, and they developed thriving communities and a wealth of businesses, banks, neighborhood associations, nightclubs, and churches across the Black Belt. Some Black workers became involved in early interracial union organizing efforts, and particularly in the city’s meatpacking plants, where they collaborated with Eastern European and Irish immigrants on the Stockyards Labor Council.

But while Black southerners did find some opportunities for better wages and emancipation from formal Jim Crow, they also discovered that Northern cities were not free from discrimination and racist violence. Housing shortages caused Black residents to seek to move outside the Black Belt. Many whites responded by forming 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 killing African Americans simply for setting foot on white turf. In June 1919, white mobs on the South Side murdered two Black men in one night. In this instance and dozens of other bombings of Black homes—some of which also had resulted in killings—Chicago Police failed to make any arrests, despite numerous witnesses.

Across the United States, the summer of 1919 came to be known as the “Red Summer,” a term first coined by civil rights activist and poet, James Weldon Johnson. As Americans dealt with the aftermath of World War I—a global economic slump, abiding anti-immigrant sentiment, the Red Scare (or the period of widespread anti-radical repression in the U.S. following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia), and the difficulty of reintegrating veterans, both Black and white, into civil society—race riots broke out in more than three dozen cities and left hundreds, mostly African Americans, dead. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 took place in this atmosphere of racial violence and widespread social unrest.