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A Brief History of the Great Migration, when 6 Million Black People Left the South

The Great Migration in the 20th century changed the face of America. For the past few decades, it's been reversing.

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Over roughly 60 years from the 1910s to 1970, 6 million Black Americans packed what they could and took the nearest train, bus, or horse and buggy out of the South.

Many were searching for better lives for their families, economic parity, to get away from Jim Crow laws — "everything that was stifling to them in the South," said Gwen Harmon, manager of the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. "They migrated to the North to get out of the actual field environment as a sharecropper and as a cotton picker, looking for some type of job that, we say, had dignity to it."

This period in American history is known as the Great Migration, when African Americans from rural areas in the South moved to cities in the North and West — including my family.

"The majority of our family did leave Mississippi to make life better," my aunt Bernice Henderson told me. "Life was better for them and other families that I know. They made it work for them."

Auntie Bea grew up in Acona, an unincorporated community about an hour away from Mississippi's capital, Jackson. She's the 12th of 16 children, most of whom moved to Chicago once they became of age. 

"We went through some hard times, and the adults knew that in order to make it, they were going to have to do something else, especially if they wanted to change," she recalled.

At the time, Chicago had job and housing opportunities not available in the South. When my family participated in the Great Migration, it was a few decades after the first wave, which started around 1910.

"It really begins in earnest [around] World War I," said Robert Luckett, Ph.D., history professor at Jackson State University. "By the early 1900s, Jim Crow [was] really getting a foothold, and it's not just Jim Crow disfranchisement. It's also segregation. ... African Americans [were] saying, 'We've got to do something better for ourselves, for our children and for our grandchildren.'"

Depending on where they lived, Black Southerners typically migrated to a certain area. For example, people in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas largely moved to the Midwest and Western cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and St. Louis. Folks from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee followed the train lines and moved to Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago, while people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina went Northeast to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

After moving, men took jobs in factories, steel mills, slaughterhouses and railroads. Most women worked as maids or in the garment industry. By 1940, many cities in the North and West had seen a 5% to 9.9% increase in their Black populations.