With Art & Industry: 1890-1920

The promise and disappointment of the North

The newly industrialized cities of the North, like Chicago, held the promise of greater economic opportunity and security for southern blacks. Through letters from relatives and friends that had gone ahead, southern blacks knew they could earn more money working in the factories of the North than in the fields of the South. The northern economy was booming because of the First World War. Northern industries wanted cheap labor and quickly absorbed the growing labor pool of unskilled men and women arriving from the South.

The black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, encouraged migration and became one of the most important sources of information for migrants coming from the South. In many ways, the newspaper exaggerated the promise and the potential of the North. "According to The Defender, in the North one could have both economic opportunity and human dignity."

Not the Promised Land

Blacks still met with discrimination and segregation from the white residents of cities like Chicago. "The initial reaction of the white community to the incoming blacks was one of hostility, which often led to violence..." Southern black migrants found themselves stuck in urban ghettos marred by crime, violence, poor housing, and unsanitary conditions.

Most migrants had been farm laborers or domestic servants and lacked marketable skills for this new urban environment. They had arrived at a time when the market for unskilled laborers and domestics was at its height. Once World WarI ended, there was mass unemployment and a wave of race riots that swept the country from Washington, D.C., to Chicago (see Timeline).

Quotations from: E. Marvin Goodwin, Black Migration In America From 1915 to 1960: An Uneasy Exodus, Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd., 1990:pp. 12 &23.


© Illinois State Museum 31-Dec-96