Roaring Twenties: 1916–1929

First and Second Great Migrations

The First and Second Great Migrations (1916–1925, and 1940-1970) marked the exodus of African Americans from the South to escape segregationist Jim Crow laws and find economic opportunity in other regions of the United States.

During and following World War I, Jim Crow laws—or post–Civil War segregationist legislation—plagued the lives of African Americans in the South. Many black farmers were forced to work off debt to landowners, who docked their pay for tools and supplies. Poverty in the South and a major drop in cotton prices made a move North, where higher paying wartime industry jobs awaited, necessary for many families' survival. From 1916 to approximately 1925 the First Great Migration saw huge numbers of rural Southern African Americans migrating to northern cities to escape Jim Crow laws and improve their economic well-being.

The migration increased diversity in Northern cities, prompting a rich cultural explosion in music, writing, and visual arts. However, the Great Migration also revealed racial tensions in the North, as whites increasingly isolated blacks in ghettos. A ghetto is a city district occupied by members of an ethnic, cultural, or religious minority, particularly because of economic, social, or legal restrictions. Although the Supreme Court had prohibited racial segregation in neighborhoods in 1917, white home owners continued to sell only to whites, while white-owned banks rarely granted loans to African Americans. These practices effectively kept black people from owning their own homes and confined them to poorer neighborhoods. The jobs offered to black people in the North were menial in nature, often dangerous, and low-paid. Meanwhile, Ku Klux Klan membership increased in the 1920s, including in the North, as did physical assaults on black people. Despite these attacks, police activity was higher in black neighborhoods, and the police jailed African Americans more frequently than whites for the same offenses. The black community fought these aggressions, forming social justice movements over the next several decades.

While the First Great Migration declined in the late 1920s, the Second Great Migration North and West began in the 1940s, stimulated by World War II production needs, and lasted through 1970. This migration gave blacks opportunities for better jobs and afforded them educational opportunities. Blacks were also able to vote more easily in the North, and involvement in politics didn't stop at the voting booths. African Americans won political office and confronted racism in education, employment, and housing. However, the visibility of the African American community as a wellspring of cultural achievement and intellectual prowess resulted directly from the Great Migration.

The First and Second Great Migrations

Census data shows the effects of both the First and Second Great Migrations. Destinations during the first were primarily Northern and Midwestern cities. During the second, African Americans moved mainly to Western and certain Southern cities.