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March, 1987, Vol. 110, No. 3
The Great Migration
of Afro-Americans, 1915-40
The "Great Migration" of Afro-Americans from largely rural areas of the southern United States to northern cities during and after World War I altered the economic, social, and political fabric of American society. It made the regional problems of race and sociopolitical equality national issues and gave Afro-Americans a role in the election of northern political leaders, in contrast to the absence of a political role in the South. It helped to spawn a generation of black leaders who struggled for the full citizenship rights of Afro-Americans. Because the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the migration tended to settle in northern urban areas, the effects of the population change were greatly magnified.
The momentousness of the migration as an event does not alter the fact that the migrants were ordinary people. Like colonial settlers or western pioneers of an earlier day, they were not looking to change the world, only their own status. A mixture of farmers, domestic servants, day laborers, and industrial workers, they came from all parts of the South, hoping for a chance to improve their own station or at least that of their children. When the outbreak of World War I drastically changed the job structure of northern urban areas, moving to these cities offered a fresh start and new opportunities for this massive wave of migrants.
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