The Great Migration

by Jenny Schelewitz Gerdes

Introduction to The Great Migration

Between 1915 and 1970, six million African Americans left their homes in the South and moved to states in the North and West. This massive movement of black citizens from one part of the United States to another is known as the Great Migration. Social conditions in the South provided many migrants with a strong incentive to leave: following Reconstruction, state legislatures throughout the South had passed laws mandating the separation of the races in every area of social life (marriage, housing, education, transportation, healthcare, recreation, and so on). Through these laws (known as Jim Crow) and social custom, Southern states had systematically developed a severe racial caste system. Journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson vividly illustrates this pervasive system of white supremacy in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: African Americans “had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, were banished to jobs nobody else wanted no matter their skill or ambition, couldn’t vote, but could be hanged on suspicion of the pettiest infraction … In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first.” This caste system was enforced not only by law, but by a widespread campaign of terror, known as lynching. Between 1880 and 1950, mobs of white men tortured and murdered approximately 3,500 African Americans, often before crowds of spectators, to avenge suspected violations of the social and legal code.

Between 1915 and 1970, six million African Americans left their homes in the South and moved to states in the North and West.

Yet the migrants were not only fleeing the injustice of the South, they were also recruited to the North by industries seeking to bolster the labor force. Since the early nineteenth-century, these industries had relied on a steady supply of workers from European countries. But, with the advent of World War I, foreign immigration rates plummeted, while demand for manufacturing increased, and Northern industries sent scouts to the South to recruit workers.

Chicago became one of the most important destinations for members of the Great Migration. By the end of the nineteenth century, the city had a large population of European immigrants. In 1890 three-quarters of the city’s population was first- or second-generation immigrant, that is, they or their parents had been born in another country. African Americans made up less than 2 percent of the city. These demographics changed rapidly during the first half of the twentieth century. The black population in Chicago more than doubled during World War I to around 100,000. By 1970, as the Great Migration drew to a close, there were one million African Americans in Chicago, a third of the city’s population.

Most of these new arrivals to Chicago found themselves living in a narrow strip of blocks on the South Side, stretching from Twenty-second Street down to Fifty-first Street. The neighborhood was initially labeled the “Black Belt” or the “Black Ghetto,” but an African American writer suggested calling it “Bronzeville,” a name that many residents found less insulting.

Chicago did not build more housing to accommodate the new residents. Instead, as the years went on, more and more people crowded into dilapidated and overpriced tenements in Bronzeville, sometimes living without heat, light, or running water. The city did not have Jim Crow laws on the books, but segregation was enforced through a variety of social customs and residential codes. Among the most important of these were restrictive covenants, contractual agreements among property owners that prohibited the sale or lease of any part of a building to specific groups of people, usually African Americans. Historian Arnold R. Hirsch explains in The Encyclopedia of Chicago that the covenants were “rare in Chicago before the 1920s, their widespread use followed the Great Migration of southern blacks.” Restrictive covenants effectively confined African Americans to Bronzeville until courts began striking down the restrictions in the 1940s.

Answer the following questions about the introduction:

  1. Why did African Americans leave the South and come to Chicago? What did they hope to find?

  2. Did the realities of life in Chicago meet the migrants’ expectations?

  3. What social conditions did African Americans encounter in the city between World War I and the civil rights movement?

  4. How did life in Chicago compare to life in the South?

  5. How did established Chicagoans—both black and white—respond to the new arrivals?

  6. What effects did the migration have on the city?

Follow this link to read the biography of poet Gwendolyn Brooks

Now, read Brooks' poems, “kitchenette building” and “De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery.” Choose one of the poems and apply TP-CASTT analysis.

  1. TItle - Based on your reading of the title alone, what do predict the poem might be about?

  2. Paraphrase - Put the poem into your own words with a paraphrase. This reading is the literal meaning of the poem - what is happening on the surface. Don’t analyze at this point.

  3. Connotation - Here is where you can start your analysis. Which poetic devices is the poet using in order to bring meaning or effect to the poem? Consider imagery, figures of speech (simile, metaphor, personification, symbol), diction, point of view and sound devices (onomatopoeia, rhythm, rhyme).

  4. Attitude - What attitude or tone is present in the poem? Consider both the author’s and speaker’s attitude. What words or devices are used to achieve these attitudes? How does attitude of the poem contribute to its meaning?

  5. Shifts - Where do you see changes occur in the poem? Changes may occur in content, spacing, punctuation, tone, etc.

  6. Title - Now look at the title again on an interpretive level. Has the meaning of the title changes from your first reading?

  7. Theme - What is the poem saying about the human experience, motivation or condition? Remember the theme must connect to the work in particular and be expressed in a complete sentence.

  8. How does Brooks' experience inform her writing?

“kitchenette building” and “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery ”

Gwendolyn Brooks. From A Street in Bronzeville, 1945.

Image of kitchenette building” and “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks named her first book after the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville, where many members of the Great Migration settled.

Image of kitchenette building” and “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title kitchenette building” and “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery
Short Title kitchenette and De Witt Williams, 1945
Book Title A Street in Bronzeville
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Harper
Creator Gwendolyn Brooks
Publication Date 1945
Edition [1st ed.]
Pages pp. 2 and 21
Call Number Martin Y 285 .B793
Location General Collections 2nd floor