Early Chicago: The Great Migration

The Great Migration was the largest mass movement in American history. It began in 1915 and continued into the 1970s. During this national upheaval, more than 7 million blacks left the South and headed north and west.

To Southern blacks, Chicago was the "Promised Land." Stories of big city life — jobs with good wages, homes with running water, and basic freedoms denied to blacks in the South — made the Northern city a prime destination for blacks coming from below the Mason-Dixon line. Five hundred thousand African Americans ultimately moved to Chicago. In the first wave of migration between 1915 and 1940 Chicago's black population more than doubled.

The Great Migration was prompted, in part, by the impact of World War I. Workers were needed to keep Chicago’s factories rolling. Immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s further opened factory jobs with better pay to black workers.

The Chicago Defender, the city’s leading black newspaper, waged an extensive campaign encouraging blacks to move north. Starting in 1916, the paper published stories about Southerners who had "made it" in the city. For help with travel, housing, and jobs, the paper printed lists of churches and other organizations to which potential immigrants could write. And for those already in Chicago, the Defender routinely printed rules of conduct to help new arrivals adjust and avoid conflict. Tips such as "Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into street brawls" and "Don’t use liberty to do what you please" were intended to bridge the black community’s increasing range of social behavior.

Significant numbers of blacks who moved to the city did improve their lives and social condition, but Chicago was not prepared to embrace Southern blacks with fully open arms. Crowded tenement housing, limited educational opportunities, violence, discrimination, segregation, indifference from city government — these were all part of the city experience for "new" blacks.

But the Great Migration also changed the city and the black community in unexpected and far-reaching ways. Due to restrictive housing patterns, black Chicagoans were forced into a segregated community. From this black city-within-a-city arose successful businesses and entrepreneurship; rich and far-reaching cultural creativity in music, visual arts, and literature; a focused political purpose; and bold self-determination that continues to resonate throughout the city and across the nation.