The Great Migration was a exodus of around six million African Americans between 1915-1970 from the South to the North in an attempt to escape racist ideologies and practices, and to create new lives as American citizens. Dubbed one of the largest internal movements in the history of the United States, the Great Migration was driven by the duality of a post-slavery life in the U.S.: while no longer slaves, African Americans in the South continued to face debilitating Jim Crow laws, violence, and lack of economic opportunity.
Step Afrika’s The Migration (MAY 3 – 6) is a celebration of the perseverance and strength of those who chose to migrate north, leaving behind their homes and families, in the hopes of creating a better life for themselves. Based on painter Jacob Lawrence’s “The Great Migration” series, Step Afrika! is able to weave history through several mediums of expression (South African Gumboot, Western African dance, vocals, drumming, to name a few) to honor those who made the journey north.
In advance of the show’s Boston run, we’ve created this timeline to details the chain of events that prompted the Great Migration.
1863: Emancipation Proclamation is issued
On September 22, 1862, soon after the Union victory at Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave, it was an important turning point in the war, transforming the fight to preserve the nation into a battle for human freedom. While used primarily as a war measure during the Civil War, it did bring into focus the President’s aim to end slavery and set into motion the legislature required to free slaves.
1865: 13th Amendment officially abolishes slavery
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War, abolished slavery in the United States. The 13th Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
1866: Confederate veterans in Tennessee found the Ku Klux Klan
Founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) enacted violent acts against freed African American people and eventually spread across the entire south. Usually small groups of men with white sheets covering their heads traveling on horseback, the KKK were the vigilante’s of the previous generation of slave owners, trying to rectify and control newly freed people in an underground slavery so to speak. The KKK continues to operate today as a white nationalist and supremacist group, targeting all minorities, from racial, religious, and socioeconomic.
1868: 14th Amendment guarantees African American citizenship
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” One of three amendments passed during the Reconstruction era to abolish slavery and establish civil and legal rights for black Americans, it would become the basis for many landmark Supreme Court decisions over the years.
1870: 15th Amendment guarantees African American men to vote
The 15th Amendment, granting African-American men the right to vote, was adopted into the U.S. Constitution in 1870. Despite the amendment, by the late 1870s discriminatory practices were used to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote, especially in the South. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that legal barriers were outlawed at the state and local levels if they denied blacks their right to vote under the 15th Amendment
1877: Jim Crow laws are enacted
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws created to enforce racial segregation in the south. A formalized version of the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws coined the term “separate but equal” ensuring that African Americans remained at a distance from white populations. Schools, transportation, water fountains, even the US military remained segregated. These laws remained in place until the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement to abolish them and regain freedom.
1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded in New York City
After race riots in Springfield, Illinois in 1908 and increased lynchings nationwide, several African American and white activists founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York City in order to further advocate for African American civil rights. Their mission states: To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law. Still active today, the NAACP remains a champion of civil rights throughout the country and organizing activists.
1910: National Urban League is established
While the Great Migration had not officially started, many African Americans had already begun the journey north, but had difficulty integrating into the urban lifestyle of the major northern cities. The National Urban League was founded in New York City to help African American migrants assimilate to urban life, such as job opportunities, housing arrangements, and economic education.
1915: The Great Migration begins
The first phase of the Great Migration began in 1915 and ended around 1930. In that time, an estimated 1.6 million African Americans moved from rural southern towns to urban northern cities.
1917: The United States enters World War I.
With the beginning of World War I, many factory jobs were left vacant by drafted soldiers. Because of this, many northern industry opportunities opened up and businesses specifically recruited African Americans in the south, offering them discount housing or low transportation and moving costs as incentives to move north.
1919: The Red Summer
When World War I ended, many white factory workers learned that they had been replaced at the their factories by African Americans, which created intense further resentment toward black communities. During the summer of 1919, over 27 race riots across the country erupted as labor tensions reached a precipice.
1921: The Tulsa Race Riots
On May 31st and June 1st, 1921 a white mob attacked residents and business of the African American community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Bureau officially reported 39 deaths, but the American Red Cross estimated 300 deaths with over 800 non-fatal injuries. Many survivors left Tulsa after the attacks and went north to escape the increasingly dangerous south.
1929: The stock market crashes
When the stock market crashed in 1929 cause the Great Depression. Because economic opportunity across the country came to an astounding halt, this ended the first era of the Great Migration.
1939: The US enters World War II
Similar to the First World War, millions of drafted soldiers left behind their professions to go overseas. Not only was there a need to fill the open positions left behind, there was a greater need to expand the economy for the war effort and the United States’ economy began to flourish again The career opportunities available in the North seemed infinite and these economic advancements motivated the second phase of The Great Migration
1940-1941: Jacob Lawrence created The Migration Series
At the age of 23, Jacob Lawrence started and completed the sixty paintings that make up The Migration Series. Funded by the Works Progress Administration, Lawrence’s paintings depicted the hardship, opportunity, and fear African Americans experienced as they moved north during the early 20th century. As he was completing his series, Lawrence included notes that suggested the migration would continue into the 1950s and the 1960s, despite finishing in 1941. You can learn more about the paintings by visiting our website.
1940: The Second Great Migration begins
Between the years of 1940 and 1970, more than 5 million African American’s moved North in search of the same equalities and opportunities they sought out earlier in the 20th century. While The Migration primarily focuses on the first phase of The Great Migration, it is important to note that Jacob Lawrence began his series the same year as the second phase began.