An incredible feature of Maya Angelou’s life is how she traversed the United States, many times accompanied only by her brother, from a very young age. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, part one of Angelou’s seven-part autobiography series, begins with such a journey. Angelou and her brother Bailey were sent at three and four years old alone on the train to their grandmother living in Stamps, Arkansas. To modern readers, sending young children across the country alone on public transportation is a bizarre and unorthodox idea. In reality, Angelou and her brother were unknowing participants in the mass movement of Black Americans from the South to the North (or West) and occasionally back again. This movement, known as the Great Migration, transpired from roughly 1915 to 1970, and irrevocably changed the racial, political, and cultural landscape of the United States.
Poverty, racial violence, discrimination, and a lack of equal opportunities were all impetuses for the Great Migration. Black people all across the rural South living amongst the ashes of slavery and white Southern supremacy were galvanized to move to Northern cities. In the face of the South’s segregation and rampant brutality against Black people, the North’s promise of friendliness and jobs was a siren call. The collapse of the South’s once strong agricultural sector also played a huge role, as many Black Americans depended on agriculture as their major source of income (History.com, “Great Migration”).
The Great Migration was clustered in two major “waves,” or time periods. The first took place in the years leading up to and during World War I. During this phase, most migrants moved from the South to cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New York to fill the void in the manufacturing sector left by those fighting in the war. By the end of the war, approximately 1.5 million Black people had moved into Northern cities. The second phase, beginning at the onset of World War II, saw more Black Americans leaving the South, this time for the northern and western part of the United States. The movement during this period ebbed and flowed until 1970, when it trickled down. By this time, approximately 5 million Black Americans had left the South from 1915 to 1970 (Christensen, “The Great Migration”).
Despite the absence of legal segregation in the South, the North was far from being the mecca Black Americas hoped it would be. Competition for living space in packed cities led to some residential neighborhoods preventing white homeowners from selling vacant houses to Black families. Lorraine Hansberry’s critically acclaimed work, A Raisin in the Sun, covers this topic. Racism and prejudice continued to be widespread, leading to numerous incidents of interracial violence. The worst of these was a 1919 Chicago race riot over the stoning of a Black youth. The riot left 38 people killed, more than 500 injured, and about 1,000 Black families homeless because of fires set by rioters (History.com, “The Chicago Race Riot of 1919”). As a result of these housing tensions, Black Americans created their own enclaves within big cities, resulting in communities like Harlem in New York.
Although their hardships didn’t fully disappear after leaving the South, but rather changed form, Black Americans at large did find more fulfilling and engaged lives outside of the South. In addition to completely changing America’s demographic landscape, the Great Migration also ushered in a new era of political activism amongst the Black American community, leading to movements such as the Civil Rights Movement.