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The Great Migration was a Triumph of the Black Press

FBI, Lawsuits Could Not Stop Effort to Create Largest Migration in American History

Erick Johnson | 4/25/2016, 6:59 p.m. | Updated on 4/25/2016, 6:59 p.m.
Another banned Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier (now the New Pittsburgh Courier), used the Black Pullman Porters to carry out ...
Iconic photo of the Chicago Defender "Paperboy". The Chicago Defender had over 500 paperboys who sold the Chicago Defender and became the nation's largest Black owned daily newspaper with over 1 million readers. (photo courtesy of the Chicago Defender)

There were over six hundred Black families applying for 53 apartment units in just one day in Chicago in 1917. In two years, more than 100 storefront churches would dot the South Side. By 1930 the number would climb to 338. During that time, the Black populations of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and other major northern and western cities would explode as thousands arrived by train almost on a daily basis. In these cities a Black middle class was established and the largest migration of Blacks in American history swept the nation.

Today, on the 100th Anniversary of the Great Migration, many Blacks in the Midwest and Northeast have parents and grandparents who migrated from the South. Because of direct train routes, Blacks in Chicago are more likely to have parents or relatives from Mississippi. Blacks in New York and Philadelphia are likely to grandparents from South Carolina. The correlation exists also for other northern states that were accessible by direct routes that served their southern states.

Many left the South during the Great Migration, two periods in American history where the Black population dramatically shifted north and helped transform major cities in the Midwest, Northeast, and West. It’s also a period that gave birth to “Bronzeville” as a Black Metropolis, where thriving businesses, prominent writers and artists flourished during the Harlem Renaissance.

The force behind this movement was the Black Press. And behind the Black Press was the FBI and city officials who aimed to keep Blacks in their place.

Most Blacks who migrated from the South were poor Black men who temporarily left behind families while risking their lives for a future that was uncertain. Their wives and children would stay behind until the men would secure better paying jobs that would support their families.

With little money and the long journey, many did survive the trip. Others were not allowed to board the vehicles by racist train managers. Blacks who did make the trip experienced a side of America that was once off limits to them. Cities that flourished with economic opportunities and better captured the imagination of some six million Blacks, who for the longest time, yearned for prosperity and freedom.

They came from the South, a region whose economy was still struggling from the devastation caused by the Civil War and slavery. For thousands of Black families, jobs opportunities were few. The American dream remained distant and many could not read or write because of the lack of schools in segregated neighborhoods.

When several Black newspapers landed in the hands of many Black southerners, eyes widened and hopes grew. Headlines and stories that detailed the lives newly planted Black migrants triggered seismic migration and established the Black Press as a significant institution, one that would come under heavy scrutiny as it fiercely advocated the civil rights of Blacks across the country.

The Black Press was around long before the Great Migration, beginning with Freedom’s Journal in 1827. However, historians argue that the Great Migration was a major chapter in history that helped define the Black Press.