Detroit and the Great Migration, 1916-1929 by Elizabeth Anne Martin

"Detroit is the largest city of opportunity in the world."
-Detroit City Directory, 1924-1925

City Hall, showing Dime Bank and Post Office, Detroit, Mich.

From the Postcard Collection, Bentley
Historical Library

Today, thousands of citizens of Detroit, Michigan, are unemployed, hungry, frustrated and desperate. Some live in neighborhoods overrun by violence, in homes that are shockingly run-down. Some have no homes at all. They suffer, but continue to endure. Sadly but ironically, the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of these Detroiters came to the Motor City early in the century in search of better lives for their children and grandchildren.

Beginning during World War I and continuing for several decades thereafter, African-Americans arrived in Detroit in unprecedented numbers. In 1910, the Black population of the city numbered only 5,741, a mere one percent of the total population [1]. By 1920, the number of African-American residents had grown to 40,838, with most of the increase coming after 1917 [2]. This number would double again before the end of the decade, when African-Americans cane to comprise 7.7 percent of the entire Detroit population [3].

The thousands of African-Americans who flocked to Detroit were part of the "Great Migration" of the twentieth century. Between 1916 and 1930, an estimated one million Black Southerners migrated to northern cities [4]. Though long since liberated from slavery, Blacks in the South did not enjoy equal citizenship with whites. During Reconstruction, African-Americans had exercised their new right to vote by electing two Black United States Senators, twenty-three Congressmen, and more than one hundred Southern legislators [5]. As the Democratic party began to regain its foothold in the region in the late nineteenth century, however, whites used poll taxes, voter examinations, property qualifications, and sometimes violence to disenfranchise African Americans. Furthermore, increasing racial violence and the Supreme Court's decision to endorse a "separate but equal" doctrine combined to crush African-American hopes that the promise of true emancipation would soon be fulfilled [6].

Persistent social inequities prevented Blacks from using education and employment as alternative vehicles for racial advancement. The southern educational system as a whole was greatly inferior to that of the North, and its failings fell disproportionately on Black students. Southerners spent the barest minimum of education funds on African-Americans. A large number of classrooms, some of which had to accommodate more than one hundred children, had no desks or blackboards [7]. And some Black teachers received only one-tenth the pay their white counterparts did. Whites maintained that it was the responsibility of the African-American community to educate its own. Yet few Black communities could raise enough money to keep schools open, let alone improve them [8].

Similarly, the depressed southern economy placed a greater share of its burdens on Blacks. For many, emancipation meant doing the same work they had done as slaves, but without the free food and lodging. Landowners passed on their own credit problems to Black tenants and sharecroppers by granting them "advances" for food and supplies and extracting payment in cotton. By this method, they kept Black farmers in perpetual debt by taking away their livelihoods [9]. Near the turn of the century, bankrupt African-American small landholders and impoverished field hands seeking off-season employment began to trickle into urban areas to work in the fledgling southern industries. There were, consequently, many skilled and semi-skilled Black workers already living in the cities when the pace of the South's industrial revolution began to accelerate [10]. When crop-drenching rains and the boll weevil forced Black and white agricultural workers off the land, however, white job seekers flooded the market and robbed experienced Blacks of their positions [11]. At the same time that this labor oversupply plagued southern cities, an atypical undersupply threatened northern industry. Whereas from 1900 to 1914, twelve million immigrants had come to the United States ready to work, only 110,000 came in 1918 [12]. The abrupt cessation of immigration came just as war needs mandated a cheap labor supply. As a result, large industries sometimes began to hire labor agents to entice Black workers north, offering free transportation or wage advances to cover the cost of the trip [13].

The first migrants to answer this call soon drew others north with tales of independence and prosperity. Money sent home was hard evidence of the advantages of life in the new region. African-American newspapers, most notably the Chicago Defender, were instrumental in glorifying life in the North and providing information about available jobs there [14].

Word spread quickly. The region that had been home to Abraham Lincoln had always been attractive to southern Blacks seeking release from oppression [15]. Now that realities of employment opportunity could supplement dreams of social equality, previous anxieties about the hardships of a move appeared less significant. Neighbors and friends organized migration clubs to move north together. They arranged group travel rates and also served as emotional support groups [16]. Soon, Blacks from all over the South began pouring into northern cities, harboring all sorts of expectations as to what they would find there.

Table, Increase in Black Populations of Northern Cities, 1910-1930

Found in David Allan Levine, Internal Combustion The
Races in Detroit 1915-1926,
Greenwood Press, 1976.

What they found, in many instances, was a hostile white community. The overwhelming concentration of Blacks below the Mason-Dixon line prior to World War I made it simple for Northerners to avoid reflection on the status of race relations in their communities. Instead, they contented themselves with attributing all racial tension in America to backward southern traditions. African-American historian Carter G. Woodson prophetically observed in 1918: "The maltreatment of the Negro will be nationalized by this exodus. The poor whites of both sectors will strike at this race long stigmatized by servitude but now demanding economic equality. Race prejudice, the fatal weakness of America, will not abate" >[17].

As it turned out, the white working class expressed the greatest distaste for Black migrants who competed with them for jobs. For labor organizers who had been trying to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions in a period of high labor demand, the timing of the migration was terrible. Penniless African--American migrants, desperate for immediate employment, were quick to take the relatively high-paying jobs offered them by northern employers. White unionists raged at Blacks who failed to comply with organized work stoppages, yet refused to admit African-Americans into their organizations >[18]. Racial violence soon erupted among the working classes in several cities, including Philadelphia, Houston and East St. Louis >[19].

The struggle against white prejudice and animosity was a discouragingly common aspect of the lives of Black migrants in the North. White employers, though willing to hire Blacks for unskilled positions, were reluctant to employ skilled Blacks >[20]. At the same time, de facto segregation characterized northern school districts. Intelligence tests branded many migrants handicapped by poor southern schooling as "retarded" >[21]. Finally, restrictive covenants forced Blacks to settle in certain areas of the cities-areas ill which housing conditions were abominable. Ever increasing demand for housing in African-American neighborhoods enabled landlords to charge exorbitant rents, often higher than those exacted in newer white neighborhoods >[22]. The scarce supply of housing in Black districts made landlord expenditures on upkeep or improvement unnecessary. As a result, the rooms available in apartment buildings and roominghouses were ramshackle, unsanitary, and severely overcrowded. Such conditions made Black neighborhoods breeding grounds of crime and disease, providing segregationists with evidence to justify the continuance of restrictive covenants >[23].

In spite of many unrealized dreams, few migrants returned home to the South. The redistribution of the Black population during the Great Migration had an enduring impact on American society, and especially the city of Detroit, which experienced the largest relative growth African-American population of all the large industrial cities >[24]. Migrants arrived in Detroit at the rate of one thousand per month during the war years, and in the summer of 1922 a Detroit Urban League investigator reported an influx of thirty-five hundred African-Americans per month >[25].

Like migrants to other industrial centers, most of Detroit's newcomers came ill search of jobs. Many of the early migrants had been recruited by such companies as General Motors and Dupont >[26]. Others had heard about opportunities in the auto industry and especially Henry Ford's famous 1914 promise of $5 per day for his workers. Still others came north looking for jobs but ended up in Detroit only because the train stopped there. "Most were just corning-riot knowing what they would do when they got here, having no direction. not knowing where they would sleep, who they were going to see, or who would he interested in them. When the train reached Detroit, they would just go into the station and sit down" [27]. Sadly, these migrants, who had come to Detroit with vague but grandiose dreams about prosperity in the North, were the most disappointed during times of recession, as ill 1920 and 1921, when there were not enough jobs ill the city for even the natives [28].

African-Americans were not the only people migrating to Detroit during and after the first World War. Working-class whites came from the South in search of the same jobs as African-Americans. After the war, immigrants also began to arrive in Detroit ill large numbers again. The city's population nearly doubled between 1910 and 1920, rising from 465,766 to 993,678, with most of that increase coming after the war began [29]. By the, mid-1920s Detroit was the fastest growing metropolitan area and the fourth largest city in the United States" [30]. In 1925 the city was home to three thousand major manufacturing plants, thirty-seven automobile manufacturing plants, and two hundred and fifty automobile accessory manufacturing plants [31]. Factories employed over three hundred thousand people [32]. The prosperity and opportunity Detroit seemed to offer attracted tens of thousands of migrants of all classes and skills. African-Americans, because of their color, were simply the most visible among the newcomers.

African-Americans stood out in Detroit after 1918 in a way they had never done before the war, when the Black population hall been very small. According to historian David Katzman, the social system in Detroit at the turn of the century was caste-like-- African-Americans had little contact with whites in any aspect of city life >[33]. Eighty-five percent of the Black population lived on the Near East Side of the city (also known as the St. Antoine district, after the street which bisected it at that time) >[34]. Economically, African-Americans were largely confined to domestic and personal service occupations. In the interests of "efficiency," many of Detroit's largest factories hired only members of a single ethnic group, and that group was almost never Black >[35]. In fact, in 1910, only twenty-five out of ten thousand auto workers in Detroit were African-Americans >[36]. Only a few Blacks held white collar jobs, and they could hope to climb only so high on the social ladder-they could never truly break through into the white hierarchy. This "caste" system went relatively unchallenged until the swelling of Detroit's Black population tested the social and physical barriers separating Blacks from whites >[37].

Significantly, the existing Black community of Detroit worried as much as whites did about the influx of "uncivilized" migrants. African-American leaders knew that whites had a propensity to see every African-American's behavior as representative of the entire race. They feared that the influx of rural migrants would cause whites to See all Blacks as dirty, loud and disrespectful >[38]. They tried to remind white citizens that before the war the Black population of Detroit had been mainly "families of a high grade, both in intelligence and well-being. They lived in various parts of the city, self-respecting and respected for their intelligence and well-being. Some of them held responsible places in the commercial professions and community life of the city >[39]. Despite their efforts to distinguish themselves from the migrants, however, all Black residents of Detroit soon found themselves treated by whites as a single entity.

Few native residents of Detroit welcomed the migrants with open arms. Many tried to ignore their coming in the hopes that they would return to the South. The pressing needs of thousands of newcomers for employment, housing, religion and health care, however, could not be denied indefinitely. The future of not only the migrants, but of the city as a whole, depended on how the institutions of Detroit responded to the needs of the city's newest citizens.