This fall, in addition to launching Modernizing America: 1889-1920, the Progressive Era unit of Women and the American Story, we will also roll out a companion curriculum for the upcoming exhibition Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow. One theme that teachers and students will be able to trace in both guides is the experience of Black women who escaped the rural South for a new life in the urban North. These women were pivotal in shaping the modern African American experience. Their stories showcase the diversity of women’s experiences in the growing urban centers of the Progressive Era.
Kind Sir: We have several times read your noted paper and we are delighted with the same because it is a thorough Negro paper [Chicago Defender]. There is a storm of our people toward the North and especially to your city. We have watched your want ad regularly … We want to engage as cook, nurse and made [sic]. We have some educational advantages, as we have taught in rural schools for few years but our pay so poor we could not continue … Will you please assist us in securing places as we are anxious to come but want jobs before we leave…Our chance here is so poor. ~ Jacksonville, FLA., April 28, 1917.
In the early 20th century, the Chicago Defender, the well-respected, nationally circulated African American newspaper, fielded innumerable letters like the one above from southern Black women. Eager to flee the violence of lynching, economic insecurity, and Jim Crow laws, African Americans launched a mass exodus – a Great Migration – out of the rural regions of the southern states, resettling in the rapidly expanding urban centers of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
Between 1890 and 1930, approximately two million African Americans left the south, tripling the Black population above the Mason-Dixon Line. Most migrants left as families, but single women would outnumber men (except during World War I), as they sought out the growing – though limited – economic opportunities beyond the sharecroppers’ fields and underfunded rural schoolhouses. The Chicago Defender took note:
Indeed, southern Black women had few job opportunities in the south. Sharecropping condemned rural laborers to perpetual debt, agricultural work favored men, and widespread competition made it increasingly difficult for Black women to secure jobs in the domestic services (i.e. cooks, maids, laundries, housekeeping). Those Black women who were lucky enough to gain access to education found it even more difficult to find economic security. Job opportunities in teaching were few and far between, prompting the younger, more educated single Black women to leave their homes in search of better opportunities up north.
As Fannie Barrier Williams wrote in this 1914 article:
To help ease the transition, activists and community leaders, such as Fannie Barrier Williams – a New-York-born Chicago Defender writer, founding member of the National Association of Colored Women, and educator – worked to help secure job placement for women before they made the expensive journey up north.
Northern cities, however, would not promise boundless opportunity for these women. Racial discrimination, along with neighborhood segregation and over-crowing, resulted in a migrant experience that was challenging and, at times, disappointing. The vast majority of women migrants, even those with education and training, would enter into the domestic service industry. Factory work and positions as clerks and saleswomen were often closed off to Black women. As Fannie Barrier Williams noted:
African American women were instrumental in reshaping modern domestic work. Instead of living with their employers, black domestic workers went home to their families at the end of the day. In many ways, this transformation of domestic work into a day job helped redefine domestic labor in the modern era as a visible form of labor, like factory work or sales work.
The growth and unprecedented diversity of the urban population, coupled with the social and cultural revolutions wrought by the changing demographics, ushered in new freedoms for women. The first Great Migration signaled new opportunities for mobility, modernization, and expression within African American society, especially for southern African American women. At the same time, it also brought about new trials and barriers these women (and men) faced well beyond the borders of the southern states. More than a movement of peoples, the Great Migration laid the groundwork for a movement of ideas, and for a national struggle for economic, social, cultural, AND gender equality.
The Great Depression stymied the flow of migrants by the 1930s. However, new job opportunities generated by American mobilization in World War II launched a second wave of migrants, or a ‘Second Great Migration,’ between 1940 and 1980. Yet again, while most traveled with their families, single women outnumbered their male counterparts within the migrant population of this second generation, something we will explore in a future unit of Women and the American Story, launching in 2019.
– Tamar Rabinowitz, Education Division.
Top image credits: Chicago Commission on Race Relations. A negro family just arrived in Chicago from the rural South. 1922. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America. (detail)