During the early 1900s through 1970, many African Americans migrated from the deeply segregated agricultural South to the industrial, less segregated Midwest and North. They hoped that escaping from Jim Crow states to cities with growing industrial jobs would create better economic opportunities for themselves and future generations. This phenomenon was called the Great Migration and many Black children who experienced it went on to become legendary figures. They include the actor James Earl Jones, the writer Zora Neale Hurston, and baseball star Jackie Robinson.
But important new research by Dr. Ellora Derenoncourt of Princeton University casts doubt on the long-term benefits of the Great Migration for Black families. In a paper published by the American Economic Review, Derenoncourt points out that while there might have been an initial increase in opportunity, many African American grandchildren and great grandchildren of these migrants today are financially struggling. Despite their ancestors’ hard work and optimism, they have seen little bridging of Black/white economic inequality.
What went wrong and what can we do about it today?
After World War I, an economic recession fueled a backlash against African Americans who were trying to be a part of the industrial economy. White Americans, including many war veterans and recent European immigrants, formed mobs to attack African American communities in what NAACP activist James Weldon Johnson called the “Red Summer” of 1919. During the racist violence of that year, hundreds of Black people were killed or injured and over 1,000 were left homeless.
Even with the end of the “Red Summer,” Derencourt explains that African Americans continued to be marginalized by policies that drove de-industrialization, ghettoization of African Americans, white flight, and mass incarceration, as well as continued racist violence.
By the middle of the century, the industrial cities of the North and Midwest had shifted from areas of great opportunity for Black families to what Derencourt describes as “opportunity deserts.”