The population of black southern Americans working in the automotive business increased from 600 to more than 25000 between 1910 and 1929 (Alexander et al. 2249). Therefore, most industries could not accommodate more blacks, thus forcing them to look for employment in highly industrialized North American cities. However, this paper argues that they never found the Promised Land where they expected to secure job opportunities without any form of segregation based on gender or color.
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Why They Never Found the Promised Land
Industrialized North America presented attractive conditions in terms of job opportunities, high pay, and suffrage rights. Consequently, from 1940 to 1970, more than four million black southerners relocated to this region in search of economic prosperity (Alexander et al. 2249). Migration witnessed during this period decreased the black Americans’ population in the south from 77% to 53% (Alexander et al. 2251).
This dramatic relocation to the north led to the short-lived standardization of wages for both black and white Americans, which lasted for about two decades. Only blacks who migrated in the 1940s benefited from this policy. They were absorbed into the labor market, thus increasing organizational productivity in terms of improved output levels. However, subsequent migration led to competition in the black labor markets in the north.
Housing markets could not satisfy the prevailing demand. According to Boustan, black southerners’ exodus resulted in a “substantial increase in the labor supply above the Mason-Dixon’s line, particularly in the low-skilled segment of the workforce where existing black workers were concentrated” (113). Hence, their desire to find the Promised Land could not be fulfilled. However, migration continued until 1970. Thereafter, people were required to sign wage agreements before relocating, hence further interfering with their hope of finding the Promised Land.
Immigrant black southerners faced the risk of prejudice and high levels of racism in the north. While they anticipated securing well-paid jobs in areas of their specialization, policies established by northern American companies coupled with union regulations had conditions that prevented them from being included in the labor market. In some areas of trade, organizations embraced white-only policies and traditions.
Therefore, black southerners regretted their decision to relocate in search of the Promised Land, which they never found. The dominant white race in the north sought strategies for explaining why blacks could not be accommodated in the labor market. For example, according to Boustan, they blamed immigrants for dwindling wages, the increased population of unemployed white Americans, and worsening working conditions and terms of service benefits (156). Therefore, contrary to their expectations, blacks were paid low wages, which did not match their high levels of skills. In addition, they enjoyed little or no opportunity for upward career mobility.
Despite signing wage agreements in the south before migrating, black southerners were shortchanged upon arrival. They were confined to overcrowded ghettos or low-rent housing and neighborhoods. Consequently, they became victims of self-centered white property owners who took advantage of housing shortages to earn super-profits. Living conditions worsened due to congestion, the poor accessibility of dwelling places, increasing poverty levels, the deplorable quality of healthcare, and long working periods in factories characterized by poor ventilation. As Alexander et al. observe, by 1960, the exodus of black southerners had not only slowed but also reversed in some situations (2269). Consequently, they did not find the Promised Land.
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Living conditions and poor nutrition experienced in the north made blacks easily susceptible to contagious illnesses. They did not anticipate any form of suffering in their long-awaited destination. Conclusively, this paper has held that when millions of black southerners migrated to the north between 1940 and 1970, they did not find the Promised Land.
Alexander, J. Trent, et al. “Second Generation Outcomes of the Great Migration.” Demography, vol. 54, no. 6, 2017, pp. 2249-2271.
Boustan, Leah P. Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in the Northern Cities and Labor Markets. Princeton University Press, 2016.