African-Americans have gone through terrible experiences to eventually achieve the freedom that they now enjoy. The main demographic character of the black population in the late 19th century and early 20th century was rural and southern. It is in this period that the Jim Crow Laws came into effect and the great migration took place. Jim Crow was a stage name for a white minstrel actor who was known for making fun of African Americans by disguising as a black man to amuse his audience. The term Jim Crow was later used to stand for the laws, customs and rules that segregated the black man from the white society. These laws prohibited many African Americans from public facilities, transportation, and education, voting and even from public entertainment. African Americans had to cope with discrimination, verbal abuse, and violence without consequences by whites. It is these laws and other factors that led to the Great Migration. This was the mass migration of Black-Americans to the North from the South. These people were looking for an escape from the problems of racism brought about by the Jim Crow Laws in the South. It is therefore, critical to understand how the Jim Crow Laws affected the great migration.
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African Americans went through all sorts of abuse under the Jim Crow Laws. They were not just anti-black laws; it was a way of life. Under these laws, the black man was reduced to a second-class citizen. This came in the late years of the 19th century when the efforts of reconstruction were slowly fading. This was made worse when the Supreme Court made a narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, clearing the way for new laws to be imposed by the southerners where discriminatory social regimes existed. The southerners saw this as an opportunity to build new social and legal regimes that would ensure white supremacy. Under the Jim Crow Laws, blacks were inferior to the whites in all significant ways which included intelligence, civilized behavior and morality. These laws were discriminatory and isolated the blacks from utilizing many social amenities most of which were essential. For instance, the “Separate Car Law” was passed in the State of Louisiana. This law required all railroads to provide each race with separate cars and banned the black race from using cars reserved only for the whites. But this turned out to be just a hoax; blacks were not provided with equal facilities as the whites. The blacks were not allowed by law to share the same seat with the whites. Those who broke these laws were arrested and put in prison (Packard 72).
Intermarriage was illegal in the south; blacks were to marry blacks. Whites expected blacks to know their place by showing differential conduct in their relations with whites. The laws put in place separate social institutions for the blacks and whites: hospitals, prisons, public restrooms cemeteries, schools hospitals for whites and blacks. Any resistance to these laws was made with violence which, involved lynching. Authorities conspired with those involved or they just stood by as the lynching was carried out. Blacks were excluded literary from all communal activities and organizations. The laws made it impossible for blacks to be hired by employers and paid equal wages with whites. After World War II, there was widespread black migration to urban and mostly northern areas. These areas offered an opportunity for blacks to upgrade their standard of living. The blacks were able to enjoy some of the social amenities which they had not enjoyed before. Many industries in the North were facing labor shortages, this coupled with the mild stance of the north towards discrimination and segregation, saw the large labor surplus of black men and women move from the south to the north. The black movement to the North in search of a better life, better employment and equality led to what was famously called ‘The Great Migration (Jaynes and Williams 60).
The “Great Migration” was the massive demographic shift which profoundly altered the lives of blacks as they moved from the south to the north during WWI. Records show that about half a million blacks moved to the north between 1915 and 1920. There were many factors that compelled this group to move, but the most spelled out force was the oppressive “the Jim Crow Laws”. The European migration had been cut off by the war and the industrial boom in the north provided the blacks with an opportunity to get jobs in the north that they could not get in the south because of the segregationists and discriminatory Jim Crow system (Moreno 121).
It has already been mentioned that the main factor that persuaded blacks to migrate from the south to the north was economic and social mobility. The chance for a black man to earn a living away from the traditional sphere was a powerful attraction that he could not resist. A city like Richmond for instance, gave black women an opportunity to move away from the low paying domestic service imposed on them in the south by the Jim Crow system. Black and colored women had no chance of getting any kind of job in the South. Social mobility and decent wages in Richmond and the intolerable race relations of the south propelled blacks to move (Trotter 115).
The city of Chicago also witnessed hundreds of thousands of blacks moving in from the South escaping segregation in search of economic opportunity and freedom. The migration radically transformed the city into a place where no group had a majority. This change promoted an environment where black people could rise to prominence. It became a city where the black person had a chance to be somebody in the society. While in the north, blacks found not just better jobs, but less exposure to violence, freedom to vote and better schools for their kids. This did not mean that racism had been eliminated, discrimination in real estate forced blacks into segregated and poorly maintained housing. This led to rise of the black ghetto in urban areas. They were excluded from labor unions and therefore were forced into menial jobs. This completion for jobs between whites and blacks led to race riots in many cities (Hazen 42).
Despite all the problems, blacks living in the north wrote to their families back in the south telling them about the better living in the north. They sent them money and also helped them to move north. Black newspapers also encouraged blacks to move away from the Jim Crow system to the Promised Land in the north. They helped new arrivals find jobs and some northern companies sent agents to recruit blacks from the south. Realizing that they were losing on labor, southern states tried to stop the migration. They passed laws in which travelling blacks were fined or jailed. Recruiters from the north were also jailed including blacks who encouraged others to migrate. The black newspaper, the Chicago defender, was banned in several states. Nonetheless, blacks continued to move in their large numbers to the north (Hazen 42).
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The migration was not just to the northern cities but also to cities in the west such as California, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles. When the second wave of migration came in 1960, nearly 40% of America’s blacks resided in the west and north and three quarters of blacks resided in urban areas, a figure that had lived in rural areas at the start of the century. To many of the blacks who participated in the migration, and even to the generations after them, it was the inhumane Jim Crow laws that propelled them to move from the south to the north to seek a better life, a life where, all people are treated with dignity and respect that they deserve (Hazen 42).
In all their struggles, African-American sought to have a decent life, better jobs, better housing, education, medical services, and equal opportunity with the whites. They had been denied this under the Jim Crow laws that applied to the Southern states. Fighting to suppress white dominion had not worked. Many paid with their lives for resisting the indignities of the Jim Crow laws. The north provided a reprieve from all these, and hence the great migration of blacks to the north.
Hazen, Walter. American Black History. New York: Lorenz Educational Press, 2004. Print.
Jaynes, David and Williams, Murphy. A Common destiny: Blacks and American society. New York: National Academies Press, 1981. Print.
Moreno, Paul. Black Americans and organized labor: a new history. New York: LSU Press, 2006. Print.
Packard, Jerrold..American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003. Print.
Trotter, William. The Great migration in historical perspective: new dimensions of race, class, and gender. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991. Print.