Decades after the end of the Civil War, Black Americans in the South still faced significant barriers to equality. Poor economic conditions and a lack of opportunities for work and education, Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation, and continued lynchings by hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan all drove some six million Black Americans from the South to seek a better life among the northern states. Between 1910 and 1970, one of the greatest population shifts in American history took place, a movement known as the Great Migration.
It isn't the only such population shift to be given that name—everything from the movement of the Pilgrims to the New World to the trek of settlers upon the Oregon Trail has been called a Great Migration—but this one, more than almost any other, had a massive shaping effect upon the American identity, one that is still being felt today.
Despite this, the Great Migration is often poorly understood and only lightly covered in many history textbooks. For a deeper comprehension of what this important population shift means for American identity and culture, one can look to these 8 books, which cover the movement in great depth, and from a variety of perspectives.
The Warmth of Other Suns
Through the stories of three very distinct and extraordinary individuals, Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the African American diaspora in this expansive and carefully researched New York Times bestseller. With new data pulled from historical records and more than a thousand interviews, The Warmth of Other Suns provides a look at the Great Migration that is at once holistic and deeply personal, an approach that won the volume a National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and led the Wall Street Journal to call it “a brilliant and stirring epic, the first book to cover the full half-century of the Great Migration.”
The Promised Land
When it was first published in 1992, Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land spent weeks atop the Publishers Weekly bestseller list and was considered one of the definitive books on the Great Migration. Today, it remains a key text to understanding this unique part of the American past. Focused on both the causes of the migration and the effects that it had on American cities, agriculture, arts, and the American identity itself, The Promised Land also delves into the politics of the “War on Poverty” and examines how social programs designed to help the impoverished both succeeded and failed. Read it yourself to see why David Herbert Donald of Harvard University called it “a masterpiece of social anthropology.”
A Movement in Every Direction
Rather than a heavily-researched historical document, A Movement in Every Direction takes a very different look at the Great Migration—through the eyes of those it has affected. Combining immersive photography from a variety of artists with personal stories and new essays by Kiese Laymon, Jessica Lynne, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Willie Jamaal Wright, this one-of-a-kind book, published in association with the Baltimore and Mississippi Museums of Art, shows how the effects of the Great Migration continue to be felt today, in everything from our broader culture to our individual experiences.
The Southern Diaspora
Black Americans weren’t the only ones who transitioned away from the South during the Great Migration, and in this “fascinating” (Seattle Times) book, James N. Gregory expands our understanding to show how this exodus affected both the states to which Southerners moved, and the ones they left behind, while acknowledging that Black and white migrants often moved under radically differing circumstances. The result? “An engagingly written and conceptually original study that significantly enhances our understanding of how southern migration redefined the United States,” according to the Journal of American Ethnic History.
The Great Migration in Historical Perspective
Bringing together “well-written and insightful essays” (Journal of American History) from some of the leading thinkers on the subject, this “provocative and informative” (Louisiana History) anthology provides a variety of different perspectives on the Great Migration. It helps to emphasize the role that the migrants themselves played in shaping their own movement and their own future, from choosing where they settled to maintaining networks of family, church, and social support that strengthened their new communities and helped to shape the fabric of American society.
Heirs of the Great Migration
This narrative biography tells the story of Dr. Wright’s family as they moved from sharecropping in Jim Crow-era North Carolina to manufacturing jobs in the industrial Northeast, arguing that his own generation—those born between 1964 and 1981—were the first Black Americans to be granted full citizenship and rights under the U.S. Constitution. And yet, as his life story dictates, the pall of the past was by no means over, as Wright himself was caught up in the Crime Bill of 1994, which many have called the New Jim Crow. In this sobering biography, he shows how “the past became the future,” and examines the inheritance, both good and ill, of the Great Migration and America’s sordid racial past.
Many cities were changed forever by the influx of Black Southerners who settled there during the Great Migration. Of these, some of the most famous include New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Chicago, and Detroit. But in this “rewarding trip to a forgotten special place and time” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Mark Whitaker argues that Pittsburgh should be thought of in that same breath.
After all, as the Great Migration continued, Pittsburgh published the most widely-read Black newspaper in the country, introduced Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and served as the birthplace of some of the greatest pioneers of jazz and other arts. No wonder the Washington Post says that this “fascinating” book will “appeal to anybody interested in black history and anybody who loves a good story.”
Making Our Way Home
This heavily-illustrated primer offers a novel and dynamic look at more than six decades of Black culture and how it shaped America. At once comprehensive and approachable, the almost graphic novel-like style of the book opens up new possibilities, while the density of information contained within acts as “both an important corrective to whitewashed U.S. history and an excellent jumping-off point for further inquiry” (Booklist), combining major moments in the national conversation with biographical information about prominent figures, all placed within their proper cultural context in unique and illuminating ways.