The Negro Exodus from the South

Image: In the Alexandria glass factories, negroes work side by side with the white workers. Lewis Wickes Hines (Alexandria, VA: 1911) Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee collection, LC-USZ62-92162 .
Great Migration
Of the many causes that Williams cited for African Americans leaving the South, which do you think Williams believed most important? How would you characterize his view of the migration? Did he see it causing any problems?
How is Williams’ report on conditions in the South a commentary on the Court’s opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson?

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Immigrants supplied much of the labor American industrialization required in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When the war in Europe started in 1914, however, immigration declined sharply; in 1915 it had dropped by 75 percent. As immigrant laborers became scarce and American men went off to war, the demand for American industrial products increased significantly. African Americans in the South presented a previously untapped supply of labor to meet the need. Thus began the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North and West that lasted for fifty years. By 1970, some six million African Americans had taken part. (In 1910, perhaps 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South; in 2020 about 56 percent did, despite a marked reverse migration in recent years). During World War I, hundreds of thousands made the move. This migration had important consequences for the country as well as for the individuals involved. As the migration began, two immediate concerns arose: would enough black labor remain available for southern agriculture and the South’s growing industries, and would the labor competition of black migrants depress the wages of white workers in the North and cause conflict? The first concern was economic, the second was social and political as well.

To find out the causes, extent, and effects of the migration, the U.S. Department of Labor’s newly established Division of Negro Economics, which had been set up to mobilize black workers for the war effort, undertook a study. The division, led by a black Ph.D., sent several investigators into the field; W. T. B. Williams (1869–1941), born a southerner, was the only African American investigator among them. Williams traveled extensively in the region interviewing both whites and blacks before writing his report. The report presents a snapshot of a moment in African American life, including attitudes typical of the time, while it points to enduring problems and hints at the beginnings of long-hoped-for change. This excerpt focuses on Williams’ observations of life in the South for blacks and their reasons for moving away. The overall report also sought to find remedies to the immediate problems that prompted the migration. Williams’ answer to the question of remedies, omitted from this excerpt, was brief: address the justifiable grievances of blacks.

—David Tucker

Source: Negro Immigration in 1916–1917, Reports by R. H. Leavell, T. R. Snavely, T. J. Woofter Jr., W. T. B. Williams, and Francis D. Tyson, ed. J. H. Dillard, U.S. Department of Labor (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919), Williams' section of the report was titled “The Negro Exodus from the South.”

For a number of years it has been apparent to even the casual observer that a stream of Negroes has been flowing into the North from the border southern states. Some have been going from the lower South also, but that section has not hitherto been greatly affected. However, recent extraordinary occurrences—the war in Europe, with the consequent shortage of labor in the North, the ravages of the boll weevil and flood conditions in the South—have set on foot a general movement of Negroes northward that is affecting the whole South. . . .

When the floods of 1916 destroyed everything in large sections of Alabama and Mississippi, where for several years previously the cotton had been a failure owing to the ravages of the boll weevil, the banks, merchants, and planters were unable or unwilling to make further advances to the Negro laborers on the farms. Many of the employers turned the Negroes out with nothing to live on. Some urged them to go away to find work, and for the most of them it was a matter of go or starve. Fortunately the unusual demand for Negro labor in the North at that time gave many of the colored people a chance to secure remunerative employment. Thus the exodus had its beginnings.

In the midst of these conditions some planters were wise enough to inaugurate movements for employing and keeping their labor. They set about improving their farms, digging ditches for better drainage, building fences, etc. Such men invariably held on to their labor. Dougherty County, Ga., furnishes an interesting example of the effect of consideration and kindly treatment of the Negroes on the part of the whites. This county has lost few Negroes in comparison with the counties all about it. The Jews are the dominating influence here to a greater extent perhaps than in any other county in the South. The Negroes declare they “are not a cruel people” and that they “never stop ‘advancing.’” They treat the Negroes kindly, leave them a large share of freedom, and do not harass them on the plantations. All the Jews want apparently is their money, of which they doubtless get as much as any other planters or merchants, but they keep the Negro happy while delivering it.

Many of the large corporations employing Negro labor have lost but few men owing to the care they take of them and to the advances they made in wages to meet the rapidly rising cost of living. The Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., in Virginia, which employs nearly 4,000 colored men, is another great corporation which, through considerate, appreciative, and fair treatment of its Negro workmen, has not been disturbed by the exodus, though the attractive wages in the North have carried off many thousands of Negroes from Virginia. . . .

. . .[T]he exodus has carried off a surprisingly large number of Negroes from many sections. The movement has been confined to no one class entirely; the ignorant and the intelligent, the inefficient and the capable Negroes have gone, and they have left both the city and the country. They have taken positions in the North mainly as common laborers on the farms, on the railroads, and about the great industrial plants, while a considerable number are employed as mechanics. . . .

This abnormal movement among the colored people is striking in many ways. It seems to be a general response to the call of better economic and social opportunities. The movement is without organization or leadership. The Negroes just quietly move away without taking their recognized leaders into their confidence any more than they do the white people about them. . . .

The exodus has pointedly called attention to the value of Negro labor to the South and to the South’s dependence upon it. Accordingly the Negroes remaining in the South are being given a consideration never before accorded them. Influential white men are coming to the conclusion, they told me in a number of cases, that they must give the Negro better treatment and a more nearly square deal.1

Negroes are not alone in approving of the exodus. A number of southern white men also, for various reasons, look with favor upon the movement. Many of them feel that the Negro can better his condition by going and that he ought to be free to go. A greater number by far feel that the Negro is making a mistake, and many of them would go to any length to prevent his leaving. Some white men see that if enough Negroes leave the South the masses of white men will be put to work. They are eager to have this brought about. Others, including the commissioner of agriculture of Alabama, believe, too, that the going of the Negro in sufficient quantities means the breaking up of the big plantations. This will enable more whites, and also the Negroes who remain, to get land and become responsible citizens. Some whites feel, too, that they are being demoralized by the excessive employment of Negroes under existing conditions. . . .

Some Effects of the Exodus

Naturally so great a movement of labor from one section would have some harmful effects. The loud and widespread objections to the exodus raised by the farming and industrial interests of the South indicate that the losses and interruptions to business have been considerable and significant. . . . But on the whole the evil effects are not so great as one might have expected. Most of the industries have managed, with some extra effort no doubt, to keep steadily at work, and the crops in the South have rarely been better.

The boll weevil is slowly bringing about a change in methods of farming. Fewer acres of cotton are now planted to the plow and diversification of crops is gradually gaining headway. . . .In fact, with such methods gaining ground, it was simply a matter of time anyway, in all probability, before many Negroes would have been forced out of the South for profitable employment elsewhere. . . .

Seriously costly effects of the exodus are not hard to find in many places. In every state from the Carolinas to Mississippi thousands of acres of land are reported to be lying idle that would have been cultivated had labor been available. And even where good crops have been grown it is a question in many places as to whether sufficient labor for gathering them can be secured. . . .

From the cities and towns all over the South a great many colored women and girls have gone North in this movement. This means that many of the best trained domestic servants have been lost to southern homes. That causes more acute suffering of a kind than the loss of the men laborers. New servants from the towns and from the country have taken the places left vacant, but they lack the training of the old servants, and, above all, are not known to nor trusted by their employers, as were the old ones. This means a real hardship for wives and daughters, from whom come the loudest complaints against the migration of the Negroes.

Underlying Causes of the Exodus

From the average white man one hears only of the attractive wages offered the Negro in the North and the work of labor agents in the South as the causes of the exodus of Negroes. Both have had their effect, but there are other significant, underlying causes. . . .[The Negro] appears to be interested in having some experience with from four to six times as much pay as he has ever had before, whatever the conditions. This increased wage, to many almost fabulous sums, has without doubt been the immediately impelling influence that has taken the Negro suddenly into the North in such large numbers. “Better wages” has been the universal response from black and white alike to my inquiry as to why the Negroes are leaving the South. In responding to the call of better wages, the Negro has done as labor usually does and as white men about him in the South are now doing. I ran across a number of white men in industrial plants who explained to me that only their family relations, property holdings, etc., kept them from the better wages to be had in the North. A leading citizen of Tuskegee, Ala., reports that 500 white men from his county have recently gone North. At least 50 of these are employed in one plant at Akron, Ohio. And Negroes from the South report the presence of large numbers of southern white men in a wide range of northern industries. . . .

The Negro’s success in the North has been far more effective in carrying off labor than agents could possibly have been. Every Negro that makes good in the North, as thousands are doing, and writes back to his friends that “everything is pretty,” starts off a new group to the “promised land.”. . . Then, too, a great deal of money has been sent back into the South by the migrants, and this attracts no end of attention. There are little towns in Alabama, for instance, where colored people are reported to be handling more real money now than ever before in their lives, it having come from friends and relations in the North. . . .

The unusual amounts of money coming in, the glowing accounts from the North, and the excitement and stir of great crowds leaving, work upon the feelings of many Negroes. They pull up and follow the crowd almost without a reason. They are stampeded into action. This accounts in large part for the apparently unreasonable doings of many who give up good positions or sacrifice valuable property or good businesses to go North. There are also Negroes of all classes who profoundly believe that God has opened this way for them out of the restrictions and oppressions that beset them on every hand in the South; moving out is an expression of their faith. Unfortunately the South gives the Negro abundant occasions for wanting to leave. As someone has put it, it is not only the northern pull but also the southern push that is sending so many Negroes out of the South.

The treatment accorded the Negro always stood second, when not first, among the reasons given by Negroes for leaving the South. I talked with all classes of colored people from Virginia to Louisiana—farm hands, tenants, farmers, hack drivers, porters, mechanics, barbers, merchants, insurance men, teachers, heads of schools, ministers, druggists, physicians, and lawyers—and in every instance the matter of treatment came to the front voluntarily. This is the all-absorbing, burning question among Negroes. For years no group of the thoughtful, intelligent class of Negroes, at any rate, have met for any purpose without finally drifting into some discussion of their treatment at the hands of white people.

The average white man, however, seems to have little knowledge or appreciation of this feeling among Negroes. Few think apparently that anything but money, or the novelty of change, or desire for what they call “social equality” has anything to do with the migration from the South; but they are greatly deceiving themselves. . . .Indeed, it was rare to find a southern white man who felt, or would at least admit to me, that the South’s treatment of the Negro had anything to do with the exodus. . . .

Because Negroes have made few public complaints about their condition in the South, the average white man has assumed that they are satisfied; but there is a vast amount of dissatisfaction among them over their lot. There seemed to be no escape and little remedy for it, so there was no point in stirring up trouble for themselves by publicly railing about their plight. The easiest way was the best way. The opportunity to make a living in the North, where hitherto no considerable number of Negroes were wanted, gave them the chance long looked for to move out and to better their condition. Nevertheless these migrants love the South; many of them write back longingly of their homes; still they break their old ties and face a new life in a strange land for the sake of the larger, freer life which they believe awaits them and, particularly, their children. It has taken something more than money to move these masses of people, though money is a necessary condition for the movement and is the immediate occasion of the exodus; but the Negro’s list of grievances that have prepared him for this migration is a long one.

The effect of the Negro press in making the Negro actively conscious of his condition is little known outside of the Negro race. At least two of these publications have exercised a tremendous influence in arousing Negroes to this movement from the South. One of these Negro newspapers in Chicago makes its lurid appeal to the lowly class of Negroes. It has increased its circulation in the South manyfold during the last year. In some sections it has probably been more effective in carrying off Negroes than all the labor agents put together. It sums up the Negro’s troubles and keeps them constantly before him, and it points out to him in terms he can understand the way of escape. It neglects to mention the new troubles he is likely to meet, but plays up the advantages open to him in most inviting style.

One of the most serious of the long-standing grievances of the Negro is the small pay he receives for his work in the South. . . .

As tenant, the Negro works under varying conditions from state to state and in different sections of the same state. In typical portions of South Carolina, the tenant furnishes the stock, plants, cultivates, and gathers the crop for one-half of everything except the cotton seed, of which he gets none; or, if he merely furnishes his labor, he gets one-third of everything except the cotton seed.

Similar conditions for tenant farming obtain in the sections of eastern Mississippi which I visited. But many of the Negro tenants feel that it makes little difference what part of the crop is promised them, for the white man gets it all anyway. In the portions of Alabama and Georgia which I visited conditions are apparently easier, for there the tenants get half of the cotton seed as well as half of everything else. . . .

In certain parts of Mississippi, at any rate, Negro renters fare but little better than tenants. They are subject to the overseer’s driving and directions, and must respond to the landlord’s bell, just as the other hands do; and when the renter has made his cotton crop he cannot sell it. According to the law of the state, only the landlord can give a clear title to the cotton sold. This gives rise to the frequently deferred settlements of which the colored people complain bitterly. Apparently, in order to secure his labor, the landlord often will not settle for the year’s work till late in the spring when the next crop has been “pitched.” The Negro is then bound hand and foot and must accept the landlord’s terms. It usually means that it is impossible for him to get out of the landlord’s clutches, no matter how he is being treated. In many cases the Negro does not dare ask for a settlement. Planters often regard it an insult to be required, even by the courts, “to go to their books.” A lawyer and planter cited to me the planters’ typical excuse: “It is unnecessary to make a settlement when the tenant is in debt.” As to the facts in the case the landlord’s word must suffice. It is not easy to get capable lawyers to take Negroes’ cases against landlords, even when it is quite apparent injustice is being done. It not infrequently happens that the Negro who obviously makes money and gets out of debt is dismissed from the plantation, a common expression being that as soon as a Negro begins to make money he is no longer any account.

Another form of injustice that has long been preparing the Negro to escape at his first opportunity is the charging of exorbitant prices by the merchants and planters for the “advances” to the Negroes, and the practice of usury in lending money to them. For example, the tenant contracts for his money advances from the 1st of January. He usually receives no money, however, till the 1st of March and none after the 1st of August. But he must pay interest on the whole amount for a year, and sometimes even for the extra months up to the time of the deferred settlement. This practice has become so common that the comptroller of the United States Treasury, I was reliably informed, has warned all southern banks that such practice is usury, and if it is continued, he will close the banks indulging in it.

Other common practices that keep Negroes stirred up and tend to drive them away are carried on in many places to an extent hardly believable. In a number of the small towns and villages Negroes are roughly handled and severely punished by the whites. The beating of farm hands on the large plantations in the lower South is so common that many colored people look upon every great plantation as a peon camp; and in sawmills and other public works it is not at all unusual for bosses to knock Negroes around with pieces of lumber or anything else that happens to come handy. A “poem” written by a southern Negro descriptive of conditions as he sees them in the South and printed several times has two lines bearing on this point:

If a thousand whites work at a place,
Each one there is my “boss.”2

On the whole, the plantations or industrial camps that have given any attention worth considering to the housing and general comforts of their employees are rare.

In the cities and towns, Negro sections are usually shamefully neglected in the matter of street improvements, sewer facilities, water, and light. Most of the larger southern cities not only exclude Negroes from their fine parks, but make little or no provisions for the recreation of the colored people. Harassing, humiliating “Jim Crow”3 regulations surround Negroes on every hand and invite unnecessarily severe and annoying treatment from the public and even from public servants. To avoid trouble, interference, and even injury, Negroes must practice eternal vigilance in the streets and on common carriers. The possibilities of trouble are greatly increased if the colored men are accompanied by their wives, daughters, or sweethearts. For then they are more likely to resent violently any rough treatment or abuse and insulting language, whether addressed directly to them or to the women. Colored women understand this so well that they frequently take up their own defense rather than expose their male friends to the danger of protecting them.

The abnormal, unwarranted activities of southern police officers are responsible for deep grievances among Negroes. In many cases the police have been the tools of powers higher up. Many colored people believe that employers of convicts urge the police to greater activities among Negroes in order to fill up convict camps; and, as if encouraging arrests, the authorities frequently do not pay the constable and other petty officers’ salaries for their services but reward them in accordance with the number of arrests made. Naturally, they get all out of it that the business will stand. The Negro suffers and pays the bill. These officers have become so notorious that even some influential whites have revolted at the enormity of their practices. . . .

Another source of long slumbering discontent is the matter of Negro schools. Southern white people know so little about the schools for Negroes, or regard their education so lightly, that they do not often look upon the lack of facilities for even elementary education among the colored people as an impelling cause of unrest among them; but in whatever else Negroes may seem to differ they are one in their desire for education for their children. . . .

Another of the more effective causes of the exodus, a cause that appeals to every Negro whether high or low, industrious or idle, respected or contemned, is the Negro’s insecurity from mob violence and lynching.4 He may or may not know of the sporadic cases of lynching in the North, but he does know it is epidemic in the South. It was the State, of Columbia, S.C., I think, that asked its white readers if they would not leave a country where they might be lynched by mistake. Recent lynchings, and particularly that of Anthony Crawford at Abbeville, S.C.,5 have led Negroes generally to feel that character and worth secure no more protection for them than less desirable qualities, and that no Negro is safe. Regarding the Crawford lynching the Charlotte Observer comments significantly as follows:

It must be admitted that out of that revolting incident the Negro recognized his insecurity and began to move like sheep to any land that even promised better conditions. It was the South Carolina incident which gave impetus to a movement that was then but slumbering.

The broadening intelligence of the Negroes makes them more restive under these unfavorable conditions than they have been in the past. Even the masses of them feel vaguely something of the great world movement for democracy. They bear unwillingly the treatment usually given them in the South, and they are making use of this first great opportunity to escape from it. To assume that the Negro has been blind and insensible to all his limitations, proscriptions, and persecutions, as so many whites appear to do, is to ascribe to the Negro less sense than is required to earn the money which alone the South seems to think is taking him away. Money, of course, he must have to live in the South, to say nothing of the North; but the Negro really cares very little for money as such. Cupidity is hardly a Negro vice. There is a good deal in the statement of a leading colored woman of Florida: “Negroes are not so greatly disturbed about wages. They are tired of being treated as children; they want to be men.” So they are going where the conditions are more promising in that direction; and the mass of the migrants will in all probability not come back, as the whites generally think they will. Even if they do come back they will be very different people. From a good deal of evidence that is available, it seems that most of the migrants are making good in the North, where they plan to stay.

  1. 1. 1“Square Deal” was the term made famous by Theodore Roosevelt to describe his political program of enhancing governmental power, especially the power of the presidency, to ensure equality of opportunity.
  2. 2. A quotation from “Bound for the Promised Land,” a poem about the North that appeared in the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, in January 1917. The entire poem, an example of the “lurid appeal” that Williams mentioned, is reprinted in The Great Black Migration: A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, ed. Steven A. Reich (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014), 395–398.
  3. 3. "Jim Crow” was the system of legal segregation that prohibited blacks from sharing public spaces with whites.
  4. 4. Lynching reached its peak in the 1890s, with an average of 150 African Americans murdered in this fashion each year according to the Tuskegee Institute. By the same count, there were 54 in 1916; lynchingyear.html.
  5. 5. Anthony Crawford (1865–1916) was a wealthy black cotton farmer who had inherited some land from his father but also steadily increased his holdings. On October 21, 1916, an argument with a white store owner over the price of cotton seed eventually led a mob of whites to attack and kill him, despite the efforts of the sheriff to protect him. Given his prominence, Crawford’s killing attracted attention. South Carolina’s then governor, Richard Irvine Manning (1859–1931), a progressive reformer, encouraged an investigation, but legal proceedings failed when no one in Abbeville would testify. The aftermath of Crawford’s lynching illustrates some of the changes beginning to happen, which Williams noted in his report, in part because of the migration. Business interests in the town were concerned that Crawford’s killing would encourage blacks to leave and sought to reassure them by passing a resolution in a town meeting opposing lawlessness, asking for the establishment of a local militia, promising protection to citizens of all colors, and even welcoming “federal involvement” if blacks were threatened. For details on the lynching and its aftermath, see Abbeville Press and Banner, October 25, 1916,; and Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (New York: Random House, 2002), 226–229.
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