African American Migration to the North: New Evidence for the 1910s

By Maloney, Thomas N. | Economic Inquiry, January 2002 | Go to article overview
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African American Migration to the North: New Evidence for the 1910s

Maloney, Thomas N., Economic Inquiry

Thomas N. Maloney (*)

The years between 1910 and 1920 witnessed the first wave of the "Great Migration" of African Americans to the North. This article uses new census data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series project to study self-selection patterns in African American migration during this important decade. The results indicate that, contrary to contemporary accounts, migration rates rose at least as much among the literate as among the illiterate (and perhaps more), and migration increased more for married African Americans than for the unmarried. (JEL N32, J15, J61)


The World War I era marks a watershed in African American economic and social history. Beginning about 1916, African Americans journeyed out of the South and into the North in greater numbers than ever before. These years began a decades-long era of South-North migration for blacks, lasting into the 1970s. The implications of this migration for U.S. labor markets, urban history, organized labor, housing markets, and welfare policy are much discussed if not yet entirely understood.

Accounts from contemporary observers suggest that the increased pace of migration in the 1910s coincided with a change in the characteristics of the migrants, a shift toward a less educated, perhaps more "footloose" population than had earlier come to the North. It seems reasonable to expect that a great increase in the volume of migration might have altered the migrant selection process. The spread of information about opportunities in the North, along with active recruiting by Northern employers, might have pulled a broader (or different) cut of the Southern black population into Northern cities. Unfortunately, our ability to quantitatively examine migration patterns and to look for such a change in the migration process has (until recently) been greatly constrained. Lack of adequate individual-level data has limited the ability to study these migrants and their fortunes in the North. The release of the manuscripts of the 1920 census, and the processing of these manuscripts into a public use sample through the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) project (Ruggles et al., 1997), allows us to overcome some of the relevant data constraints.

In this article, I use the 1920 IPUMS-98 sample, along with the 1910 sample, to examine South-North migration patterns among African Americans in this important decade. (1) I particularly focus on the question of whether there were measurable changes in the determinants of black migration to the North. I conduct a parallel examination of the migration patterns of Southern whites in this era for comparative purposes. The results indicate that among black men, the positive effect of literacy on the probability of migration remained unchanged as the volume of migration increased. Furthermore, migration rates rose more among married black men than among single black men, reducing the disproportionate selection of single men into the migrant stream (though, on net, single men were still more likely to move than were married men). Among black women, it appears that the positive effect of literacy on the probability of migration may have increased, and that, as for men, migration probabilities rose more among marrie d women than among single women.


The increased pace of black migration to the North in the 1910s was driven by both "pull" and "push" factors. Changes in Northern industrial labor markets opened up new opportunities for blacks in these years. Manufacturing labor was in great demand, whereas the traditional source of cheap industrial workers in the North-- European immigration--declined markedly (Collins, 1997; Henri, 1975, 50-51). Labor agents from Northern firms came to the South offering to pay for the move North, with repayment to be extracted from future wages (Henri, 1975, 60-61).

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