Albany, New York and the Great Migration

By Lemak, Jennifer A. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Albany, New York and the Great Migration


Lemak, Jennifer A., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


The Great Migration was a period between 1910 and 1940 of rapid population shift when hundreds of thousands of southern African Americans resettled in the North hoping to find better employment, housing, and education for their children, and less racial discrimination. However, upon arrival in the North, blacks found hard, dirty, industrial employment, poor housing, mediocre schools, and racial discrimination. Yet, African Americans continued to flock to the North's urban centers until the 1960s. Albany, New York, similar to other northern cities, experienced an influx of southern migrants during this time that changed the face of the city forever.

The Albany that migrants discovered upon arrival from the Deep South was a city on the move. The 1930 census placed the state capital's population at 127,412, with 98 percent white and 86 percent native born. (2) About half, 52 percent, of all white families lived in nuclear households while 17 percent lived in extended households, 12 percent lived in augmented households, 3 percent lived in extended and augmented households, and 7.4 percent lived in one-parent households. (3)

The late 1920s found Albany's infrastructure modernizing and its population dispersing beyond the traditional neighborhoods. A new City Planning Commission was established in 1927 to purchase new land for proper highways, extend city streets into developing neighborhoods, and install modern traffic lights and controls. Buses were quickly replacing trolleys as the chief mode of transporting workers from home to job.

With an increasing population and improvements in transportation, city planners and private developers began addressing housing needs. By the late 1920s, the borders of the city began pushing further westward--away from the Hudson River and original core of settlement. This era found rows of flats developing for working class families along Delaware and New Scotland Avenues. These double-family structures offered a home and rental income for their owners--often members of the extended family pooling resources. Albany's wealthy continued to build out Western Avenue, extending the Pine Hills neighborhood. (4) Family farms and pine bush could be found beyond all of Albany's newest neighborhoods. Roughly 60 percent of white families in Albany rented their homes, while 38 percent owned their homes. (5) Furthermore, 39 percent of the white population had no children, 25 percent had one child, 19.5 percent had two children, 7.6 percent had three children, 4.7 percent had four children, and 3.4 percent had five or more children. (6)

New arrivals found housing in Albany's oldest neighborhoods along the river. These neighborhoods were composed of row houses broken into apartments and shops. Once fashionable, these areas became worn after generations of newcomers to Albany getting their start and then with success moving on to better quarters and neighborhoods. (7) Albany continued its historical role as a crossroads of trade and commerce. Governor Alfred E. Smith created the Albany Port District and a thirty-mile channel was dredged in the Hudson River. When the Port of Albany officially opened in 1932, it contained the world's largest single-unit grain elevator, and was capable of handling 85 percent of the world's oceangoing ships. In the same year, the Dunn Memorial Bridge opened, offering a modern thoroughfare for crossing the Hudson River and with its designers boasting that it could handle 30,000 vehicles daily. Albany also served as the intersection of six major railroads and the starting point of the revamped New York State Barge Canal System. The increasing power of air transport brought about the creation of Lindbergh Field in 1928, the nation's first city-owned airport.

Migrants soon would have discovered that machine politics ruled the new city they would call home. By the late 1920s, the Democratic Party achieved a two-to-one advantage over the city's Republicans in voter registration. …

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