The Great Migration has been explained as “the movement of the Black Belt from the South to the North.” This definition oversimplifies things somewhat—there remained large numbers of African Americans in the South—but it captures the general idea, namely that hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the South for political, social, and economic reasons.
On the March
After emancipation … [the Great Migration was] the great watershed in American Negro history.
—August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press)
The first wave of migration occurred in the 1870s, when large numbers of African Americans migrated to Texas, Kansas, and other western areas to escape the negative aspects of living in the Deep South. Another quarter of a million African Americans moved to the North between 1890 and 1910, while about 35,000 moved to the Far West (California, Colorado, and so on). Some people think of these population movements as a precursor to the Great Migration itself.
On the March
There were several great population shifts out of the South involving African Americans; different historians sometimes use varying terminology to describe the various components of the migrations.
The departures increased dramatically in the years between 1914 and 1929, the period generally assigned to the Great Migration. During these years between 300,000 and 1,000,000 others resettled in the North.
In fact, what happened in the years between 1914 and 1929 laid the groundwork for a pattern that would continue for much of the century. African American migration from the South remained strong through the 1960s, except during the Great Depression, when the trend slowed for a time.
With the onset of World War II, however, the tempo picked up once again. Three million African Americans moved out of the South during Phase II, from 1941 to 1970. They were relocating, typically, to major cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Chicago was one of the most common destinations.
The African Americans who left their homes during these years hoped to find better jobs and a new sense of actual (as opposed to theoretical) citizenship. They were searching for natural human freedoms for themselves, their families, and their new communities in the North.