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The Great Migration in Myth and Reality

Michael Schwartz
p. 67-99


The founders of professional sociology in the United States constructed a system of racial segregation that paralleled the Jim Crow system in the American South. Recent research has analyzed both the structure and dynamics of this systemic racism, as well as the resourceful resistance to this discrimination by African-American scholars housed in historically Black universities and colleges (HBCUs). This essay extends that work by discussing the ways in which the Jim Crow structure was enacted and sustained over many decades, how this exclusionary project limited and distorted the research, analysis, and theory developed within the white universities; and how the work of Black sociologists – ignored and dismissed by the white establishment – constitutes a precious heritage of important and still valuable scholarship. This contrast between sterile white establishment scholarship and the still-valuable work of HSBCs scholars is documented by comparing the white and Black scholarship on the first decades of the Great Migration. This comparison demonstrates that even iconic texts by white establishment scholars presented an already disconfirmed portrait of the migration process and dynamics of Black migration from the U.S. rural South to Northern cities; and that distorted portrait of immigration was perpetuated through decades of subsequent establishment scholarship. In contrast the work of Black scholars provided indelible on-the-ground evidence that disproved the theories articulated and perpetuated by their white contemporaries, while documenting a broad theoretical perspective that remains valuable in understanding contemporary migration issues.

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1. Jim Crow Sociology

1The formalization of racial segregation within sociology began in 1899, when W.E.B. Du Bois’ left the University of Pennsylvania and joined the faculty of the historically Black Atlanta University, where he established the first laboratory for sociological research in the United States. Du Bois moved to Atlanta only after failing to convert his temporary appointment at Penn into a formal faculty position, a position for which he was eminently qualified.

  • 1 Compiled from Aptheker (1973, 6-12; 499-502; 548-550). See Du Bois (1892; 1896; 1897; 1898a; 1898b (...)

2Du Bois had impeccable academic training, including a Ph.D from Harvard, where he studied under William James; and two years of advanced study in Germany under Gustav von Schmoller, a pioneer of empirical sociology. By 1899, Du Bois’ scholarly resume included two very important (and well received) books, four articles published in (white) scholarly outlets, several essays that would soon become chapters in Souls of Black Folk, and dozens of shorter works that appeared in various popular and academic outlets1. He was already recognized among European social scientists as the most well-published and well-respected North American social scientist of his generation. Nevertheless Du Bois was dismissed from the University of Pennsylvania – where he had researched and written his first masterwork, The Philadelphia Negro. Once it became clear that Pennsylvania would not offer a Black scholar a faculty position, Du Bois sought employment in the other (white) research universities, including his alma mater, which had also published his doctoral dissertation as the first volume in Harvard Historical Studies. After these institutions did not acknowledge his candidacy, he accepted the Atlanta University invitation to establish a sociology department and research institute (Lewis, 1993, 179-210).

3It is important to note that only in the South was segregation enshrined in the legal system. The University of Pennsylvania and other elite schools in the North would have suffered no sanctions had they chosen to hire Du Bois. Their collective decision to exclude him from white academe thus became the moment when systemic racism – the academic equivalent of Southern Jim Crow – was formally enacted by the elite universities.

  • 2 For discussions of this elaborate and intricate system of institutionalized discrimination, see Wr (...)

4By the beginning of World War I, the shape and function of Jim Crow sociology was clear to everyone on both sides of the color line: Black scholars would be denied employment in any college or university attended by white students; and would therefore find academic employment in what are now called historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This relegation of Du Bois and (all) Black scholars to the poorly funded periphery of the still-developing United States university system meant that they could not claim even a fraction of the research, teaching and travel resources available at the elite institutions; it meant that their access to the outside research funding (from the growing private foundation system) would be severely limited; that their restricted stream of research funding would be controlled by senior (white male) faculty at elite universities; and, with rare exceptions, that their work would be excluded from the core sociological journals and university presses, thus depriving them of the privileges that accrued to scholars that published there2.

  • 3 A comprehensive discussion of the research opportunities afforded by the migrating public controve (...)

5This elaborate structure designed to channel HBCU-based sociology into delimited and unchallenging research areas was only partially successful. It denied Black scholars the resources needed for many projects they would and could have implemented, but their forced specialization in “race relations” also resulted in infusions of funding as well as mandates to investigate the continuous public controversy over various manifestations of “the Negro problem”3.

  • 4 It should be noted that contemporaneous with Du Bois’ initial enunciation of a reform oriented soc (...)
  • 5 In addition to «The Crisis», Locke mentioned six other periodicals: «The Messenger», «Opportunity» (...)

6And while the white fathers of professional sociology were successful in limiting the research funding available to Black scholars to “race” issues, they were incapable of controlling the research itself. As a result, the Black sociologists housed at the HBCUs designed and implemented research that followed Du Boisian model for reform-oriented scholarship4. The HBCUs therefore became centers for studying the construction and deconstruction of racist institutions, and for more comprehensive scrutiny of the endemic oppression and immiserating structures of modern capitalism. And, while those in control of the formal sociological institutions successfully suppressed the airing of these challenging ideas in the mainstream sociological journals and at American Sociological Society meetings; they could not prevent these results from finding publication outlets elsewhere. Indeed, as the system of exclusion became more clearly defined, Black scholars developed their own publication infrastructure, highlighted by Du Bois’ ascension to the editorship of The Crisis, and then followed by other important outlets. When Alain Locke edited The New Negro in 1925, he designated seven important scholarly outlets for the post-World War I generation of Black scholars (Locke, 1925, 450)5. As a consequence, Black researchers at HBCUs were able to develop and implement important research that definitively disconfirmed the white scholarship defending racism and oppression.

  • 6 For specific texts, see, for example, Ward (1907), Sumner (1906), Giddings (1911), and Small (1898 (...)
  • 7 For more complete discussions of the racist assumptions (delivered as science) made by founding fa (...)

7This physical and intellectual segregation allowed for the unchallenged presentation of caricatures of African-Americans in the core publications of white sociologists, and their embrace by the “founding fathers” of the discipline. The core ideas in this never-documented perspective were summarized by the first African-American president in his inaugural address to the American Sociological Society (ASS until 1958). After careful scrutiny of the first decades of race relations scholarship, Frazier concluded that the founding fathers had presented as scientific fact, without entertaining contrary views, «that the Negro is an inferior race because of either biological or social inheritance or both; that the Negro, because of his physical characteristics, could not be assimilated; and that physical assimilation is bad and impossible» (Frazier, 1949, 3). Frazier explicitly mentioned the first four presidents of the ASS – Lester Ward, William Sumner, Franklin Giddings, and Albion Small – as embracing this doctrine, an accusation that is easily documented by considering their work published during this formative period6. Small for example, offered as proven scientific fact that hierarchy in human society reflected differential cognitive and physical capacities, thus justifying slavery and Jim Crow – and also the intense oppression of Eastern and Southern European immigrants in Northern cities – as an inevitable consequence of biological or social inheritance (Small, 1898, 132)7.

8The magnitude of the scholarly tragedy wrought by Jim Crow sociology can only be understood by considering the metastisis of these racist ideas into every subfield of sociological thought. This infection of what should be distant areas of research can be seen by comparing white establishment and Black HBCU scholarship on migration and immigration – notably the Great Migration – which emerged as a research area towards the end of World War I, and continued to be a major focus for both Black and white scholars at least until the onset of the Depression.

2. How White Sociology Analyzed the Great Migration

  • 8 For documentation and analysis of this rigorous discriminatory regime in Northern cities, see Du B (...)

9Beginning during Reconstruction, large streams of African-Americans migrated within, between, and away from the states of the Confederacy. In the earlier moments the movement was mainly to rural areas with better prospects for farmers entrapped in the immiserating debt peonage system imposed on the post-Reconstruction South. Later, the main destinations became the expanding cities in the mining and manufacturing regions in the Old and New South. Migration toward Northern cities took place, but on a relatively moderate scale because of the systematic exclusion of African-Americans by private employers and local governments from both the skilled trades and the growing number of manufacturing jobs; forcing any new arrivals in the poorest paid personal service jobs.8

  • 9 The first article on what would become the area of “race relations” – “The Hierarchy of European R (...)

10The World War I migration to Northern industrial centers began in earnest at exactly the moment (circa 1914) when the supply of European labor was choked off by the war in Europe. With huge orders from the warring European powers fueling rapid expansion of United States industry, Black residents in the industrial cities began to successfully breech the discriminatory barriers to industrial jobs. The Great Migration, even in its early days, thus constituted both a redirection and amplification of African-American migration. As Black communities in the North began to expand (even before the US entry into World War I) political leaders, journalists, and the social science community refocused their concern with “The Negro problem” from the rural South to the Urban North9.

  • 10 A list of important texts would surely include Woodson (1918), Scott (1920), Johnson (1928a, 1928b (...)

11Starting with the beginning of World War I in Europe and continuing for the next 15 years, social scientists – and especially sociologists who worked in the areas of “race relations”, “urban sociology”, and “demography” – published a steady stream of articles analyzing the causes and impact of the Great Migration. One would expect that the scholarship of this moment would be of great relevance to scholars today, since we are witnessing (yet another) moment in which huge masses of people are moving away from areas plagued by unlivable conditions, systemic terrorism, and no institutional mechanisms for redressing grievances. And, as one would expect, that very active period of first-generation social science did produce a vast number of articles and books addressing various aspects of the Great Migration. And further, as we would expect with 100 years of hindsight, the most important and continually relevant body of research and theory was produced by Black scholars working in HBCUs10.

  • 11 The best starting place for absorbing and understanding the racial dogma embedded in white scholar (...)
  • 12 For discussions of the construction of Jim Crow sociology, see especially Morris (2015) and Vitali (...)

12In the meantime, the sterile but voluminous scholarly output by the scholars residing inside the ivy-covered walls that protected them from dissenting viewpoints devoted itself to adapting the existing racial, sexist and classist dogma to the migration process as a whole, and to Black migration in particular11. These intellectually sterile texts are important to scrutinize, not because they rise above the level of undefended stereotypes, but because they carry historical significance in much the same way as statues of Confederate Generals. They allow us to witness and analyze the process by which oppressive systems – structural and/or ideological – are constructed and maintained through collective human agency12. When we view white scholarship on the Great Migration through this lens, we see that it was unfortunately much more harmful than false and misleading ideas made plausible by the suppression of viable counter arguments. These ideas became viewed as “objective science” that justified both the vicious, sometimes lethal, efforts to stem the migratory tide; and the equally vicious creation of housing and occupational segregation that was developed and implemented in the destination cities in the North and West.

  • 13 The Preface was written by her research partner Frank Alexander Ross (Kennedy, 1930, 5-7), calling (...)

13In the case of the early analyses of the Great Migration, we are aided in comparing the contributions of Black and white academics by the very interesting (and unfortunately typical) 1930 monograph by Louise Venable Kennedy, who received a commission and funding from the Social Science Research Council to develop an annotated bibliography of scholarship on both the causes and consequences of the Great Migration; and to produce a volume that presented this bibliography along with a synthesis of the findings. The resulting volume, The Negro Peasant Turns Cityward included a list of 247 publications deemed to be the “most significant and valuable” texts that considered the causes and consequences of Black Migration up to that point (Kennedy, 1930, 5-6)13.

14Kennedy’s 247 bibliographical entries contained scores of articles and several books by the key Black scholars of the day; including a full complement of entries from most important Black scholarly outlets that had become outlets for the ideas censored by the (white) sociology establishment.

15Working from the Kennedy’s bibliography – and from her summary texts – we can identify and evaluate the status of white and Black sociological scholarship on the Great Migration at that moment, just before the onset of the Great Depression. For the purposes of making the comparison manageable, we focus mainly on the causes of the surge in Black migration that began with the onset of the First World War. Kennedy introduces her chapter on this subject thusly: «Fundamentally, behind Negro movements, as behind those of any people, there must be dissatisfaction with conditions in the present location and the promise of improvement in some other region» (Kennedy, 1929, 41). Her footnotes and subsequent discussion makes it clear that she is borrowing this topic sentence, the multivariate orientation, the line of argument, and many of the key elements from a specific text entitled “Interstate Migration of Negro Population”, written by Louisiana State University professor, William O. Scroggs (Scroggs, 1917).

  • 14 The «Journal of Political Economy», aimed at establishing itself as the top journal the area of po (...)

16The pride of place given by Kennedy to Scroggs’ short (10 page) article appears to reflect its publication in the «Journal of Political Economy» (JPE), which paralleled the «American Journal of Sociology» (AJS) as the University of Chicago’s second social science flagship journal14. It’s relatively early publication date in a top white Journal, thus established it (at least in Kennedy’s mind) as a definitive early statement of the key issues that set the template for later studies. Moreover, in Kennedy’s judgment, later scholarship did validated Scroggs’ analysis and filled in the factual and analytic spaces he left unfinished. Moreover, as far as Kennedy – and the white social science community – was concerned, there had been no challenges worth mentioning to Scroggs’ perspective during the very active scholarly decade since its publication.

  • 15 See Du Bois (1899), especially chapters III and IV. See also various Atlanta Studies (Wright II, 2 (...)

17Contrary to Kennedy’s uncritical embrace, Scroggs’ analysis of the causes of Black migration had already been challenged (even before it was written) by Black scholars, as far back as Du Bois’ 1899 Philadelphia Negro, which had already outlined a theory of the nature and dynamics of migration from the former Confederacy to cities in the North15. And the surge of migration during and after World War I provided an opportunity for the next generation of Black scholars to address the Great Migration in all its aspects, since southern elites sought to stop the exit of their captive rural work force, and northern elites viewed the migration as the export of the “Negro problem” from the South to the North. Because of the alarm on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, the white overseers of research funding allocated funds to Black scholars to enter and study various black communities, to help in controlling and channeling this latest uprising.

  • 16 The Kennedy (1930) and Ross and Kennedy (1934) bibliographies offer creditable coverage of this li (...)
  • 17 See below for a critical analysis of (white) establishment scholarship on the first phases of the (...)

18Armed with the resources to do real empirical analysis and with the energy borne of their appreciation of the significance of this unprecedented self-actuated migration, Black scholars produced a remarkable body of research and analysis that spoke to the specific events of that decade, as well as the much larger empirical and theoretical questions that arise from mass migration and immigration16. The most important texts that emerged during the period included Emmett Scott’s Negro Migration During the Wara masterful text based on remarkable research conducted mainly by Monroe Hope and Charles S. Johnson – which described and unpacked all of the constituent causal components in the first phase of the Great Migration (Scott, 1920). This text was complemented by long series of articles by Robert S. Johnson, published in the full range of scholarly outlets available to him and containing both a fully realized analysis of the migration as well as rebuttal to the manifold misleading and false arguments published by the white intellectual establishment (Johnson, 1923; 1927; 1928a, 1928b; 1936)17.

19The impact of the Great Migration in northern cities also received close attention by HBCU scholars, including a remarkable and prescient 1925 study by Abram Harris and Elmer Carter, Negro Population in Minneapolis. This meticulously documented multi-method study offered the most luminous understanding of the forces at work in the North that sought to construct what would become the “de facto” segregation system, and the organizational infrastructural created by the growing black communities that would mature into the long term struggle against northern racism (Harris and Carter, 1926; Harris, 1924).

20To succinctly document the contrast between the propagandistic white scholarship and the evidence-based Black scholarship, we can begin by scrutinizing the emblematic (and highly influential) Scroggs text, which went unchallenged in the major white scholarly outlets for decades. Scroggs, writing in the fully declarative mode of a researcher reporting on the already-established scientific consensus on a key issue, began his article with this thematic statement: «A little investigation soon reveals the fact that the black man, ever since the day of his emancipation, has shown a tendency to migrate» (Scroggs, 1917, 1034).

21Scroggs then devoted four pages (in a 10 page essay) of undocumented racist stereotypes designed to prove to the reader that this character trait – the urge to wander – was the principle causal force in the Great Migration. The “evidence” offered included:

At the end of every year thousands of tenants in the southern black belt may still be seen removing to other farms, in many cases without even taking the pains to examine beforehand the lands they are to cultivate or the houses they are to occupy (ivi, 1034).

In 1888-89, there was a considerable migration of Negroes from southern Alabama to Arkansas and Texas, as a result of the activities of labor agents (ivi, 1037).

  • 18 As proof of his claim that these earlier migrations had been “ill-advised”, Scroggs offered a quot (...)

The Kansas movement of 1879 was due in large measure to the agricultural depression in the lower Mississippi Valley, but it was precipitated by the activities of a host of petty Negro leaders who sprang up in all parts of the South during the period of reconstruction… The movement was ill-advised, and too much based on the Negro’s sentimentalism (ivi, 1036-7)18.

  • 19 Ironically, Scroggs, in a moment of candor, admitted that U.S. census disconfirmed his primary ass (...)

22Taken together with the text they are excepted from, these “arguments” create a portrait of a feckless and irresponsible people running hither and yon in search of an easy life, easily manipulated by self-serving charlatans, and without the organization or intelligence needed to succeed economically – except when controlled and supervised by white plantation owners19.

23Having made clear that the long-term wanderlust of Black people was the driving force in the upsurge of migration set off by the onset of World War I, Scroggs considered the more situational economic and social factors that Black commentators (and a few white allies) had earmarked as important:

  • 20 In explaining the role of the boll weevil, Scroggs mentioned the 1908-9 crop failures, and paired (...)

Among the driving causes were the relatively low wages paid farm labor, an unsatisfactory tenant or crop-sharing system, the boll weevil, the crop failures of 1916, lynching, disfranchisement, segregation, poor schools, and the monotony, isolation, and drudgery of farm life (Scroggs, 1917, 1041)20.

  • 21 Thomas Woofter, who wrote at least three books analyzing the Great Migration, presents a parallel (...)
  • 22 For an excruciatingly explicit assertion of this “supervision” dogma as science, see H.E. Belin’s (...)

24Scroggs had little quarrel with the list of economic factors as moderate causal factors; and he spent less than a paragraph discussing them, including a begrudging concession that the migrants might well have improved their economic situation by moving north. But this improvement could not be attributed to the agency of those who left, and was not an actual escape from the excruciating economic-political-social oppression of Jim Crow. Instead, the gains derived from the deliverance of chronically disorganized southern migrants into the hands of benevolent whites in the north. Their improved economic conditions, he asserted, resulted from the «well-established fact … that the Negro does better in those districts where he is greatly outnumbered by the whites..[where he can] study and emulate the white man’s skill, thrift, and energy» (Scroggs, 1917, 1042)21. As with virtually all the “well-established” “facts” that Scroggs referenced, he offered no citation to any evidence or argument. Instead, this comment invokes the long-standing stereotype developed before the Civil War; that slavery represented progress for the racially inferior Africans because they had wallowed in misery in African before enslavement, and had then prospered once transported into the close supervision of racially superior white slave masters22.

25But even while Scroggs acknowledged the attraction of better economic conditions in the North, he felt a special need to deny that racial oppression had any meaningful role in “pushing” African-Americans away the South; and/or that the more relaxed racial oppression was “pulling” them towards the North. On this point he specifically responded to the already voluminous scholarship (mainly Black, but with some white supporters) pointing to the Jim Crow system as a major animating force for emigration from Dixie:

There is a noticeable tendency on the part of some Negro leaders to attribute the movement chiefly to the unrest due to mob violence and other ills, social and political, that fall to the lot of the black man. When we note, however, that lynching for the past twenty five years has been slowly but surely decreasing and that disfranchisement is no new thing, but has been an accomplished fact for more than forty years, it becomes evident that, whatever grievances of this nature the Negro may have against the South, he has at least no new complaint and therefore no stronger reason for migrating on this account in 1917 than he has had for several decades (Scroggs, 1917, 1041).

  • 23 See for example, Kennedy (1930, 256).
  • 24 See Johnson (1928, 128-9) for a particularly lucid and pointed analysis of the conjunction of prox (...)

26This particular argument – apparently one of the most widely cited arguments in this essay23 – fully expresses Scroggs’ lack of analytic integrity, since it rests on a theory of causation inconsistent with any accurate understanding of mass migration. This assertion – that migration must be based on a “new complaint” – dismisses any multivariate analysis that seeks to understand the intermingling of causal structures and precipitating events24.

  • 25 For exemplars of this scholarship, see Woodson (1918) and Scott (1920). See also, Du Bois (1903) f (...)

27Moreover, Scroggs’ rejection of racial oppression as a causal factor in the beginning of the Great Migration rested on more than a rejection of multivariate causation. It was also factually incorrect in two ways. These two factual errors reflect the dogmatic attachment of Scroggs and other second generation scholars to the founding fathers’ dogma: that the Jim Crow racial regime was necessary and beneficial because African American’s were an «inferior race [that]… could not be assimilated» (Frazier, 1949, 3). The first of these factual errors lay in misreporting the proximate causes of earlier Black migratory movements to the West and South. By the time Scroggs wrote this essay, there was already ample historical documentation that these earlier “exodus movements” were reactions to the rising, then consolidated, and, finally, increasingly oppressive Jim Crow system that was constructed in the South following the end of Reconstruction. The relentless defense – by white academics – of the unquestioned assumption that all aspects of US society – even apparently oppressive institutions like Jim Crow – were ultimately beneficent was validated by the companion dogma that Blacks and other oppressed groups passively accepted this their oppression (except when “agitated”). This tightly coupled components of the founders’ dogma left no room for Scroggs (and other white analysts) to acknowledge the organized and purposeful efforts in these earlier moments as rebellion against Jim Crow social and economic oppression. And then, once he dismissed these previous movement-building activities, he could not – or was unwilling – to understand that the size, rapidity, and effectiveness of the World War I migration was built on the collective consciousness and organizational structures that these earlier efforts had created. Black sociologists, on the other hand, entered into their analysis of this latest (and greatest) migration by grounding it in a careful study of this earlier history, as well as rigorous on-the-ground scholarship during the migration itself25.

28The refusal to read or believe the accumulated Black scholarship on the situation in the U.S. South during the first two decades of the 20th century reveals Scroggs to be an altogether typical white academic of the period. He adhered to the principal that Butler Jones articulated forty years later: that evidence and argument by Black scholars was – at best – propaganda, and therefore could be (and should be) dismissed – as Scroggs’ did above – and/or ignored – as Scroggs’ did throughout this essay. And this dismissal of contrary evidence presented by Black scholars was yet another application of a primary axiom imported into the new field of sociology from the earlier defenders of slavery: that the testimony of Black people (and other subaltern groups) can and should be dismissed or ignored, unless it supported the white perspective and was sponsored and vouched for by fully credentialed (white male) professionals.

  • 26 For an important account of the enhanced repression in this period, see Loewen (2006). One sign of (...)
  • 27 See, for example, Du Bois (1903, passim) most vividly “Of the Meaning of Progress”. See also Baker (...)

29This casual dismissal of all testimony deriving from Black sources (whether “ordinary people” or PhD professionals) also allowed Scroggs to offer as fact a second egregious falsehood: that oppression in the south had not intensifying during the years before World War I. In fact, as Du Bois had argued in The Souls of Black Folk, the beginning of the 20th century was a period of amplified oppression in both the South and the North: and that this intensification was a major factor in the organization of the Niagara Movement and then the NAACP. This moment, which Scroggs characterized as providing «no stronger reason for migrating on this account in 1917 than he has had for several decades» would be designated by historian Rayford Logan as “the nadir” in Southern Black history – a period of ongoing and sharpened immiseration in the South, the consolidation of Jim Crow and its associated reign of terror, and the introduction of a host of new economic, social, and health problems for the working Black population26. This sharpened oppression thus created amplified and increasingly determined efforts to challenge the Jim Crow system directly, while also seeking various avenues of escape from the forced labor system at the center of Jim Crow27.

30Current social scientists, with the wisdom of 100 years of hindsight, react to Scroggs’ text as a transparent fiction masquerading as science – easily dismissed as baseless and unconvincing. But during that period – and especially given the institutional racism already built into Jim Crow sociology – Scroggs’ claims generated no dissent among his white colleagues, who accepted each element of his portrayal of the Great Migration as “well-established fact”. At no point up until at least World War II did any major (white) academic outlet entertain or publish dissenting views. Instead his perspective was reiterated, elaborated, perfected, and reified by white sociologists during the next decade, without any acknowledgement of the avalanche of contrary evidence and analyses. And then, after a full decade of HBCU research that demolished every component of his argument, Kennedy gave this same text pride of place in her comprehensive review of this literature, and brushed aside the mountains of contrary evidence.

  • 28 One telltale sign of this systematic censorship: neither the «American Journal of Sociology» nor « (...)

31If this dark cloud of racist tropes masquerading as valid social science had any silver lining, it was that it activated the Black scholarly community (and some white allies) to meticulously and thoroughly debunk and disprove it. This process also generated a precious body of scholarship that contained informed and often brilliant analyses of the causes, dynamics, and consequences of mass migration. Had white social science absorbed the wisdom of this scholarship, useful analyses of European immigration might have begun to appear in the core (white) scholarly outlets decades earlier. But, because of the rigorous enforcement of sociological Jim Crow during the pre-Civil Rights period, none of this work by Black scholars was acknowledged in white sociology journals or introduced into the curriculum of the dominant departments28.

3. The Black Challenge to Racist Scholarship about the Great Migration

  • 29 Du Bois (1917; 1920, 47-59), Scott (1920), Johnson (1923; 1927; 1928), Locke (1925), Harris and Ca (...)

32What is most frustrating about reconnecting with this rich body of pre-World War II scholarship is that it underscores the huge amount of redundant research energy expended by the many of the post-Civil rights scholars debunking, correcting, and replacing the dogma around migration and immigration. Much of what these late 20th century scholars discovered and documented had already been thrashed out during the 1920s by the Black scholars and their (handful of) white (mostly women) allies who studied – virtually at first hand – the Great Migration. We can begin to appreciate (and absorb the wisdom) contained in this work by accessing these texts, which unfortunately are still-excluded from (white) sociological texts and curricula. In revisiting this scholarship we can enrich current work not only with masses of precious evidence, but also a viable – and fully generalizable – perspective on mass migration. To demonstrate the richness in this literature, we briefly review the general orientation to studying migration and immigration by W.E.B. Du Bois; the remarkable on-the-ground evidence and luminous analysis in Emmett Scott’s masterwork, Negro Migration During the War ; several articles by Charles Johnson, which presented Johnson’s evolving theory of mass migration; consideration of Abram Harris and Elmer Carter’s brilliant analysis of the impact of the Great Migration on Northern urban life; and a few passages from Alain Locke’s “Introduction” to The New Negro, which crystallize the enduring legacy of this literature29.

  • 30 A useful and eloquent summary of this history can be found in Du Bois (1920, 47-60).
  • 31 For a compelling analysis of the reception of Black migrants in Northern cities, see Muhammad (201 (...)

33The pre-history of the Great Migration illuminates how Jim Crow sociology was constructed, and why Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) produced so much important scholarship. As the Great Migration blossomed, the alarm bells began to sound in all areas of the white establishment30. In the South, the elites – and especially the plantation owners who relied on captive Black labor – moved quickly into action to prevent the departure of their Black labor force. In the North, the “city fathers” in the industrial cities – large and small – that became the destinations for Black migrants, amplified their complaints that Blacks in the cities meant crime, filth, and indolence31. And, on the ground, native and immigrant white workers sought to separate themselves from Black workers, both at work and at home. Race riots, in which mobs of whites attacked Blacks – in the streets, their communities and in their homes – became a common occurrence. The new version of “the Negro Problem” threatened to become a major disruption to the full-steam-ahead war production, in which the United States became the manufacturing rear-area for both sides of World War I. As the migration gained momentum, many localities in the South lost the bulk of their sharecroppers and other farm labor; and Southern political leaders began demanding (in a reprise of the demands for a Fugitive Slave Law during the 1850s) that the government prevent northern manufacturers from “stealing” their (capture) work force.

  • 32 For a discussion of the origins of this pattern, see footnote 9 above.
  • 33 Nicolaus was speaking about all sociologists («with few but honorable […] exceptions»).

34By the second decade of the 20th Century, the role of Black scholars had been inscribed into the structure of Jim Crow social science. In graduate school they were channeled into topics concerned with the “Negro Problem”; they were then designated to conduct the “race” part of research projects initiated and funded by the white establishment; and were required to conduct this work under the supervision of mainstream (white) scholars and administrators (Jones, 1974)32. As Martin Nicolaus would characterize this situation fifty years later, Black sociologists were expected to have palms “turned upward” to receive funding, and their eyes “turned downward “ «spy on the […] subject population» (Nicolaus, 1968)33. W.E.B. Du Bois had been fully aware that his grant to conduct the research that led to The Philadelphia Negro had this same characteristic. The sponsors funded the study because, according to Du Bois, they believed that Philadelphia “was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens” and that it was his job to figure out how to end this danger. Du Bois, however, appreciated the dialectics in the situation, and he instead designed research aimed at disproving this this wrong view of Black people (Lewis, 1993, 188-189).

  • 34 The internal quote appears to be a paraphrase of Du Bois’ measured summary of figures culled from (...)

35In 1917, as editor of the official NAACP journal, The Crisis, Du Bois offered a first analysis of the complex dynamics leading to and emerging from the first wave of the Great Migration, creating an analytic template that subsequent research by Black scholars would utilize and elaborate. Du Bois’ biographer Levering Lewis characterized “The Migration of Negroes” as «a taut, analytical piece ticking off what today would be called the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ of economic, demographic, and social factors driving ‘about 250,000 northward in little more than a year’» (1993, 596)34. That is, he identified the components of a multivariate analysis of the contributory factors, including such precipitants as the abrupt end to European immigration, which forced Northern capitalists to (at least temporarily) employ Black labor; various localized economic calamities, including floods and boll weevil infestation, which stimulated the flow of migrants in specific localities; and the “outbreaks of mob violence”, which triggered the exodus in other areas. Du Bois also tentatively called out the agency of rank-and-file Black farmers and workers, not organized by institutional leadership or elites:

This migration is apparently a mass movement and not a movement of the leaders. The wave of economic distress and social unrest has pushed past the conservative advice of the Negro preacher, teacher and professional man, and the colored laborers and artisans have determined to find a way for themselves (Du Bois, 1917, 66).

  • 35 Useful discussions of the embeddedness of the stereotype of Black passivity and impotence in the f (...)

36This observation might have been the opening salvo in the sustained challenge by Black scholars (and non-establishment white allies) to the enduring trope that Black people – and most emphatically Black Southerners – were incapable of engineering changes in their status. This theme of self-actuated social change would become a central feature of the (Black) Great Migration scholarship of the 1920s, while white scholars insisted on ignoring or dismissing the voluminous evidence and argument developed around this thesis35.

37In his 1920 book, Darkwater, Du Bois converted his “taut” multivariate argument into a vivid but nuanced analysis of the conjunction of circumstances that Black sharecroppers converted into an unprecedented mass movement, placing full emphasis on the agency of those most oppressed by Jim Crow. Du Bois described Black southern tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and laborers locked into the plantation system by violent oppression and systematic exclusion from industrial jobs in the South and the North thusly: «a people with heads bloody, but unbowed, working faithfully at wages fifty per cent lower than the wages of the nation and under conditions which shame civilization» (Du Bois, 1920, 51).

38And then, when World War I choked off the supply of immigrant labor and some Northern employers gave in to the insistent demands of local Black workers relegated to service jobs, and relaxed their whites-only policy by beginning to hire African-Americans for the lowest paying industrial jobs, the oppressed sharecroppers and laborers seized the moment, even while their Southern masters mobilized to prevent their departure:

The North called to the South. A scream of rage went up from the cotton monopolists and industrial barons of the new South. Who was this who dared to ‘interfere’ with their labor? Who sought to own their black slaves but they? Who honored and loved ‘niggers’ as they did?

They mobilized all the machinery of modern oppression: taxes, city ordinances, licenses, state laws, municipal regulations, wholesale police arrests and, of course, the peculiarly Southern method of the mob and the lyncher. They appealed frantically to the United States Government; they groveled on their knees and shed wild tears that the ‘suffering’ of their poor, misguided black friends, and yet, despite this, the Northern employers simply had to offer two and three dollars a day and from one-quarter to one-half a million dark workers arose and poured themselves into the North (Du Bois, 1920, 51).

39This vivid and nuanced portrait of the origins of the Great Migration (and the consequential impact on Northern cities) provided the foundation for a decade of empirical and theoretical work by the researchers housed in HBCUs, while the residents of the white academic ghetto – insulated from Du Bois and his colleagues’ analysis and evidence – continued to reiterate and modify the baseless tropes enunciated by Scroggs.

  • 36 No consequential scholarship on migration had been carried out at Tuskegee under Booker T. Washing (...)

40With the uproar over the Great Migration mounting, Robert Moton, who had succeeded Booker T. Washington as Principal at Tuskegee, obtained funding (and supervision) from a variety of (white foundation) sources for a major empirical study of this latest incarnation of “the Negro Problem”. Moton appointed Emmett Scott, the head of social science research at Tuskegee, as the principal investigator. Scott then assembled a team of researchers captained by John Hope and Charles Johnson, and turned them loose to conduct the research. Keeping with the tradition begun by Du Bois, Johnson and Hope designed their own research, eschewing the “Negro Problem” formulation in favor of grounded research seeking to identify both the causes and consequences of the Great Migration; to debunk the ill-informed and racist theories that were already saturating the (white) academic and popular press; and to provide ammunition for the ongoing struggles aimed at redressing the oppressive conditions that Blacks endured in both the South and the North36.

  • 37 In adopting this research design, Hope and Johnson worked with the techniques pioneered by Du Bois (...)

41The foundation for this work was a labor intensive process of selecting specific locations in the South and the North, and interviewing thousands of individuals and families involved in the migration, and then triangulating their findings with a comprehensive survey of key media (including Black media) and targeted interviews with leadership of both the white and black communities in the South and the North37. They therefore conducted the first study of mass migration whose evidence rested on interviews with actual migrants at both ends of the process. This treasure trove of precious evidence has not yet – more than 100 years later – been analyzed and applied to the key issues around migration.

42Hope and Johnson, aided by journalist Thomas Fortune, conducted intensive studies in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Chicago, and St. Louis, as well as more general studies of wartime migration and smaller cities in the North. Each of these studies is a standalone text, but they have never been published or made accessible to researchers.

43Scott extracted evidence and text from these studies to compose the finished book. In doing this, he organized the text to debunk and correct the disinformation that was promoted by Scroggs and other white academics, journalists, and political leaders; while at the same time painting a very different portrait of an organized mass movement engineered by resourceful and indigenous activists in the South and the North. Scott paid special attention to Scroggs’ claims that racial violence and oppression had little or nothing to do with the migration by devoting chapters to descriptions and analysis of specific incidents that figured into the actual migration of actual people, working his way through various aspects of the Jim Crow system, most often the failure of the education system, the lack of justice in the courts, and the multitudinous forms of super-exploitation and violence in the plantation system (see especially Chapters II and III). He rebutted the Scroggs assertion that migrants often experienced lower wages and/or returned to the South in discouragement, documenting instead an average 100% or higher wage increase. He debunked the widely believed (among whites) trope that Black migration was triggered by their expulsion from plantations – instead devoting a chapter to the various legislative and law enforcement initiatives (especially in Mississippi) designed to prevent the departure of sharecroppers and other plantation workers.

44Scott also looked directly at the role of economic disasters, including impetus deriving from the boll weevil (in cotton areas) and collapsing crop prices (in Louisiana sugar plantations). In a particularly pointed analysis, Scott (using the reports prepared by Hope and Johnson) demonstrated that these financial difficulties did not result in the expulsion of Negro tenants; planters instead tried to cushion their own distress by lowering the income of their tenants, and utilizing crop lien laws to force them to remain on the land while suffering health-threatening immiseration. In an ironic, but brilliant insight, Smith pointed to the previous migrations, some of which were triggered by crop failures and economic problems, as successful escapes (rather than expulsions) from the plantations, concluding that the repeated threats to the plantation system resulted – not from the economic downturns – but from the successful emigration of the tenants.

45Having portrayed the elaborate system in the south that attempted (with too much success) to lock black farmers onto the land, Scott then answered the telltale question: Why – if they had suffered so consistently from systemic economic immiseration and racial violence – hadn’t Black farm workers in the South migrated to Northern cities much earlier, where the racial system was less violent and the pay much higher: «Why have they not escaped before? The answer lies in the very hard fact that, though the North afforded larger privileges, it would not support negroes [sic]. It was the operation of an inexorable economic law, confused with a multitude of social factors, that pushed them back to the soil of the south despite their manifest desire to leave it» (Scott, 1920, 15).

46The linchpin of this comment is the reference to «an inexorable economic law, confused with a multitude of social factors». Scott devotes several chapters to unpacking this comment. The “economic law” was “supply and demand” in the labor market. Even white scholars (including Scroggs) had acknowledged that the beginning of World War I had cut off the flow of about one million European immigrant workers to United States each year, just at the moment when U.S. industry was expanding to answer the demand for war materiel from the warring European powers. This created a chronic shortage of labor, which would be further exacerbated when the U.S. entered the war and drafted white workers out of the manufacturing plants. And this chronic shortage strengthened the hand of those employed in the factories to demand long-denied improvements in pay and working conditions.

  • 38 For useful discussions of the sharecropping/tenant farming system that was constructed in the Sout (...)

47The “inexorable economic law” thus should have resulted in northern manufacturers recruiting Black labor to work inside the factories. But this straightforward “solution” required a major change in the economic system in the North, specifically the “multitude of social factors” that had prevented Black workers from obtaining jobs in Northern industry. As early as the middle of the Civil War, black workers had been more-than-willing to join the industrial work force, but were prevented by an unwritten – but rigorously enforced – policy: that freed slaves and other Black workers would not be “allowed” to access industrial jobs. Instead, Northern manufacturers answered their annual need for new workers by recruiting European immigrants, who were more expensive to recruit and more expensive to employ. This “arrangement”, as Scott pointed out, had relegated Black residents in Northern cities to a few personal service jobs (maids, butlers), with no prospect of a living wage. It was this well organized exclusion from Northern employment that prevented the mass exit of African-Americans from the south, and simultaneously assured the Southern plantation economy of a captive labor force subject to the super-exploitation inherent in all forced labor systems38.

48What Scott labeled an “inexorable economic law” worked out to be a combined crisis for Northern industrialists: growing (and successful) unionization efforts that significantly raised Northern wages, while expanded war-time production created chronic shortages of labor. This pressure combined with the determined efforts of Blacks to present themselves for vacant industrial jobs, broke down the resistance of various northern manufacturers, and created opportunities for pioneering black workers – usually relegated to the most dangerous and lowest paying positions – to establish their credentials as productive workers. This would allow them to sponsor other African-American workers for the next round of vacancies, and thus “open up the industry”. Once this occurred, the well-developed communication network that was engineering the migration would channel the next group of migrants to the newly opened employment. Even while Scott was writing the book, this process was occurring, as this comment about the Detroit auto industry demonstrates: «The wartime pressing needs of the industrial enterprises have caused the barriers [to Black employment] to be removed. The available evidence that Detroit has removed the barriers from the employment of negroes [sic] in many lines is considerable».

49Scott (based on the research of Hope and Johnson) thus definitively refuted, with overwhelming evidence and careful analysis, Scroggs’ portrait of the Great Migration (and all previous migrations) as thoughtless and impulsive. At the same time, Scott pointed to an aspect of Jim Crow that has been neglected by scholars even up to the present moment: that the success of the Jim Crow system in the South depended on the collective commitment of Northern capitalists to refuse employment to Black workers, even when the alternatives were more expensive to recruit and employ.

50This account of the importance of the breakdown of employment exclusion in the North points to what might be the most important contribution of Scott’s text: the detailed description of the intricate organization that allowed for the Great Migration to seize the moment and force the entry of Black workers into the United States industrial economy. Scott detailed the elaborate infrastructure that developed to organize the process of escaping the plantation despite economic, political, and physical coercion, finding inexpensive – often free – transportation northward for individuals and then families; and organizing their access to jobs and housing; and providing them with actual or fictive family ties to smooth the transition.

51The portrait Scroggs offered – of manipulable Black sharecroppers who left viable farms without a specific goal and/or without any assurance of jobs and other economic opportunities – was the reverse of true. Scott demonstrated that there was an intensive intelligence network that provided information about viable destinations, job availability, and how to travel. Scott demonstrated that the “ordinary people” on plantations had a huge reservoir of knowledge about traveling, and the self-starting initiative to apply that knowledge. And far from being chronically manipulable, it was Black sharecroppers who accepted free transportation to Northern hubs where they would be expected to work for the railroad at below-market wages; but walked away once they arrived to accept other – better paying – jobs that they had learned of while still in the South. And when the northern manufacturers paid a group of workers rail fare with the expectation of employing them when they arrived at below-market wages, the new recruits often arrived with knowledge and commitment to other, better paying jobs. In debunking Scroggs’ characterization of Southern sharecroppers as witless and easily manipulated, Scott offered this vignette among many, which illustrated the degree of detailed planning that comprised the day-to-day operation of what Scott would call a rebirth of the Underground Railroad.

On a plantation in South Georgia, where fifteen or more families were farming as tenants, there had been a great deal of confusion and suffering among the people because of the lack of sufficient food and clothing. There were the Joneses, a family of nine, the Harrisons, a family of ten, and the Battles, a family of six. No family on the place had an allowance [from the landlord] of more than $25 per month for food and clothing. When this allowance gave out, nothing could be gotten until the next month and the tenants dared not leave their farms to work elsewhere. The owner of this plantation lived in town ten miles away and only visited the farm about once a week. Much to his surprise, on one of his weekly visits, he found all the homes and farms deserted except one. On that were two old men, Uncle Ben and Uncle Joe, who had been left behind because they were unable to secure [free railroad] passes. Uncle Ben and Uncle Joe sorrowfully told the landlord all that had happened, emphasizing the fact that they were the only ones who had remained loyal to him. Then they told him their needs. The landlord, thinking that the old negroes were so faithful, rewarded them with a good sum of money and left with the assurance that they would see to the crops being worked. No sooner had the landlord left than these old men, with grips packed and with the money they had received, boarded the train to join their companions in the North (Scott, 1920, 44-45).

  • 39 Here again, the (Black) researchers received funding (and presumed supervision) from white foundat (...)
  • 40 Harris and Carter (1926, 66, 74). The exception was the meat-packing industry, located mainly in S (...)
  • 41 Harris and Carter (1926, 66). In 2000, Minneapolis registered 5.2% African Americans (154,000) amo (...)

52In a series of empirical studies utilizing the full range of research methodologies current in the 1920s, Black scholars (and a few non-establishment white allies) built on Scott’s path breaking volume to produce a formidable body of research and theory that extended the analysis to the post-war changes in the political-economic-social landscape, filled in the gaps in Scott’s argument, and corrected the mistakes made in the early studies. An exemplar of this subsequent analysis was the 1926 multi-method study, The Negro Population in Minneapolis, by Abram Harris and Elmer Carter, funded by the recently founded Minneapolis Urban League, and by the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House39. Seizing the reins of the research from their white funders, Harris and Carter chose as a primary focus the process by which Black workers penetrated industrial employment during the war, and then sought to retain manufacturing jobs during the post-war period. What makes this study particularly valuable to current scholars is the detailed consideration of the processes by which Minneapolis employers relaxed the policy of complete exclusion during the most desperate wartime labor shortages, and then collectively (with few dissenters) expelled Black workers as soon as alternate white workers became available. Harris and Carter found that a “tacit agreement” among political elites and the dominant corporate executives to “restrict” non-service “employment opportunities for Negroes” was (successfully) implemented by the early 1920s. As a consequence, “nearly every door in general industry is barricaded against [the] entrance” of Black workers40. This re-exclusion, which was designed to assure that “no great increase in Negro population” occurred during the 1920s, had remarkable long term impact: the Minneapolis metropolitan area continued to be among the whitest in the country for over a half-century41.

  • 42 Johnson’s count of 15 entries did not include the Scott (1920) text, for which Johnson was an unli (...)

53Charles Johnson, who had co-captained the research that Emmett Scott summarized in Negro Migration During the War, devoted much of his research energy in the 1920s to the Great Migration, and emerged as the most prolific author indexed in the Kennedy compilation of relevant scholarship42. Johnson sought to empirically assess the relative weight and causal role of the “push and pull” elements that he and other scholars were identifying in the complex social changes causing and resulting from the Great Migration.

  • 43 This description of Johnson’s analysis is synthesized from Johnson (1923; 1927; 1928a; 1928b; 1936 (...)

54In addition to rigorous assessments of important points of dispute, including the role of racist violence in triggering departures (Johnson, 1923) and the role of Northern labor unions in opening or closing access to industrial jobs (Johnson, 1928), Johnson articulated a fully realized theory of the Great Migration, and offered a measured generalization to other such migratory flows, emphasizing the significant political, economic and social factors – and subaltern agency – in the flow of Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States43.

55Johnson’s synthesis traced the origins of the Great Migration to the defeat of Reconstruction, which relegated the vast majority of Black farmers to tenant status subject to the control of white planters and merchants; and violently eliminated the possibility of political redress for their economic grievances. In the ensuing decades, as various economic crises – including soil depletion, declines in cotton prices, and (later) the boll weevil – struck different localities, the local white power structure utilized multivalence sources of power – including emblematic “lynch law” to insure that Black farmers bore the brunt of the immiseration.

56In response, the sharecroppers and other farm laborers sought better opportunities, first, by migrating westward to newly developed farm areas, where they might have access to independent farming. This migratory solution was constrained at the outset by the discrimination against Black farmers by elites in charge of allocating homesteads in new farming areas (in Texas, Kansas and elsewhere). These constraints were strengthened by the full blossoming of the crop lien system, which made it illegal for the indebted Black farmers to move to any other farm, even across state lines. As the possibility of westward migration and viable farm employment faded, the (increasingly) oppressed farmers sought employment in Southern cities, in the traditional (often skilled) jobs that Blacks had occupied during the slave system, as well as the industrial jobs developing in the “new South”. This already limited access to urban jobs was progressively reduced as the Jim Crow system developed in the late 19th Century. Local power structures expelled Black craftspeople from traditional Black jobs and replaced them with white workers (including white farmers fleeing rural immiseration); and rigorous exclusionary policies were imposed in new industries, denying employment in any job category either occupied (or sought) by whites, or offering incomes substantially above sharecropping.

57The ability of the Southern elite to resist the constant effort of Black sharecroppers to raise their standard of living or escape from (increasing) immiseration depended on the (brutal) enforcement of the national discrimination regime that denied Black workers from access to the millions (!) of jobs that paid (as Du Bois had pointed out) at least twice the pay as sharecroppers received. The almost constant stream of departures from the forced-labor-plantations in various localities – was not, however, completely unsuccessful. Pioneer migrants survived in various niches in urban areas, producing an informal but resilient – and constantly developing – organizational infrastructure capable of activating and guiding migration whenever authentic economic opportunity appeared. This infrastructure included the abiding family and community connections (facilitated by the United States postal service), that allowed the pioneer migrants to inform their families and the broader community of economic opportunities in their locality. The never-ending struggle in Northern cities by local Black residents to break into better paying industrial and transportation jobs became a focus of the robust Black media (notably Du Bois’ NAACP journal The Crisis and The Chicago Defender, each of which had large audiences in the South). They reported as important news any successful opening up of the higher paying industrial jobs. Bitter and long experience with expensive rail travel – as well as the continued presence of Black railroad porters – provided expertise in finding and utilizing cut-rate and even free transportation to key urban destinations.

58Thus, when Northern (and Western) industries began to concede employment (however low level) to Black workers, the various organizational elements were already in place, and required only activation to create the sudden and then constantly crescendoing flood of migrants to precisely those plants that were finally ready to accept the application of Black workers (including those with only farming experience).

59Johnson’s research described the constant dialectic of socially constructed oppression (by white economic and political elites) and collectively engineered defensive measures (by Black farmers and workers, particularly in the South). These clashing forces evolved in terms of weapons and aims, and reached a major denouement when Black farmers in the South activated all the tools they had developed in previous struggles to seize on the labor shortage in manufacturing centers to force their way into industrial jobs and animate the Great Migration, beginning with the flow of «250,000 northward in little more than a year» (Lewis, 1993, 596).

60In compiling The New Negro in 1925, Alaine Locke added the overarching understanding of the Black agency that Du Bois, Scott, Johnson, Harris and others had been documenting and analyzing for the previous decade. In his introduction to that landmark volume, he placed the Great Migration into this sociologically significant context:

The tide of Negro migration, northward and city-ward, is not to be fully explained as a blind flood started by the demands of war industry coupled with the shutting off of foreign migration, or by the pressure of poor crops coupled with increased social terrorism in certain sections of the South and Southwest. Neither labor demand, the boll-weevil, nor the Ku Klux Klan is a basic factor, however contributory any and all of them may have been. The wash and rush of this human tide on the beach line of the northern city centers is to be explained primarily in terms of a new vision of opportunity, of social and economic freedom, of a spirit to seize, even in the face of an extortionate and heavy toll, a chance for improvement of conditions. With each successive wave of it, the movement of the Negro becomes more and more a mass movement toward the larger and more democratic chance– in the Negro’s case a deliberate flight, not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern (Locke, 1925, 6).

61Locke also called out an immensely important sociological insight first enunciated by Du Bois and then meticulously documented in the early Great Migration literature: that history is often made “from the bottom up”.

It is the ‘man furthest down’ who is most active in getting up. One of the most characteristic symptoms of this is the professional man, himself migrating to recapture his constituency after a vain effort to maintain in some Southern corner what for years back seemed an established living and clientele. The clergyman following his errant flock, the physician or lawyer trailing his clients, supplies the true clues. In a real sense it is the rank and file who are leading, and the leaders who are following. A transformed and transforming psychology permeates the masses (Locke, 1925, 7).

62With these texts Du Bois, Scott, Johnson, Hope, Abrams, Locke and many other scholars compiled a rich body of evidence, analysis and theory of the dynamics of mass movements, the interaction between social structure and human agency, and a rich body of analysis that sheds light on wide swatches of modern life.

63Locke’s summary comments contain what should have been – when it was published and for nearly a century since – a remarkable insight that could have and should have corrected an important myopia in what is now called social movement theory. By understanding that the Great Migration (and all such mass migrations) was a “mass movement”, organized by the “rank and file”, Locke was arguing that the Great Migration should be treated with the same analysis as the labor movement, and all of the other historical, contemporary, and subsequent events of mass based social protest. If scholars of the day (and scholars of the late 20th Century) had absorbed this insight, they could have harnessed a remarkable body of on-the-ground data and a nuanced analysis of a truly successful mass movement, culling from it answers to the most abiding question in social movement theory: under what circumstances, and with what types of structure, can ordinary people enact major social change?

4. Willful Ignorance in the Establishment Ghetto

64Give the construction and functioning of Jim Crow sociology, it should not be surprising that the mountains of evidence and reams of analysis generated by Black scholars – which filled up the bibliographies compiled by Kennedy and Ross – did not penetrate the consciousness of the denizens of the white ghetto, appear in the core texts of the sociological establishment, or appear in the syllabi and curriculum that their students read and absorbed. In Kennedy’s summary, she only referenced HBCU work when it was not in contradiction to the indefensible tropes asserted by Scroggs his many white allies. As the gatekeeper for white social science, she allowed and encouraged the recipients of her review to continue to believe, teach, and elaborate the bankrupt and counter-factual dogma.

65Yet it is still shocking that Robert Park – the principle guardian of the colonial relationship between white and black sociology – ignored this work; refused to acknowledge its content; and worked to suppress access to it – at least within establishment sociology. Park was almost unique among white sociologists in training Black scholars and maintaining contact with them after they were relegated to the HBCUs. Park could not claim to have only been exposed to Scroggs and other white scholars.

  • 44 For a full discussion of the content and significance of this text, see Schwartz (2017).

66The publication of Park’s iconic essay “Human Ecology”, in 1936 typifies his participation in the perpetuation of the disconfirmed dogma (Park, 1936). Its publication took place long after the debate over the nature of the Great Migration should have been settled in favor of the HBCU scholars; and long after– in a world where scholarly canons were followed – there should have been explicit acknowledgment of the disconfirmation of the many racist tropes that white scholars housed inside the protective wall of Jim Crow sociology had promulgated and taught to their students. Nevertheless, Park reiterated many of the elements of the white axiomatic dogma, and presented them as proven truths built upon decades of scholarship44. Among the many tropes he elevated to sociological law was the denial that the people “at the bottom” could ever upset social equilibrium and engineer meaningful social change. As with so much of Park’s writing, he did not deign to argue from evidence, but rather delivered these assertions as the summation of (uncited) sociological scholarship. But in this case, he did offer one item of evidence to defend his proposition that major social change never occurs as result of internal conflict or from the agency of the ‘man furthest down’, but rather as a result of external forces which upset the settled equilibrium of a stable society (like the United States). His single bit of evidence was a factually disproven and almost slanderous characterization of the Great Migration and its impact on Southern social structure. The transformation of Southern agriculture – and the Great Migration – resulted, in Park’s rendering, from the invasion of the boll weevil:

  • 45 See also Schwartz (2017); Park (1928).

When […] some sudden and catastrophic change occurs – it may be a war, a famine, or pestilence – it upsets the biotic balance, breaks “the cake of custom”, and releases energies up to that time held in check. A series of rapid and even violent changes may ensue which profoundly alter the existing organization of communal life and give a new direction to the future course of events.
The advent of the boll weevil in the southern cotton fields is a minor instance but illustrates the principle. […] The consequences to agriculture were catastrophic but not wholly for the worse, since they served to give an impulse to changes in the organization of the industry long overdue. It also hastened the northward migration of the Negro tenant farmer (Park, 1936, 5-6)45.

67Park was writing in 1936, long after Black scholars had demonstrated the “boll weevil” played a minor and derivative role in both the Great Migration and the re-organization of Southern agriculture, Instead the energizing force that created – first the migration and second the re-organization of Southern agriculture – was precisely the people “furthest down”: the group that Park’s article explicitly excluded as an source of social change.

68Park – certainly the most respected (by white scholars) theorist of race relations – could not have been “uninformed” about Black scholarship regarding the Great Migration. Among myriad disproofs of this often invoked trope to explain racist scholarship is the simple fact that Robert Johnson – the most important Great Migration scholar of the period – had been a favored student of Robert Park at the University of Chicago; had maintained close ties with Park throughout this period (starting when Park chose Johnson as the head researcher for the Report on the Chicago Race riot); and would successfully recruit Park to a post-retirement position at historically Black Fisk University soon after this article was published (Robbins, 1974). Park’s insertion of this definitively disproven characterization of the Great Migration (and social change more generally) can only be understood as one sad moment in a campaign of suppression aimed at imposing disproven theories on sociological audiences by suppressing access to the definitive contrary evidence.

69The participation of Robert Park in this (despicable) suppression of scientific truth in favor of disconfirmed dogma underscores the importance for the future of sociology to recover the insights and evidence contributed by HBCU scholars. His (unfortunately successful) participation in the erasure (for mainstream sociology) of this important scholarship should alert us to the deeply embedded institutional propensity within sociology to suppress useful and truthful scholarship in order to defend axiomatic dogma designed to defend an oppressive status quo. It should not only motivate us to use the scholarship of the Great Migration to better understand parallel 21st century processes, but also to protect against processes of scholarly suppression still operating in contemporary social science.

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1 Compiled from Aptheker (1973, 6-12; 499-502; 548-550). See Du Bois (1892; 1896; 1897; 1898a; 1898b; 1899a; 1899b; 1899).

2 For discussions of this elaborate and intricate system of institutionalized discrimination, see Wright II (2020), Dennis and Reed (2018), Klug (2018), Varel (2015), Jones (1974), Morris (2015), Vitalis (2015), Schwartz (2017), Morris et al. (2021).

3 A comprehensive discussion of the research opportunities afforded by the migrating public controversy over “the Negro Problem” can be found in Anthony Platt’s The Politics of Riot Commissions (Platt, 1971). See also Platt (1991).

4 It should be noted that contemporaneous with Du Bois’ initial enunciation of a reform oriented sociological perspective, Booker T. Washington, the high visibility principle at Tuskegee Institute – and acknowledged by the white world as the primary African American leader in North America – offered an accomodationist perspective in numerous books, articles, and public forums. This viewpoint, though widely cited and defended in the popular press and in white scholarship, never developed a sustained following among Black scholars. His successor as principle researcher at Tuskegee, Emmett Smith, wrote the definitive text asserting Du Boisian ideas regarding the Great Migration (Scott, 1920). For accounts of the intellectual and personal relations between Du Bois and Washington, see Du Bois (1903, 1940); Lewis (1993, esp. Chapter 8), Harlan (1972). For discussions of the impact of Du Boisian and Washingtonian perspectives on Black scholarship in the 20th century, see Morris (2015), Muhammad (2010), Wright (2020), and Kendi (2016).

5 In addition to «The Crisis», Locke mentioned six other periodicals: «The Messenger», «Opportunity», «Journal of Negro History», «The African Methodist Review», «The Howard Review», and «The Southern Workman».

6 For specific texts, see, for example, Ward (1907), Sumner (1906), Giddings (1911), and Small (1898). The Ward and Giddings texts were presidential addresses to the ASS.

7 For more complete discussions of the racist assumptions (delivered as science) made by founding fathers of sociology, see Morris et al. (2020), Go (2013), and Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1974). For more general discussions of the integration of racist caricatures into white sociological discourse, see especially Morris (2015), Muhammad (2010), and Kendi (2016).

8 For documentation and analysis of this rigorous discriminatory regime in Northern cities, see Du Bois (1899) and Harris and Carter (1926).

9 The first article on what would become the area of “race relations” – “The Hierarchy of European Races”, appeared in volume three of the «American Journal of Sociology» in 1897 (Closson, 1897), and was followed by 12 others by the time the American Sociological Society was founded in 1905. These area-establishing texts included the first «American Journal of Sociology» article by a Black author – “Crime Among Negroes in Chicago”, by Monroe Work – the first article addressing the “Negro Problem” in Northern cities (Work, 1900). Work was a graduate student at University of Chicago at the time. He was hired by a municipal commission to conduct a study (under the supervision of his white professors at the University of Chicago) of the Chicago Black community. The study aimed at understanding the causes of the 1899 race riot in Chicago. (The Commission did not fund a comparable study among white Chicagoans despite the fact that the vast bulk of the violence was initiated and committed by white people). Work thus pioneered a pattern, replicated for the next 70 years, in which the violent imposition of a racial regime (punctuated by white mobs invading Black neighborhoods and attacking random residents) would lead to a government sponsored investigation of the “Negro Problem” in that city. And – most often – the (white) social “scientists” placed in charge of the investigation hired Black scholars to research the victims of the violence. In fact, W.E.B. Du Bois’ original commission to research Philadelphia’s 7th Ward (and ultimately write The Philadelphia Negro) was a result of concerns among the leadership of the College Settlement Association that Philadelphia «was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizen» (Du Bois, quoted in Lewis, 1993, 189). The sponsors of the study must have been surprised to discover that the research demonstrated that the “problem” was not “the Negro”, but the racial regime then developing in Northern cities (Du Bois, 1898).

10 A list of important texts would surely include Woodson (1918), Scott (1920), Johnson (1928a, 1928b), Haynes (1924) and Harris and Carter (1926).

11 The best starting place for absorbing and understanding the racial dogma embedded in white scholarship is Khalil Muhammad’s indispensable volume, The Condemnation of Blackness (Muhammad, 2010). See also Go (2013) and Kendi (2016).

12 For discussions of the construction of Jim Crow sociology, see especially Morris (2015) and Vitalis (2015).

13 The Preface was written by her research partner Frank Alexander Ross (Kennedy, 1930, 5-7), calling it a major contribution to urban sociology and migration studies, and a «highest value […] source book for those interested in race problems». (Kennedy, 1930, 7). Ross and Kennedy (1934) would later publish a much larger bibliography intended to include texts that did not qualify as “major”, but nevertheless had useful content, as well as unpublished manuscripts accessible in libraries and archives. The later volume did not contain a synthetic summary of the literature.

14 The «Journal of Political Economy», aimed at establishing itself as the top journal the area of political economy. But – unlike sociology – the area of political economy had not yet been claimed by a specific social science discipline. JPE therefore functioned as a high visibility/high prestige outlet all of social science publishing, and particularly for sociology, history, political science, and economics. It is noteworthy that no AJS article was included in the 1929 Kennedy bibliography.

15 See Du Bois (1899), especially chapters III and IV. See also various Atlanta Studies (Wright II, 2015).

16 The Kennedy (1930) and Ross and Kennedy (1934) bibliographies offer creditable coverage of this literature, though there are some noteworthy exclusions of work by black scholars. One particularly egregious exclusion – in the manuscripts section of the 1934 text – was the failure to mention the research reports compiled by Charles S. Johnson and John Hope, upon which Emmett Scott’s masterwork (Migration During the War) was based (Scott, 1920, 3)

17 See below for a critical analysis of (white) establishment scholarship on the first phases of the Great Migration.

18 As proof of his claim that these earlier migrations had been “ill-advised”, Scroggs offered a quote from Willian Henry Crogman, a Black professor at Clark University in Atlanta, who had written about earlier migration movements, in his widely quoted 1896 book, Talks of the Times: «Over and over again have I known persons to leave their native state and after wandering through several others to return finally to the very spot whence they had started, having in that time gained nothing, acquired nothing, except that which is a property common to all bodies once set in motion – a tendency to keep moving» (Crogman 1896, 254; quoted in Scroggs, 1917: 1043). While Scroggs quoted Crogman accurately, he nevertheless twisted the argument: Crogman made this comment in describing the repeated attempts of Black farmers to obtain better conditions of employment elsewhere; an effort that was often frustrated by the refusal of Southern and non-southern employers (rural and urban) to employ Black workers. This rigorous discrimination was a lynchpin in the Jim Crow project of locking Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers onto their “home” plantations. Placed in this context, it is clear that Crogman did not agree with Scroggs’ claims that such migration was an aimless expression “of an inherent tendency to wander”.

19 Ironically, Scroggs, in a moment of candor, admitted that U.S. census disconfirmed his primary assumption: «while the Negroes have shown this marked inclination toward interstate movement, they nevertheless exhibit this tendency in less degree than do the whites» (Scroggs, 1917, 1040). Scroggs nevertheless proceeded with his analysis, unaware that this report of census statistics disproved his social psychological premise.

20 In explaining the role of the boll weevil, Scroggs mentioned the 1908-9 crop failures, and paired them with extremely low prices in sugar in Louisiana in 1913-14. Scroggs asserted that these economic forces led to a kind of “back and forth” migration in which cotton and sugar plantations sent Black plantation workers back and forth across the Mississippi river (Scroggs, 1917, 1040-1).

21 Thomas Woofter, who wrote at least three books analyzing the Great Migration, presents a parallel argument (with less emphasis on wanderlust), grounding his argument on evidence culled from the U.S. Census, from U.S. government farm and census officials, from [white] social workers and employers, and from «the information and advice received from numerous [white] planters [i.e., plantation owner-operators] and [white] county farm demonstration agents in the South». Like Scroggs, Woofter devoted much of his text to debunking – based on the testimony of plantation owners and white local officials – claims that economic exploitation or racial violence were major factors in Black migration before and during the Great Migration (see Woofter, 1920, 25-27; 105-121; 172-180).

22 For an excruciatingly explicit assertion of this “supervision” dogma as science, see H.E. Belin’s 1903 AJS article, which asserts, as provable scientific fact: that «the institution of negro slavery as it existed in the southern states of the American Union, so far from being an outrage on civilization, was, on the whole, at once the most humane and the most practical method ever devised for “bearing the white man’s burden”» (Belin, 1903, 266). For a more measured assertion of the dogma that Black progress depended on white supervision (in this case education), see Woofter (1920, 177).

23 See for example, Kennedy (1930, 256).

24 See Johnson (1928, 128-9) for a particularly lucid and pointed analysis of the conjunction of proximate and structural causes in migratory movements.

25 For exemplars of this scholarship, see Woodson (1918) and Scott (1920). See also, Du Bois (1903) for a lucid discussion of the dynamics of efforts mounted by ex-slaves to escape or reform the Jim Crow system as it was being constructed; and Du Bois (1899; 1917), in which he discusses the dynamics of immigration from the South.

26 For an important account of the enhanced repression in this period, see Loewen (2006). One sign of this period of enhanced repression and economic immiseration was the rising death rate among Southern African-Americans recorded in the pre-World War I period (Johnson, 1927), at least partly due to the epidemic of the vitamin deficiency disease pellagra coursing through the south at that time (Chase, 1977, 201-225).

27 See, for example, Du Bois (1903, passim) most vividly “Of the Meaning of Progress”. See also Baker (1908), for a contemporary account of the increased oppression during this period.

28 One telltale sign of this systematic censorship: neither the «American Journal of Sociology» nor «Social Forces» – the two top sociology journals during the 1920s – published any articles focusing on Great Migration; though articles on a variety of subjects referenced Black migration to the North relying on the tropes articulated by Scroggs and other white theorists. See, for example Allison’s 1924 «Social Forces» article “Population Movements in Chicago”, which refers to the Great Migration as “The Influx of Negroes”; explains the “influx” by asserting (without evidence) that Chicago had been a longstanding «refuge for the northward migration of Negroes». The brief treatment focused mainly on the 1919 race riot in Chicago attributing it to the “encroachments of the blacks” into white middle class neighborhoods (Allison, 1924, 532). See also Park (1928; 1936).

29 Du Bois (1917; 1920, 47-59), Scott (1920), Johnson (1923; 1927; 1928), Locke (1925), Harris and Carter (1926). A representative sample of texts that merit current attention would also include Baker (1908, 1917), Haynes (1924), Woodson (1918) and many others. It is important to note that the Scott text, Negro Migration During the War – perhaps the most important book published on the Great Migration (at least until Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2019)) – was based on research conducted by Monroe Work and Charles Johnson, and was largely drawn from a set of reports they authored (these very important documents have not yet been independently published or made available online). Johnson continued working in this area, and became the central figure in the debates and analyses of the Great Migration during the pre-Depression period. In Kennedy’s bibliography Johnson received 15 citations, more than any other author (Kennedy, 1930, 245). In the larger bibliography published five years later, Johnson received 20 citations, also the most of an author (Ross and Kennedy, 1934, 76-78). Given this acknowledgment of Johnson’s importance, it is remarkable how little of his analysis is reflected in Kennedy’s commentary, or in even the modern literature of the Great Migration.

30 A useful and eloquent summary of this history can be found in Du Bois (1920, 47-60).

31 For a compelling analysis of the reception of Black migrants in Northern cities, see Muhammad (2010). For specific reactions to the World War I migration, see Harris and Carter (1926).

32 For a discussion of the origins of this pattern, see footnote 9 above.

33 Nicolaus was speaking about all sociologists («with few but honorable […] exceptions»).

34 The internal quote appears to be a paraphrase of Du Bois’ measured summary of figures culled from «a questionnaire covering the whole South», which yielded «a total estimated migration of 250,000 persons in the last six months» (Du Bois, 1917, 64).

35 Useful discussions of the embeddedness of the stereotype of Black passivity and impotence in the face of oppression into the corpus of (white) sociological dogma can be found in Morris (2015) and Vitalis (2015). For citations to earlier challenges to this stereotype of Black passivity, see Curry (2012).

36 No consequential scholarship on migration had been carried out at Tuskegee under Booker T. Washington’s leadership, reflecting the contrast between his perspective and that of W.E.B. Du Bois. After his death in 1915, Robert Moton and Emmett Smith, who ascended to intellectual leadership at Tuskegee, adopted a Du Boisian reform oriented perspective. The comprehensive study of the Great Migration was the first project that reflected this shift in perspective.

37 In adopting this research design, Hope and Johnson worked with the techniques pioneered by Du Bois and the Atlanta School. To cover the vast geography of the Great Migration, they expanded on Du Bois’ techniques by fully developing the use of “key informant” interviews selected through a variety of methods that allowed them to identify and interview central figures in a social movement that was shrouded in the secrecy needed to protect potential migrants from detainment by their plantation masters. In contrast, the white literature eschewed any testimony or evidence from Black migrants, replicating the relentless pattern in the white race relations literature that discounted or ignored Black interview subjects (see, for example, the widely cited Woofter volume, which relied solely on government statistics, plantation owners, and white professionals (Woofter, 1920, 8, passim).

38 For useful discussions of the sharecropping/tenant farming system that was constructed in the South after Reconstruction, see Du Bois (1898; 1903; 1911). For late 20th century studies validating Du Bois’ analysis, see Schwartz (1976), Ransom and Sutch (2001). For a lucid analysis of how the exclusion of Black from industrial employment prior to World War I was organized, see Harris and Carter (1926), Harris (1924), Du Bois (1899).

39 Here again, the (Black) researchers received funding (and presumed supervision) from white foundation sources. The Urban League, with joint white and black leadership, nevertheless depended for funding on white philanthropic and foundation sources. The Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, though founded and run by Black professionals, nevertheless depended on white philanthropy for over 90% of all funding (

40 Harris and Carter (1926, 66, 74). The exception was the meat-packing industry, located mainly in St. Paul, and affiliated with national corporations (Cudahy and Armour), which had been forced by anti-racist unionization drives to continue hiring Black workers (Cayton and Mitchell, 1939).

41 Harris and Carter (1926, 66). In 2000, Minneapolis registered 5.2% African Americans (154,000) among its nearly three million residents, the fourth lowest among urban areas with more than two million residents. All the Midwestern cities that were manufacturing centers during the early part of the 20th Century recorded at least twice the proportion of African-American residents (notably, Chicago (18%), Cleveland (18%), Detroit, (23%) Cincinnati (18%)

42 Johnson’s count of 15 entries did not include the Scott (1920) text, for which Johnson was an unlisted (but acknowledged by Scott) co-author; or the (still unpublished) local and state studies upon which the Scott volume was based (for example, Johnson and Hope (ca 1919)). Much of his analysis also derived from his position as “associate executive director charged with undertaking the basic research” (and unattributed author) of the Chicago Commission of Race Relations report on the 1919 Chicago Race Riot (Johnson, 1922). This lack of attribution followed the standard procedure of Jim Crow sociology of using funding power to force Black sociologists to work under the supervision of (often unqualified) white scholars who then claimed credit for the research (Robbins, 1974, 60f.).

43 This description of Johnson’s analysis is synthesized from Johnson (1923; 1927; 1928a; 1928b; 1936).

44 For a full discussion of the content and significance of this text, see Schwartz (2017).

45 See also Schwartz (2017); Park (1928).

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Michael Schwartz, «The Great Migration in Myth and Reality»Quaderni di Sociologia, 83- LXIV | 2020, 67-99.

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Michael Schwartz, «The Great Migration in Myth and Reality»Quaderni di Sociologia [Online], 83- LXIV | 2020, online dal 01 avril 2021, consultato il 18 mai 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Michael Schwartz

Department of Sociology – Stony Brook University

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