|Date(s):||August 21, 1943|
|Tag(s):||Great Migration, Detroit race riots|
|Course:||“Environmental History in Detroit,” University of Michigan|
In 1943, racial tensions were high as more and more African Americans left the South in pursuit of a new life and new opportunities in the North. Many African Americans hoped to leave their agricultural and rural roots in the South for a more urban lifestyle in the nation's larger and more industrialized cities. Large urban centers such as Detroit strained to accommodate the massive influx of people, both economically and socially, as these cities became meccas for Southern migrants. Lester Granger of the National Urban League feared that this "undirected" migration would produce "unsound social planning" and produce large industrial centers of African American-dominated populations with little regard to the demands of labor or these newcomers' welfare. Attorney General Frances Biddle stated that there would be no exclusion of African Americans from over-crowded areas, but that conflict like the Detroit race riots suggested that poor living and working conditions and other barriers to the rural-urban transition were likely a leading cause in the uproar and should be avoided if possible.
The Great Migration was one of the "most significant demographic events to occur in the United States in the twentieth century" (Tolnay, 210). Due to the use of slaves in agriculture and farm production, the South always had a higher concentration of African Americans than any other region in the country. Even after emancipation, these people lived on plantations and farms, usually as sharecroppers, and their labor and expertise formed the back-bone of the South's economy. But by 1950, almost 2.5 million Southern-born African Americans had migrated out of the South, taking their culture and agricultural backgrounds with them. They saw Northern cities like Detroit as an opportunity to leave the agricultural pasts that had bound them to the negative after-effects of slavery, and begin anew life in urban and industrial areas. As more and more African Americans moved North, whites became increasingly uncomfortable with the "shifting racial balance in their cities" (Tolnay, 210). These insecurities created racial tensions, and often ended in violent conflict.
The Great Migration marked a radical shift in the nation’s economic focus, but also in its social and cultural distributions. Even with new jobs in urban factories in increasingly industrialized settings, African Americans had a strong historical background in farming and agriculture that influenced their assimilation to this new urban life. Successful integration from one place to another typically relies on how well a migrant or immigrant is able to use his or her previous required skills and apply it to a new career. African Americans were forced to take the lowest-paying, most un-skilled jobs partially due to the fact that they had little previous experience in any industrialized setting. They brought with them, however, a strong work ethic, a focus on conservation and frugality, and a history of stewardship with their environment that would later influence many individuals’ involvement in environmental justice issues and urban farming initiatives. The Great Migration marked an important transition in the nation’s economy away from reliance on agriculture, but did not entirely destroy the cultural influence from centuries of working the land.