Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr.
Scott and Dorothy Bullitt
Professor of American History
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African American History | African American History in the West (Now available at www.blackpast.org)  

History 322:
From Timbuktu to Katrina, Chapter 1
Manual - Chapter 2
The Great Migration: Blacks in the Urban North

Introduction | Chap. 1 | Chap. 2 | Chap. 3 | Chap. 4 | Chap. 5 | Chap. 6 | Chap. 7 | Chap. 8

World War I opened the first significant opportunities for black Americans in Northern cities and as a consequence 500,000 African-Americans moved out of the South between 1916 and 1920, initiating a rural to urban black exodus which continued virtually uninterrupted until the 1970s. The vignettes in this chapter explain the Great Migration and its consequences for black and urban America.

The vignettes Why They Leave the South and Black Southerners Explain the Exodus suggest the various reasons for the 'push' from the South. The Great Migration: One Black Family Moves North views the migration through the experience of a "typical" family while Charles Denby Describes His Work discuses the experiences of one man in a Detroit automobile factory. Greeting African American Newcomers to Detroit, 1917 profiles the efforts of the Detroit Urban League to assist the newcomers in adjusting to their new home. East St. Louis: An American Pogrom reminds us that competition for jobs exacerbated racial tension and in this instance led to a bloody race riot. In Big Bill Thompson and the Black Vote we see the growth of political power in the North. At the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War I, W.E .B. DuBois penned an editorial in the NAACP publication, The Crisis titled “Close Ranks” in which he urged African Americans to put aside their racial grievances and support fully the nation’s efforts in World War I. When that full support was greeted with continuing racial discrimination and in fact an escalation of violence against African Americans in and out of uniform, DuBois responded with “We Return Fighting.” Both vignettes appear in this volume. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 was the largest 20th Century racial clash in the city. The vignettes The Chicago Defender Describes the Race Riot details the violence as it unfolded in the city while The Chicago Commission on Race Relations Explains the Riot of 1919 provides the first official explanation of a racial confrontation and in the process, established a pattern that would be followed throughout the rest of the century. Sweet Home, Chicago discusses the ongoing discrimination in housing against the backdrop of the riot and suggests why such discrimination would ultimately fail. Finally, in Mary McLeod Bethune: The Problem of the City Dweller, we see a political activist and college founder and president describing the challenges awaiting those who migrate to the city.


In the brief article below titled “Why they Leave the South: The Lynching Record for 1916,” the Chicago Defender reminds all that the migration is driven not only by increased economic opportunity in the North. Lynching and other forms of racially motivated violence that remained common well into the second decade of the 20th Century also persuaded African Americans to move to Northern cities.

In view of the widespread discussion of the causes back of the migration of Negroes to the North it is timely to consider the lynchings for the year just closed. I find according to the records kept by Monroe N. Work, head of the Division of Records and Research of the Tuskegee Institute, that in 1916 there have been 54 lynchings. Of those lynched, 50 were Negroes and 4 were whites. This is 4 less Negroes and 9 less whites than were put to death in 1915 when the record was 54 Negroes and 13 whites. Included in the record are 3 women.

Fourteen (14) or more than one-fourth of the total lynchings occurred in the State of Georgia. Of those put to death 42, or 77 per cent of the total, were charged with offenses other than rape. The charges for which whites were lynched were murder, 3; suspected of cutting a woman, 1 (this a Mexican).

The charges for which Negroes were put to death were attempted rape, 9; killing officers of the law, 10; murder, 7; hog stealing and assisting another person to escape, 6; wounding officers of the law, 4; rape, 3; insult, 2; for each of the following offenses one person was put to death: Slapping boy; robbing store; brushing against girl on the street; assisting his son, accused of rape, to escape; entering a house for robbery or some other purpose; defending her son, who in defense of mother, killed man; fatally wounding a man with whom he had quarreled; speaking against mob in act of putting a man to death; attacking a man and wife with club.

Lynchings occurred in the following states: Alabama, 1; Arkansas, 4; Florida, 8; Georgia, 14; Kansas, 1; Kentucky, 2; Louisiana, 2; Mississippi, 1; Missouri, 1, North Carolina, 2; Oklahoma, 4; South Carolina, 2; Tennessee, 3; Texas, 9.

Source: The Chicago Defender, January 6, 1917, p. 2.


Between 1916 and 1920 nearly 400,000 Afro Americans migrated from Southern farms to Northern cities. Before leaving many of them wrote the Chicago Defender and other Northern newspapers requesting support and assistance. Some of these letters are is reprinted below.

Pensacola, Fla., 4-21-17

Sir: You will please give us the names of the firms where we can secure employment. Also please explain the Great Northern Drive for May 15th. Wee will come by the thousands. Some of us like farm work. The colored people will leave if you will assist them. P. 331

Mobile, Ala., April 25, 1917

Dear Sir: I was reading in the paper about the Colored race and while reading it I seen in ti where cams would be here for the 15th of May… Will you be so kind as to let me know where they are coming to and I will be glad to know because I am a poor woman and have a husband and five children living and three dead… [M]y husband can hardly make bread for them in Mobile. This is my native home but it is not fit to live…. Will you please let me know when the cars is going to stop to so that he can come where he can take care of me and my children…. Hoping to hear from you soon, your needed and worried friend. (p. 332)

New Orleans, La., 4-23-17

Dear Editor: I am a reader of the Defender and I am askeso [sic] much about the great Norther drive on the 15th of May. We want more understanding about it for [when we ask] the depot agents never gives us any satisfaction…for they don’t want us to leave her. I want to ask you to please publish iin your next Saturdays paper just what the fair [sic] will be that day so we all will know & and can be ready. So many women here are wanting to go that day. They are all working women and we cant get work here so much now, the white women tell us we just want to make money to go North and we do so please kindly answer this in your next paper…

New Orleans, La., May 2, 1917

Dear Sir: Please sir, will you kindly tell me what is meant by the Great Northern Drive to take place May the 15th, on Tuesday. It is a rumor all over town to be ready for the 15th of May to go in the drive...Do please write me at once and say is there an excursion to leave the South. Nearly the whole of the South is ready for the drive. Or excursion as it is termed. Please write at once. We are sick to get out of the South.

Source: Emmett J. Scott, “Letters of Negro Migrants of 1916-1918,” Journal of Negro History 4:3 (July 1919):331-334


In this account from William Tuttle's 1970 book on the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, we see one family's harrowing account of their train ride to Chicago in 1916.

One 1916 migrant to Chicago was Sot Pinckney. A sharecropper, Pinckney farmed with his own family and 300 others on a 2,000 acre Mississippi planta¬tion. "We were never paid money," he later recalled, "only credit at the Commissary."

Naturally he had thought about leaving the plantation and Mississippi, but because of the size of his family (a wife and six children) and because of the surveillance of the overseers and guards ("they wouldn't let us go anywhere except to work...."), he had become resigned to living out the rest of his years there. But in the autumn of 1916 "a newcomer" working in one of the cotton gins approached him and asked: "How would you like to leave this plantation and go up north and make some money?" Fearful that they might be overheard, Pinckney quickly replied: "You are either drunk or just a plain, simple, damn fool."

That evening, however, the stranger visited his shack, and Pinckney and his wife agreed to leave for the North if the stranger could suggest a way to escape. But Pinckney asked, "How are we to get by the guard at the 'Big Gate'?" The next morning Pinckney followed the stranger's instructions and asked the overseer for permission for his family to leave the plantation "so we could see a circus which we heard would be in town" on Saturday. The overseer looked at Pinckney with "a squinting, suspicious expression in his eyes," but he finally consented. The stranger had persuaded other families to request permission, and they, too, were issued passes to show the guards at the "Big Gate."

"We all left walking Friday night about midnight," each family having with it only a meager amount of personal belongings "lest we arouse suspicion and jeopardize our chances of escape." Waiting a mile away at "the little state on the branch track" was something that Pinckney and his family had never seen before a train. They boarded it, and about 5:30 felt it lurch and then creep forward, "as if to make less noise as possible; gradually picking up more and more speed after it had reached the main line."

Occasionally the train would jerk to a stop, but Pinckney and his family did "not know what station it was, as we were not allowed to look outside the train, or even raise the window blinds until the train had crossed the Mason and Dixon line." But even before it had left Mississippi, each car in the train was "packed to every available foot of ... space," and thus jammed together the migrants traveled to Chicago. Employment was awaiting Pinckney at the stockyards. The stranger probably profited as well as the workers, for he was doubtless a labor agent for Northern industries.

Source: William M. Tuttle, Jr., Race Riot, (New York, 1970), pp. 77 78.


Alabama-born Charles Denby migrated to Detroit in 1924. In the following account he describes his first job at Graham Paige, an independent auto manufacturing company.

My first job at Graham Paige was in the foundry shaking out the oil pan that fits under the motor.... I was very much surprised when I was hired. I asked the man if there were any jobs. He said, yes. I told him I preferred somewhere else when he told me to work in the foundry. I had worked in a foundry in Anniston [Alabama]. I knew what the work was like. He said there were no other jobs open. When white men came he told them about other jobs and hired them.... How could he say, to my face there were no other jobs when he told a white man ahead of me about polishing and put another in the carpentry shop....They led us out to see where we would come to work the next morning.

As I looked around, all the men were dirty and greasy and smoked up. They were beyond recognition. There were only three or four whites. These were Polish. Negroes told me later they were the only ones able to stand the work. Their faces looked exactly like Negro faces. They were so matted and covered with oil and dirt that no skin showed. Hines [his friend] and I went home discussing how it was that they could say everyone was free with equal rights up North. There was no one in the foundry but Negroes....

At the end of the week they said we'd get no pay the first week. They held it in what they called abeyance. The job was very rugged. I had to work continuously, as fast as I could move. The heat from the cubulos, which were round furnaces for melting the iron, was so hot that in five minutes my clothes would stick with dirt and grease. We'd walk through on our lunch period to talk to a friend. We couldn't recognize him by his clothes or looks. The men working in his section would tell us where he was or we could tell a friend by his voice.

My job paid five dollars a day. The first foreman was quiet, he didn't doe much raring or hollering like the other foremen. They would curse and holler. They would pay us off right there if we looked back or stopped working. Workers passed out from the heat. The foremen rushed a stretcher over and two workers would take the man out, give him fifteen minutes to revive and then he would have to go back to work. When a man passed out, the foreman would be running out to see if the guy was conscious. He would be cursing all the time..... They never mentioned a wound serious enough to go to first aid. Workers would get a layer of iron from the cubulo, bring it to the iron pourers, fifteen to twenty men with long ladles. These would be filled with hot iron running like water. As their ladles filled up, the men had to straighten their arms out level and pour the iron down a little hole the size of a milk bottle. All the time they had to turn slow, like a machine. If they poured too fast, the iron would explode the mold and burn the other men. The iron would drop on a wet spot and hit the men like a bullet and go into the skin. The man getting hit still had to hold the ladling iron level to keep from burning the other men. The would wait their chance to pick out the balls of iron, and sometimes the foreman picked it out as the men went on working.

Source: Charles Denby, Indignant Heart: The Journal of An Afro-American Automobile Worker, (London, 1979), pp. 33, 30.


Between 1916 and 1917 approximately 30,000 African Americans moved to Detroit. When the 1920 census was taken three years later these migrants comprised 75% of the city’s African American population. In percentage terms Detroit had one of the largest increases in the nation. In 1917 Forrester B. Washington, Executive Director of the Detroit Urban League, described in an article for The Survey both the unprecedented migration of African Americans to the Motor City and the various programs of his organization and others to smooth their entry into the city. Part of that article appears below.

During the past twelve months the colored popu¬lation of Detroit has increased by about 100 per cent through migration. The experience of this city in the absorption of this large new population of Negro citizens and the program of work for its assimila¬tion…may be of use to other communities which face a similar problem. The subject may, perhaps, best be considered under the separate headings of employment, housing, recreation, crime prevention, cooperation and aids to efficiency.

The first prerequisite in the task of organizing a local community is the establishment of a vocational bureau. In the past, when labor agencies brought the majority of Negroes who came north, the problem of employment was simple. They were assured of jobs before they arrived. But now the majority of immigrants come without such inducement. They come in larger numbers and at all times of the year, when the demand for labor is strong and when it is slack. More¬over, the majority come knowing nothing of the city which is to be their home and unacquainted with any of its citizens. Impossible as it may seem, it is not uncommon for factories in one part of the city to be crying for labor while many of these strange Negroes wander about other parts of the city unable to find employment. This situation is fraught with danger because in a few days idling about the city in search of a job the immigrant may come into contact with conditions and peo¬ple whose influence is demoralizing and may destroy his chance of ever becoming a useful citizen. The immigrant needs more bolstering up in the first week than at any future time. Un¬til he gets his first pay at the end of two weeks, he finds it difficult to get anybody to trust him. He is apt to become a charity seeker and a dependent.

…The Detroit League on Urban Conditions among Negroes, therefore, has not been content merely with locating vacant jobs but has approached manufacturers of all kinds through distribution of literature and personal visits and has been successful during the last twelve months in placing 1,000 Negroes in employment other than unskilled labor. It has made itself known to immigrants by cards of direction placed in the hands of Negro employees about railway stations and intends, as soon as its funds permit, to station a capable, level headed representative at each of the railway stations of Detroit to direct Negro immigrants to the league's office or to other responsible individuals and so¬cieties who will look after their welfare. It has persuaded the proprietor of a local moving picture theater, which is a great gathering place for colored newcomers, to run lantern slides nightly announcing that employment and other serv¬iced can be secured free at the office of the league.

In order to care for the women and girls who are beginning to appear in appreciable numbers, five cigar manufacturers in the city were induced to experiment in employing them, and a sixth has started a new plant employing only colored help. To solve the difficult problem of the first week's board, the league has arranged with certain factories a system of checks issued to guarantee payment for bills incurred at res¬taurants and boarding houses. Some direct arrangements pre¬viously made between certain factories and boarding house keepers resulted in exploitation of the immigrant by the latter.

The establishment of a bureau of investigation and in¬formation regarding housing comes next in importance. The character of the houses into which Negro immigrants go has a direct effect on their health, their morals and their effi¬ciency. The rents charged determine whether the higher wages received in the North are real or only apparent, wheth¬er the change in environment has been beneficial or detri¬mental. The tendency is to exploit the Negro immigrant in this particular. Rents charged him in Detroit have risen by from 50 to 200 per cent in one year. He is forced into a dis¬trict inhabited by colored people where housing accommoda¬tion is inadequate for those already there. The proximity of the colored district in most northern cities to the center is responsible for the imposition of the vice district upon the Negro. This bureau should, therefore, scour the city for every available house, tenement or room inside or outside the recognized Negro district. It should make also a thorough investigation of comparative rents charged Negroes and whites and give the findings the fullest publicity. The bureau should constantly remind employers of Negro labor that it is to their advantage to see that the Negro is well housed and that, if nobody else will build, it is good business for them to do so…

With the shorter working hours, recreation is more important for the Negro in the North than in the South. On the other hand, he is beset by many vicious attractions entirely new to him, and there is not the restraining influence of his family, friends and those that know him. I am sorry say, but it is true, he does not receive a warm welcome fro the great majority of colored citizens of the better class in the city to which he migrates. While they try to decide whether his coming is a benefit or an injury to them, he gets a royal welcome from another element of the Negro community--the saloon keeper, the pool room proprietor, the owner of [the] gambling club and disorderly house.

The only way to counteract these vicious influences is provide the immigrant Negro with wholesome recreation that will satisfy his natural instinct for active amusement and society of his own kind. This is no simple affair and be met by existing institutions in only a few cities. The hard working laborer recently from a rural section of Alabama cannot be attracted away from saloon or pool room with art lectures or literary forums or even the facilities of the average Y. M. C. A. The first demand he makes of recreation is that it be active and practical, to a certain extent primitive. If he does not get it under wholesome conditions, he will seek it under evil ones.

The Detroit league some time ago inaugurated a ten-cent newcomers’ community dance, held every Tuesday in a pub school in the heart of the Negro district. A Young Negro Progressive Association, developed by the league, has helped in promoting this dance as well as in all other plans for adjusting the newcomers to the city. A committee of the association handed printed cards about the street where most the immigrants collect and placed them in the hands of newcomers, inviting them to the community dance, where another committee welcomes them- the rougher the type, the heartier the welcome. This committee also introduces the newcomer to the more desirable people present who have been longer in Detroit...

The league also develops athletic features for the immigrants, especially basket ball. The first colored basket-ball team, not a member of which was a native of Detroit, last winter played against strong white teams and lost only one game. It has played against colored teams as far away as Pittsburgh...

Camp fire girls, mostly the children of newcomers, also have been organized. There are only twenty one regular members -the regulations do not permit a larger number in one camp. All the expenses for these girls, such as rent, re¬freshments, etc., are paid by the Young Negroes’ Progressive Association from the proceeds of the community dance. It is very encouraging to find these young men take upon them¬selves the responsibility of providing decent recreation for young girls of their own age.

A department for the suppression of crime is necessary in a program for the assimilation of the Negro immigrant. The increased crime among Negroes has had two bad results: it has made both white and native colored citizens believe that the southern Negro is more criminal by nature than his north¬ern brother; and it has created a general distrust against all Negroes. The assistance of the local police should be so¬licited from the outset. It should be impressed upon them that they must not, as they are prone to do, let matters go from bad to worse in a colored community until conditions are so acute that drastic and unusual measures are necessary. The appointment of colored detectives should be urged to filter from the community as soon as possible the inevitable floaters, crooks, bums and adventurers who are parts of every hegira.

The league has persuaded the police commissioner to appoint a special officer, selected by the league, to work entirely with the newcomers. It is his duty to mingle with crowds on the streets where the newcomers congregate and urge them not to make a nuisance of themselves by blockading sidewalks, bois¬terous behavior and the like. He is also provided with cards directing newcomers to the office of the league when in need of employment. The league itself keeps a close watch on the Negro underworld of Detroit and immediately apprises the police when dives are developed especially to prey on the immigrant.

Much strength can he added to the program and much energy saved by enlisting the aid of every possible organiza¬tion in the city whose functions can in any way be construed as touching on Negro migration. The urban league found the Board of Commerce exceedingly willing to cooperate in a movement for the investigation and improvement of working conditions of Negro employes [sic] in the various manufacturing plants in the city. The Board of Health gave considerable assistance in obtaining better and more sanitary housing con¬ditions. The aid of several mothers' clubs among the colored women was enlisted to instruct immigrant mothers in the proper diet and clothing for children in a northern cli¬mate. From the outset, the aim was not only to put each im¬migrant in a decent home but also to connect him with some church. Many times the churches have reciprocated with considerable material as well as spiritual assistance.

But the greatest cooperation received has been that of the Young Negroes’ Progressive Association to which reference has already been made. This is a body of thirty four young colored men, most of them attending the various schools and colleges about Detroit. They have been the finest possible agent in the development of all the different activities…

Source: Forrester B. Washington, “The Detroit Newcomers’ Greeting,” The Survey 33 (July 14, 1917), 333-335.


Oscar Leonard, Superintendent of The Jewish Educational and Charitable Association of St. Louis, writing about the East St. Louis Riot of 1917 called it an American pogrom. His account appears below.

TWO days before the nation was to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence with its recognition that "all men are created free and equal" came the news that in East St. Louis Negroes were being slaughtered and their homes pillaged and burned by white Americans. East St. Louis…is an industrial town cross the Mississippi [from St. Louis]. It is part of the state which gave us Abraham Lincoln. This circumstance made the “pogrom" upon the Negroes more tragic. They were being murdered mercilessly in a state which had fought for their freedom from slavery. They were forced to seek refuge and safety across the river in Missouri, which was a slave state at one time.

I just called the riot a "pogrom," the name by which Rus¬sian massacres of Jews has become known. Yet when I went to East St. Louis to view the sections where the riots had taken place, I was informed that the makers of Russian pogroms could learn a great deal from the American rioters. I went there in the company of a young Russian Jew, a sculptor, who had witnessed and bears the marks of more than one anti-Jewish riot in his native land. He told me when he viewed the blocks of burned houses that the Russian "Black Hundreds" could take lessons in pogrom-making from the whites of East St. Louis. The Russians at least, he said, gave the Jews a chance to run while they were trying to murder them. The whites in East St. Louis fired the homes of black folk and either did not allow them to leave the burning houses or shot them the moment they dared attempt to escape the flames.

What is the reason for this terrible situation?

Fundamentally, the reason is purely economic. It is not rather the white people in Illinois, or rather in East St. Louis, have any terrible hatred for the Negro. The two races go to the same schools. The laws of Illinois even permit inter¬marriage between whites and blacks. Negroes hold state, county and municipal offices. They own a great dear of prop¬erty in the state and in the city where the riots took place. But being the most disinherited of men, Negroes at times work for lower wages than do whites. Some of them will not join labor unions and most of them would not be ad¬mitted if they cared to join.

This condition is extremely objectionable to the white workers with whom they compete for jobs. But this very fact makes the Negro laborer more attractive, to employers who want labor at the cheapest possible terms. They favor any labor force that will not join unions, that will not strike, that will not make periodic demands for increased wages or shorter workdays. Such an element introduced into the com¬munity acts as a whip over the heads of the white workers. Employers know that. Laboring people are, painfully aware of it. This is the main reason for the race antipathy in East St. Louis, as I judge from talking to business men, laborers, professional men and labor leaders.

East St. Louis is what Graham Romeyn Taylor called a "satellite city." It is not. a city of homes in the American acceptance of that term. It is a manufacturing town where industries locate because land is cheap, transportation facili¬ties good, coal and water near and cheap. The many factories make the place unattractive for home-building. Capi¬tal goes there simply in search of dividends. It. Isn’t in¬terested in the welfare of the city or of the workers who help make those dividends. Only those who must, live there. Those who can live in St. Louis, while working in East St. Louis, do so.

The result is that the city is run to suit the lowest political elements. The foreign laborers who were imported by the industries in East St. Louis know nothing of American stand¬ards. There is practically no social work being done in that city which boasts a population of 100,000 souls. Saloons are numerous and gambling dens abound. They run wide open… One can not visit East St. Louis without seeing at a glance that saloons are more numerous than the schools and churches. That in itself would indicate how much control the liquor interests have over the city.

This, too, has helped bring about the situation which re¬sulted in the massacre of Negroes both May 28 and July). The undesirable Negro element, like the undesirable white element, was used by self-seeking politicians. In order to be able to control that element the politicians had to make concessions. Evil dives were permitted. Lawless Negroes were protected. All too frequently the St. Louis papers re¬ported outrages committed upon white women by Negroes in East St. Louis. There were robberies and stabbings and shootings of white men at frequent intervals. Yet criminals were not punished. They were "taken care of." This helped stir the ill will of the better element among the white population.

The employers insist that they do not encourage immigration and absolutely deny that they import Negroes. They insist that there are not enough white workers to take the jobs. They point to the fact that since the Negro left East St. Louis, on July 2 and that entire week, four industries have entirely shut down. When asked why it is that Negroes do come in such large numbers to East St. Louis they say that the lure of better wages than the South pays attracts them.

R. F. Rucker, superintendent of the aluminum ore says that the employers were glad to employ Negroes when there were not enough white workers to fill the jobs. According to him, many of the white workers went east to take employment in munitions factories… Some Negroes who had come voluntarily from the South were given their places. These men wrote home of the fine opportunities for employment at high wages and urged their friends to come to East St. Louis.

…Feeling against the Negroes was stirred constantly. Here and there personal encounters between the two races took place. Sunday evening, July 1, a rumor was spread that the Negroes had gathered in one of their churches to plan revenge upon the white population. A number of policemen in charge of Detective Sergeant Coopedge drove over to the church. As they approached the place they were fired upon by Negroes and Coopedge was killed. The same night a policeman and two other white men were shot by Negroes.

These deeds acted as a match applied to powder. Monday morning it was apparent that there would be trouble. Mayor Mollman said he tried to prepare for it. East St. Louis has just thirty six policemen. The mayor says that he spoke personally to them, urging them to do their duty. They were not inclined to interfere because their comrades had been shot. The deputy sheriffs felt the same way. Some militiamen were in town, but according to all accounts the militia fraternized with the white population. The mayor was urged to call up the governor and ask for reinforcements and for a declaration of martial law. He refused to do so. His opponents say that he had political reasons for his failure to act.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that through someone's negligence, black men and women and children were murdered wantonly. In the seven Negro districts of the city fires were started at the same time. Negroes were hanged and stoned and shot and kicked. White women and boys as well as men took part. A black skin was a death warrant on the streets of this Illinois city. How many black persons were killed will never be known...

According to eye witnesses, many Negroes must have been burned in their homes so that no remains will be found. It is believed that one hundred Negroes who took refuge in an old theater in one of their sections were burned when the building was set on fire. I saw that building, of which only part of one wall was left.

It was a distressing sight to see block after block where peaceful homes had been located burned to the ground. The innocent suffered with the guilty. Thrifty black folk, who were doing their bit by raising vegetables, were murdered. I saw the ruins of their homes, into which had gone the labor and savings of years. The little thrift gardens had escaped the flames and the orderly rows where seeds had been planted gave the plots the appearance of miniature graveyards.

Source: Oscar Leonard, “The East St. Louis Pogrom,” The Survey 33 (July 14, 1917), 331-333.


The benefits of the great migration were usually felt first at the ballot box. Northern states allowed African Americans to vote and soon some politicians, recognizing the potential in the votes of the southern migrants began to organize in black communities. Nowhere was that organization more successful than in Chicago. With the help of a Republican political machine headed by Chicago mayor William Hale "Big" Bill Thompson, blacks became, and remain a political force in Illinois elections. The vignette below announces Thompson’s election and the role the black vote played in it.


Mayor Thompson was re-elected today by such a narrow margin that it was [fill in] that big lead given him over his principal rivals, Robert M. Sweitzer and Maclay Hoyne, by the negroes in the Second ward gave him the victory. The German wards also helped to re-elect the mayor. Thompson’s lead is between 9,000 and 12,000.

Returns from the Second ward were held back under orders to the police until it was seen how many votes the mayor needed. Then they were gradually permitted to sift through and the Thompson stock which had been going down as a result of bulletins from other wards, began to climb and cheer came to the city hall crowd.

The negroes were in a frenzy of delight when they learned that their votes had put “Big Bill” in the mayor’s chair for another four years. South State street, South Wabash avenue and the other thoroughfares in the district witnessed a demonstration of hilarity seldom seen on an election night.

Because the early returns were held up by the police on the orders of Chief Garrity, the figures indicated the election of Sweitzer. Later returns, however, showed that the race was close and the figures from 1,500 precincts gave the lead to Thompson.

Thompson supporters staged a wild celebration all over the city when the result was made known. When a newspaper bulletin, predicting Thompson’s election by 8,000 to 12,000 majority, was received, the mayor smiled picked up the telephone and called his wife. He read the bulletin to her and said, “They give it up.” He declined to make a further statement at the time.

Mr. Sweitzer mowed down the pluralities given Mayor Thompson in the heavy republican strongholds four years ago, but did not reduce them enough to give him the lead he had expected. Sweitzer, the returns showed, also was aided by the vote given to Hoyne in the republican wards. Mr. Hoyne’s vote in these wards was not surprising, however, as republican leaders were openly working for him. Hoyne failed to show any strength in the democratic wards and ran a poor third.

Mayor Thompson’s plurality in 2,005 precincts out of the 2,215 in the city was 12,921. When the mayor was informed of the vote which had been cast he issued the following statement: “Truth and justice have again prevailed. The voters have rendered the verdict. In spite of the malevolent attacks made upon me by the interests which seek to prey upon the people, my administration has been approved by the people. This republican victory in Chicago is also a proclamation to the nation that our people have turned unmistakably to the republican party for deliverance from the ills and burdens of national democratic misrule. This victory today should inspire the republicans of the nation to begin at once the world which will insuer [sic] the election of a republican president next year. It was a vote of confidence in the republican party and a spoken desire of this great industrial community to return to the sane and safe policies of our city, under which the nation has always been prosperous and happy. To those men and women who, have been so loyal in their support of my candidacy I wish to tender my grateful and appreciative thanks. I shall continue to conduct myself so they may always be proud of this expression of continued confidence.”

Source: The Chicago Daily Journal 1 April 1919, p. 1.


In the editorial below, W.E.B. DuBois calls for African Americans to support the United States in the World War I war effort despite denials of their civil rights at home. He was widely criticized for not using this opportunity to remind the nation of its injustice to demand the end of racial discrimination. His editorial appears below.

This is the crisis of the world. For all the long years to come men will point to the year 1918 as the great day of decision, the day when the world decided whether it would submit to military despotism and an endless armed peace—if peace it could be called—or whether they would put down the menace of German militarism and inaugurate the United States of the World.

We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom, and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow-citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.

Source: The Crisis, Vol. 16, No. 3 (July 1918) p. 111.


W.E.B. DuBois recouped credibility and reestablished himself at the forefront of black protest with his editorial "Returning Soldiers." The editorial, however, was more than DuBois reeling from criticism of his earlier call to "Close Ranks," it was an admission that because of black participation in World War I, segregationists were more determined to keep the racial status quo as reflected by escalating violence particularly against black soldiers in uniform.

We are returning from the war! The Crisis and tens of thousands of black men were drafted into a great struggle. For bleeding France and what she means and has meant and will mean to us and humanity and against the threat of German race arrogance, we fought gladly and to the last drop of blood; for America and her highest ideals, we fought in far-off hope; for the dominant southern oligarchy entrenched in Washington, we fought in bitter resignation.

For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchise¬ment, caste, brutality and devilish insult--for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight, also.

But today we return! We return from the slavery of uniform which the world's madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.

It lynches…
It disfranchises its own citizens…
It encourages ignorance…
It steals from us…
It insults us…
It organizes industry to cheat us. It cheats us out of our land; it cheats us out of our labor. It confiscates our savings. It reduces our wages. It raises our rent. It steals our profit. It taxes us without representation. It keeps us consistently and universally poor, and then feeds us on charity and derides our poverty…

This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought! But it is our fatherland. It was right for us to fight. The faults of our country are our faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battled against the forces of hell in our own land.

We return.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.

Source: The Crisis, Vol. 18, No. 1, (May 1919), pp. 13-14.


Beginning on July, 27, 1919 Chicago experienced the worst race riot in the 20th Century. For over three weeks white mobs in the city attacked African American residents and their property. In the following account the Chicago Defender describes the rioting.

“For fully four days this old city has been rocked in a quake of racial antagonism, seared in a blaze of red hate flaming as fiercely as the heat of day – each hour ushering in new stories of slaying, looting, arson, rapine, sending the awful roll of casualties to a grim total of 40 dead and more than 500 wounded, many of them perhaps fatally. A certain madness distinctly indicated in reports of shootings, stabbings and burnings of buildings which literally pour in every minute. Women and children have not been spared. Traffic has been stopped. Phone wires have been cut.

Stores and Offices Shut

Victims lay in every street and vacant lot. Hospitals are filled; 4,000 troops rest in arms, among which are companies of the old Eighth regiment, while the inadequate force of police battle vainly to save the city’s honor.

Fear to Care for Bodies

Undertakers on the South Side refused to accept bodies of white victims. White undertakers refused to accept black victims. Both for the same reason. They feared the vengeance of the mobs without.

Every little while bodies were found in some street, alley or vacant lot – and no one sought to care for them. Patrols were unable to accommodate them because they were being used in rushing live victims to hospitals. Some victims were dragged to a mob’s “No Man’s Land” and dropped.

The telephone wires in the raging districts were cut in many places by the rioters as it became difficult to estimate the number of dead victims.
Hospitals Filled with Maimed

Provident hospital, 36th and Dearborn Streets, situated in the heart of the “black belt,” as well as other hospitals in the surrounding districts, are filled with the maimed and dying. Every hour, every minute, every second finds patrols backed up and unloading the human freight branded with the red symbol of this orgy of hate. Many victims have reached the hospitals, only to die before kind hands could attend to them. So pressing as the situation become that schools, drug stores and private houses are being used. Trucks, drays and hearses are being used for ambulances.

Monday Sees “Reign of Terror”

Following the Sunday affray, the red tongues had blabbed their fill, and Monday morning found the thoroughfares in the white neighborhoods throated with a sea of humans – everywhere – some armed with guns, bricks, clubs, and an oath. The presence of a black face in their vicinity was the signal for a carnival of death, and before any aid could read the poor, unfortunate one his body reposed in some kindly gutter, his brains spilled over a dirty pavement. Some of the victims were chased, caught and dragged into alleys and lots, where they were left for dead. In all parts of the city, while mobs dragged from surface cars, black passengers wholly ignorant of any trouble, and set upon them. An unidentified young woman and a 3 months old baby were found dead on the street at the intersection of 47th Sstreet and Wentworth Avenue. She had attempted to board a car there when the mob seized her, beat her, slashed her body into ribbons and beat the baby’s brains out against a telegraph pole. Not satisfied with this, one rioter severed her breasts, and a white youngster bore it aloft on a pole, triumphantly, while the crowd hooted gleefully. All the time this was happening, several policemen were in the crowd, but did not make any attempt to make rescue until too late.

Kill Scores Coming From Yards

Rioters operating in the vicinity of the stock yards, which lies in the heart of white residences west of Halsted street, attacked scores of workers – women and men alike returning from work. Stories of these outrages began to flutter into the black vicinities and hysterical men harangued their fellows to avenge the killings—and soon they, infected with the insanity of the mob, rushed through the streets, drove high powered motor cars or waited for street cars, which they attacked with gunfire and stones. Shortly after noon traffic south of 22nd Street and north of 55th Street, west of Cottage Grove Avenue and east of Wentworth Avenue, was stopped with the exception of trolley cars. Whites who entered this zone were set upon with unmeasurable fury.

Policemen employed in the disturbed sections were wholly unable to handle the situation. When one did attempt to carry out his duty he was beaten and his gun taken from him. The fury of the mob could not be abated. Mounted police were employed, but to no avail.

35th Vortex of Night’s Rioting

With the approach of darkness the rioting gave prospects of being continued throughout the night. Whites boarded the platforms and shot through the windows of the trains at passengers. Some of the passengers alighting from cars were thrown from the elevated structure, suffering broken legs, fractured skulls, and death.

The block between State street and Wabash avenue on East 35th street was the scene of probably the most shooting and rioting of the evening and a pitched battle ensued between the police, whites and blacks.

The trouble climaxed when white occupants of the Angelus apartments began firing shots and throwing missiles from their windows. One man was shot through the head, but before his name could be secured he was spirited away. The attack developed a hysterical battling fervor and the mob charged the building and the battle was on.

Police were shot. Whites were seen to tumble out of automobiles, from doorways and other places, wounded or suffering from bruises inflicted by gunshot, stones or bricks. A reign of terror literally ensued. Automobiles were stopped, occupants beaten and machines wrecked. Street cars operating in 35th street were wrecked, as well as north and south bound State street cars. Windows were shattered and white occupants beaten.

Trolley cars operating east and west on 35th street were stopped, since they always left the vicinity in a perforated state. Shortly after 8 o’clock all service was discontinued on 42d, 47th and 51st streets.

Stores Looted; Homes Burned

Tiring of street fights, rioters turned to burning and looting. This was truly a sleepless night, and a resume of the day’s happenings nourished an inclination for renewed hostilities from another angle. The homes of blacks isolated in white neighborhoods were burned to the ground and the owners and occupants beaten and thrown unconscious in the smoldering embers. Meanwhile rioters in the “black belt” smashed windows and looted shops of white merchants on State Street.

Other rioters, manning high powered cars and armed, flitted up and down the darkened streets, chancing shots at fleeting whites on the street and those riding in street cars.

Toward midnight quiet reigned along State Street under the vigilance of 400 policemen and scores of uniformed men of the 8th Regiment.

Rioting Extends Into Loop

Tuesday dawned sorrowing with a death toll of 20 dead and 300 injured. In early morning a 13-year-old lad standing on his porch at 51st and Wabash avenue was shot to death by a white man who, in an attempt to get away, encountered a mob and his existence became history. A mounted policeman, unknown, fatally wounded a small boy in the 48th block on Dearborn street and was shot to death by some unknown rioter.

Workers thronging the loop district to their work were set upon by mobs of sailors and marines roving the streets and several fatal casualties have been reported. Infuriated white rioters attempted to storm the Palmer house and the post office, where there are a large number of employees, but an adequate police forced dispersed them and later the men were spirited away to their homes in closed government mail trucks and other conveyances. White clerks have replaced our clerks in the main post office temporarily and our men have been shifted to outlying post offices. The loop violence came as a surprise to the police. Police and reserves had been scattered over the South Side rioting districts, as no outbreaks had been expected in this quarter. Toward noon stations therein were overwhelmed with calls.”

Source: “Riot Sweeps Chicago: Ghastly Deeds of Rioters Told” The Chicago Defender August 2, 1919, p.1.


On July 27, 1919 Chicago erupted into racial violence. The week-long confrontation was the largest of a number of racial riots across the nation during what would be known as the Red summer of 1919. In the aftermath of the riot, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden appointed the Chicago Commission on Race Relations to investigate its causes and to suggest methods to reduce racial tension in the city. Part of its report appears below.

Thirty-eight persons killed, 537 injured, and about 1,000 rendered homeless and destitute was the casualty list of the race riot which broke out in Chicago on July 27, 1919, and swept uncontrolled through parts of the city for four days. By August 2 it had yielded to the forces of law and order, and on August 8 the state militia withdrew.

A clash between whites and Negroes on the shore of Lake Michigan at Twenty-ninth Street, which involved much stone-throwing and resulted in the drowning of a Negro boy, was the beginning of the riot. A policeman’s refusal to arrest a white man accused by Negroes of stoning the Negro boy was an important factor in starting mob action. Within two hours the riot was in full sway, had scored it second fatality, and was spreading throughout the south and southwest parts of the city. Before the end came it reached out to a section of the West Side and even invaded the “Loop,” the heart of Chicago’s downtown business district. Of the thirty-eight killed, fifteen were whites and twenty-three Negroes; of 537 injured, 178 were whites, 342 were Negroes, and the race of seventeen was not recorded.

In contrast with many other outbreaks of violence over racial friction the Chicago riot was not preceded by excitement over reports of attacks on women or of any other crimes alleged to have been committed by Negroes. It is interesting to note that not one of the thirty-eight deaths was of a woman or girl, and that only ten of the 537 persons injured were women and girls. In further contrast with other outbreaks of racial violence, the Chicago riot was marked by no hangings or burnings.

The rioting was characterized by much activity on the part of gangs of hoodlums, and the clashes developed from sudden spontaneous assaults into organized raids against life and property.

In handling the emergency and restoring order, the police were effectively reinforced by the state militia. Help was also rendered by deputy sheriffs, and by ex-soldiers who volunteered.

In nine of the thirty-eight cases of death, indictments for murder were voted by the grand jury, and in the ensuing trials there were four convictions. In fifteen other cases the coroner’s jury recommended that unknown members of mobs be apprehended, but none of these was ever found.

The conditions underlying the Chicago riot were discussed in detail in other sections of this report, especially in those which deal with housing, industry, and racial contracts. The commission’s inquiry concerning the facts of the riot included critical analysis of the 5, 584 pages of the testimony taken by the coroner’s jury; a study of the records of the office of the state’s attorney; studies of the records of the Police Department, hospitals, and other institutions with reference to injuries, and the records of the Fire Department with reference to incendiary fires; and interviews with many public officials and citizens having special knowledge of various phases of the riot. Much information was also gained by the Commission in a series of four conferences to which it invited the foreman of the riot grand jury, the chief and other commanding officers of the Police Department, the state’s attorney and some of his assistants, and officers in command of the state militia during the riot.

Background of the riot.—The Chicago riot was not the only serious outbreak of interracial violence in the year following the war. The same summer witnessed the riot in Washington, about a week earlier; the riot in Omaha, about a month later; and then the week of armed conflict in a rural district of Arkansas due to exploitation of Negro cotton producers.

Nor was the Chicago riot the first violent manifestation of race antagonism in Illinois. In 1908 Springfield had been the scene of an outbreak that brought shame to the community which boasted of having been Lincoln’s home. In 1917 East St. Louis was torn by a bitter and destructive riot which raged for nearly a week, and was the subject of a Congressional investigation that disclosed appalling underlying conditions.

This Commission, while making a thorough study of the Chicago riot, has reviewed briefly, for comparative purposes, the essential facts of the Springfield and East St. Louis riots, and a minor clashes in Chicago occurring both before and after the riot of 1919.

Chicago was one of the northern cities most largely affected by the migration of Negroes from the South during the war. The Negro population increased from 44, 103 in 1910 to 109,594 in 1920, an increase of 148 per cent. Most of this increase came in the years 1916-19. It was principally caused by the widening of industrial opportunities due to the entrance of northern workers into the army and to the demand for war workers at much higher wages than Negroes had been able to earn in the South. An added factor was the feeling, which spread like a contagion through the South, that the great opportunity had come to escape from what they felt to be a land of discrimination and subserviency to places where they could expect fair treatment and equal rights. Chicago became to the southern Negro the “top of the world.”

The effect of this influx of Negroes into Chicago industries is reviewed in another section of this report. It is necessary to point out here only that friction in industry was less than might have been expected. There had been a few strikes which had given the Negro the name of “strike breaker.” But the demand for labor was such that there were plenty of jobs to absorb all the white and Negro workers available. This condition continued even after the end of the war and demobilization.

In housing, however, there was different story. Practically no new building had been done in the city during the war, and it was a physical impossibility for a doubled Negro population to live in the space occupied in 1915. Negroes spread out of what had been known as the “Black Belt” into neighborhoods near-by which had been exclusively white. This movement, as described in another section of this report, developed friction, so much so that in the “invaded” neighborhoods bombs were thrown at the houses of Negroes who had moved in, and of real estate men, white and Negro, who sold or rented property to newcomers. From July 1, 1917, to July 27, 1919, the day the riot began, twenty-four such bombs had been thrown. The police had been entirely unsuccessful in finding those guilty, and were accused of making little effort to do so.

A third phase of the situation was the increased political strength gained by Mayor Thompson’s faction in the Republican party. Negro politicians affiliated with this faction had been able to sway to its support a large proportion of the voters in the ward most largely inhabited by Negroes. Negro aldermen elected from this ward were prominent in the activities of this faction. The part played by the Negro vote in the hard-fought partisan struggle is indicated by the fact in the Republican primary election on February 25, 1919, Mayor Thompson received in this ward 12, 143 votes, while his two opponents, Olson and Merriam, received only 1,492 and 319 respectively. Mayor Thompson was re-elected on April 1, 1919, by a plurality of 21,622 in a total vote in the city of 698,920; his vote in this ward was 15,569, to his nearest opponent’s 3,323, and was therefore large enough to control the election. The bitterness of this factional struggle aroused resentment against the race that had so conspicuously allied itself with the Thompson side.

As part of the background of the Chicago riot, the activities of gangs of hoodlums should be cited. There had been friction for years, especially along the western boundary of the area in which the Negroes mainly live, and attacks upon Negroes by gangs of young toughs had been particularly frequent in the spring just preceding the riot. They reached a climax on the night of June 21, 1919, five weeks before the riot., when two Negroes were murdered. Each was alone at the time and was the victim of unprovoked and particularly brutal attack. Molestation of Negroes by hoodlums had been prevalent in the vicinity of parks and playgrounds and at bathing-beaches.

On two occasions shortly before the riot the forewarnings of serious racial trouble had been so pronounced that the chief of police sent several hundred extra policemen into the territory where trouble seemed imminent. But serious violence did not break out until Sunday afternoon, July 27, when the clash on the lake shore at Twenty-ninth Street resulted in the drowning of a Negro boy.

Source: The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago: A Study in Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1922), 1-3.


In an August 1919 editorial, the Chicago Defender assesses the role of housing competition in the Chicago Race Riot. However the Defender also argues that racial discrimination in housing, no matter how pronounced at the moment, will ultimately fail because of the law of supply and demand that impacts both white home sellers and black home buyers.

THE RECENT RIOT in our city is attributed by some persons to the friction growing out of some of our group purchasing property in what is called white neighborhoods. In reality, that had very little if anything to do with it. Neither did the industrial questions cut much of a figure, because most of the laborers of our group have become unionized, thus doing away with the occasion for friction along those lines. For the riot there were two causes, an immediate and a primary cause.

WITH REFERNCE to the housing proposition nothing has occurred that is extraordinary or unusual except in one particular. The accessions to the population, so far as our group is concerned, has been more rapid during the past four years than at any time prior thereto. This has necessitated the expansion of territory occupied by members of our group. The expansion has been going on in Chicago for the last half-century and nothing has been said or thought of it and done about it until recently. The rapidity of the expansion of the past few years has attracted more attention, has been more noticeable and therefore created a little friction which otherwise would have been overlooked.

TO THE OPINON of some this has created a problem which must be solved. The fact seems to be lost sight of that he rapid influx includes not only persons of our group but other races and nationalities as well, as for instance, the Poles, Italians, Greeks, Lithuanians, and Hebrews all have outgrown their original districts; any one of these groups presents as much of a problem as the group to which we belong.

NO LAW, ordinance, rule or regulation can be adopted or enforced which will have the effect of segregating any one of these groups to any particular territory. And yet it is very easy for people of a particular race, group or class to bar those not satisfactory to them from securing a home in that particular section or territory. All that is necessary for them to do is to agree among themselves not to sell, lease or rent any property within said territory to those of any other group or class whose presence may not be desired. In this they will be clearly within their rights, and no one will have any right to object, certainly no member of our group.

BUT THE UNDERSTANDING or agreement is one that could not be enforced by due process of law, hence if any one of the property owners in such territory should see fit to sell—which they very often do—to any member of a group to which objection should be made, he will also be within his rights. Since we cannot expand in any direction without occupying territory previously occupied by whites, and since the white man is exceedingly anxious to get the Colored man’s dollar, he is usually willing to sell whenever the same can be done to his financial advantage.

IT IS SAFE TO ASSUME that in most of such instances the sale to a member of our group is not from choice but from necessity. In such cases the vendor cannot find a white person that is willing to make the purchase or will pay the price, and since he needs the money and must have it, if he finds a member of our group both willing and able to make the purchase the sale is consummated. This is the way expansion has heretofore taken place and under such circumstances no fault should be found and no objections should be made to such transactions. If left alone the housing question will regulate itself. It is simply a cause of supply and demand.

Source: Editorial, “Home, Sweet Home,” Chicago Defender, August 30, 1919, p. 4.


In a 1924 article in Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, Mary McLeod Bethune, President of Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, writes about the challenges facing the growing numbers of urbanizing African Americans Part of her article appears below.

…During the past 30 years there has been a great shift of population from the country to the town, and every class of towns, from village to great cities, has grown, whereas the country districts have actually decreased in population. The increase of the Negro urban population in the South in the decade 1910 1920 was 396,444 or 56,000 more than the increase for the same period in the number of Negroes in the North from the South--340,260. More than one third—34% of the total Negro population is living in urban territory. The census reports show an actual decrease of 234,876 or 3.4% in the Negro rural population of the United States. In 1910 the number of Negroes reported as living in rural territory was 7,138,534. In 1920 the number thus living reported was 6,903,658.’

A powerful contributory cause for recent legislation in the restriction of immigration was the alarming extent to which our future citizens were concentrating in the large seaport and manufacturing cities instead of seeking the extensive and unworked agricultural lands of the middle West and the West…The causes back of this almost universal movement of population cityward are usually conceded to be economic, educational and social.

In spite of the manifold movements, plans and efforts to make farming and other rural pursuits pay, the country lad still turns his eye towards the city as his El Dorado. He wants a shorter working day; wages that will insure him good clothes and creature comforts; an opportunity to advance in earning power as he increases his ability to be of service in his calling; a fair chance to acquire wealth and become a leader in his community. To the country lad with plenty of time to dream while he plods thru days and days of monotonous routine, this is what the city means. To many an adult, weary of the grind and isolation of wresting a living from the soil, it offers an opening for a new chance, a realized vision. And so they come --young and old -beardless youth and gnarled old age all expecting that the road to wealth and power and influence lies down the great white way of the modern city.

The cry of the Soul to know has given another push to this modern move towards the city. Longer school terms; better equipped school buildings; more capable teachers; the broadening influence of lectures; concerts, motion pictures, libraries, parades and festive and holiday occasions have lured many a grizzled homesteader to abandon home and ancestral acres and move cityward. The widening out and diversification of the modern high school with its facilities for teaching the technique of skilled trades and business; home economics and agriculture as well as the arts and sciences. The extending of education at the public expense in some cities to include even a college education. The offering of night courses for underprivileged boys and girls, men and women. These are advantages which even the phonograph, the motion picture machine and the radio cannot compensate for in the country.

Then, again, in spite of automobiles, Fords, good roads, and the transmission of electric light current over long distances, the country is still a lonely place for thousands and thousands of dwellers. Weary of quilting parties, barn raisings and quarterly meeting, they are impelled cityward by the age old urge towards companionship and recreation….

The city’s churches, its civic clubs, its parks, its easily accessible amusement resorts and centers, its playground, its bathhouses and skating rinks; its roof gardens theatres and cabarets exert a pull as mighty as the social push of the rural populations toward the m metropolitan centers.

Though not so often mentioned as a cause, the desire for protection has impelled many a rural dweller to move into or nearer the city. This is especially true with Negro rural dwellers in nearly every part of the South, where the lack or indifference of constabulary or police agencies make the possession of property uncertain- often hazardous and the safeguarding of life uncertain. These people turn towards the cities for protection in the exercise of the rights guaranteed them under the constitution, and a half chance to defend themselves should these rights be infringed upon. They also seek the protection from fire and ravages of disease which the superior organization and supervision of city life afford…

To meet this problem is the social challenge of our generation! To assist the city dweller to make the adjustments necessary to a full possession and enjoyment of the manifold blessings and privileges of urban life is the business of the Church; the mission of the trained social worker; the raison d'etre of organized philanthropy and charity. To this task should be applied the earnest and intelligent aid of every group that makes up the population of our cities. It requires cooperation among racial groups widely differing in language, national customs, and color. It requires mutual racial respect and confidence. It requires tolerance and a courageous application to all sorts of unusual maladjustments, of the principle of the Golden rule. Whether the newcomer to the city is from Texas or South Carolina; whether he is from the Steppe of Russia or the sunny Plain of Italy; whether he is of Nordic hue, or wears the ‘shadowed livery of the burnished sun,’ his problem is to obtain for himself and family a living wage, and a place to invest it in cleanliness, fresh air, sanitary surroundings and wholesome recreation. Forcing individuals or groups into segregated ghettoes, with poor sanitation, unpaved streets, run down houses, filthy alleys and surroundings conductive to depravity of both thought and action is neither a scientific nor altruistic approach to the problem of the city dweller… The work of …Americanizing the foreigner…, the breaking down of racial barriers and the conceding to every man his right to own and enjoy his property wherever his means permit him to own it…must still be the foundation of the programme of organizations like the Urban League and other great social agencies whose militant efforts in these directions have made them national in scope and purpose.

Source: Mary McLeod Bethune, “The Problems of the City Dweller,” Opportunity (February 1924), 54-55.