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English Detective # 109 The Great Migration that Transformed American Cities and Society
July 03, 2018

Migration has been one of the ongoing themes of American history. Native Americans migrated to the Americas long before recorded history. From Columbus on, large groups of Spanish, English, and other Europeans began to arrive in the U.S. and the rest of the Americas (as did African slaves-- involuntary immigrants). Later immigrants came from many more European nations, as well as from Asia and Latin America. In the 19th century, many pioneers headed west to find land and opportunity.

Those are well-known stories. But the big American migration of the early and mid-20th century is sometimes overlooked. During and after the First and Second World Wars, large numbers of southern blacks migrated north and west, drawn by war-time jobs and the hope of a less restrictive life. The Great Migration forever changed American cities and society. It revealed new talents and opportunities as well as different forms of discrimination-- and problems we are still wrestling with, fifty years later.

It was difficult to choose the best articles to suggest because each is excellent in its own way. If you have time for a very long article, the individual stories told in the Smithsonian article on the Long-lasting Legacy of the Great Migration are worth reading. It provides an in-depth understanding of the reasons for the Great Migration and the ways it has shaped American culture.

This TED talk also makes the Great Migration come to life. (It's by the same journalist as the Smithsonian article, Isabel Wilkerson. She wrote THE book on the Great Migration-- the one all the articles refer to.) If you don't have time for the Smithsonian article, it provides a clear understanding of the causes and effects of the migration.

If you prefer getting your information from a podcast while you jog or commute, NPR has a 25-minute interview with Wilkerson (with some written highlights), specifically discussing her book and the research she did for it. What's interesting to me is that each of her talks or articles has a different emphasis and mentions different stories.

Finally, if you're interested in geography, sociology, and numbers, Priceonomics includes a good map and several census data tables (listing black migration to various cities for both the first and second waves of the Great Migration) along with its discussion of the migration.

Great Migration Vocabulary

Immigrate- to travel from one country to another. (Nouns: immigrant(s), immigration.)

Integrate- to combine or blend together. Many things can be integrated, but we often refer to racial integration-- bringing different races together.

Jim Crow- southern laws enforcing racial segregation between the 1870s and the 1950s.

Lynch- to kill by hanging. A lynching is mob violence rather than government execution.

Migrate- to make a long journey. (Nouns: migrant- a person who migrates, migration- the journey. Adjectives: migratory or migrating. Animals and birds also migrate.)

Restrict- to limit (usually severely). Restriction is the noun and restrictive or restricted are related adjectives meaning limited.

Segregate- to keep some people separate from others. Segregation often refers to separation by race, and the legal restrictions that go with it.

Sharecroppers are people who farm on "shares." They are tenant farmers, working for the landowner for a part of the crop. Sometimes sharecroppers would owe so much money to the landowner (for the seed and tools and food he would provide before harvest) that they could never pay it all back and would need to keep working for him-- almost a form of debt slavery.

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