In April 1917, Mr. Cleveland Galliard, a 31-year-old resident of Mobile, Alabama, penned a letter to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois. "I am a colored young man in need of a position," he wrote, "because I have a family to support and I am out of a job and I can't get nothing to do to support them…. I was working here for the New Orleans, Mobile, & Chicago [Railroad] running the elevator and cleaning up to and they want me to work night and day for the same amount of salary which was only $20 per month and so I quit and I have been looking every since last [November]." Galliard listed his employment qualifications and begged the Association to contact him at once.74
"Colored people of this place," wrote a North Carolina resident in the same month, "desire to get information from you of jobs of better opportunities for them and better advantages. You will do us a great favor to answer us in advance."75
A resident of Jacksonville, Florida pleaded on behalf of friends and neighbors, "We are working men with familys [sic]. Please answer at once… We are not particular about the electric lights and all I want is fairly good wages and steady work."76
A New Orleans' man explained both his goals and his concerns: "Seeking a Northern Home… I do not wish to come there hoodwinked not knowing where to go or what to do so I Solicite [sic] your help in this matter."77
A Mississippi schoolteacher, noting that he receives one quarter the salary paid to white teachers for instructing five times as many pupils, remarked, "I am so sick I am so tired of such conditions that I sometime [sic] think that life for me is not worth while and most eminently believe with Patrick Henry 'Give me liberty or give me death.'"78
A Chicago Baptist association received a similar letter in 1918. "I want to know if [there] is any way you can oblige me by helping me to get out there," Mrs. J. H. Adams, an African-American resident of Macon, Georgia, requested in her brief correspondence. "I am anxious to leave here and everything so hard here. I hope you will oblige in helping me to leave here. Answer at once."79
Thousands of similar letters reached businesses, black churches, and aid organizations in urban centers throughout the North during the war years. Encouraged by stories of success published by the black press and communicated in letters home, black southerners requested details about potential job opportunities, transportation costs, and the availability of housing in cities such as Chicago and New York. In their correspondence, many described years of unemployment, extremely low wages, and desperate struggles to feed, clothe, and educate children. Some even listed their age, weight, and varied job skills in the hopes of attracting job recruiters and employers. A few who had managed to procure decent jobs in the South sought better educational opportunities and a more certain future for their children. Still others hoped to abandon a day-to-day life that remained precarious and demeaning. The North, these prospective migrants hoped, would indeed offer "advancement," "steady work," "lucrative employment," "a better place" to raise a family, and, simply, "change."
In the years immediately following the Civil War, many newly emancipated slaves chose to pack up and move in order to test the boundaries of their freedom. But limited by scant employment opportunities and unwilling to leave behind social, religious, and family networks, nearly all remained in the rural South, merely moving from one farm to the next. Half a century after Emancipation, some 90% of African-Americans still resided in the South, and, despite the growth of southern cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Richmond, 75% of black southerners remained confined to rural areas.
But from 1916 to 1921, some 500,000 black southerners—five percent of the total black population in the South—chose to journey North with the plan to find work and resettle. Prior to American involvement in World War I, black populations in the urban North remained small, and men and women in these communities found it difficult to procure work outside of the domestic and service industries. The war in Europe, however, sparked a series of social and economic changes in America that opened the door for black migration north; a sudden drop in the arrival of European immigrants coupled with increased wartime production compelled northern factories to offer industrial jobs to black laborers. During the war years, black migrants poured into northern industrial cities such as Chicago, New York City, Detroit, Buffalo, and Trenton, drawn by the promise of better jobs, higher wages, greater educational opportunities, voting rights, and an escape from the threat of lynching.
In the North, however, many migrants found forms of discrimination in employment, white violence, police harassment, and housing segregation reminiscent of the sorts of injustices they experienced in the South. The American war effort abroad and its mission to defeat fascism did not alter racial attitudes at home, nor did President Woodrow Wilson's promise to make the world "safe for democracy" result in any significant improvements to the state of domestic race relations. Still, in creating the circumstances in which half a million black southerners were able to relocate, the war set into motion a revolutionary movement—one that would alter the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the nation.