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The Great Migration

In Focus

The Great Migration

Harvard experts explore the migration of millions of African Americans from the South to urban hubs in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, one of the largest internal migrations in American history.

A portion of the mural “Harlem Timeline” by Willie Birch. A tribute to Harlem luminaries like Langston Hughes, Joe Louis, and Charlie Parker.

Reconstruction hopes, Jim Crow fears

Following the emancipation of enslaved people, white southerners increasingly turned to intimidation and brute violence to keep Black Americans from voting or accumulating wealth.

A portrait of a group of African American men

A Currier and Ives group portrait of Black representatives in the 41st and 42nd Congress.


Between 1865 and 1880, the years right after the Civil War, southern states elected at least 2,000 Black officeholders, including two United States senators and 21 representatives.

This led to a backlash from southern white racists who began a campaign of terror which only grew more emboldened with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. These were some of the major factors that led to the Great Migration.

Learn more about the post-war reconstruction

New opportunities, new struggles

Between 1916 and 1970, the promise of non-agricultural work, higher wages, educational opportunities, and an escape from racial violence led six million courageous Black Americans to uproot their entire lives and migrate to industrial cities in the West and North.

Middle image courtesy of National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site.

A woman signing books for a large crowd

Dorothy West autographs a book at the book party held at Reckling Studio, 1948.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance saw the emergence of Black literary, artistic, and intellectual visionaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Dorothy West, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Jacob Lawrence, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Explore the 1932 opera that follows the Great Migration all the way to the Harlem Renaissance

Half a car sitting behind a boarded up building


As Black Americans moved in, some cities experienced an exodus of white residents, a phenomenon known as “white flight.” Recent research has found this may have triggered a reduction in property tax revenues and public spending. In addition, a variety of practices, including zoning laws and mortgage refusals, increased segregation in a number of these cities. Some police departments took advantage of this separation to patrol and arrest Black citizens disproportionately. All of this contributed to a loss of opportunity and social mobility in many cities.

Learn more about the research around this stagnation

Sweeping cultural impacts

The Great Migration, and the millions who made that trip, have forever changed the history and culture of every major city in the North and West—and indeed, the entire culture of America.

Read about the making of the Museum of African American History and Culture