African American Great Migration (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The late nineteenth century saw the enactment of severe, racist laws throughout the United States, known as “Jim Crow.” However, these laws were generally worse in the southern states than in the northern states. Furthermore, railroads offered a means for travel from the South northward. Economic opportunities at the growing number of factories in the urban North provided a destination. This combination of factors led to a mass movement of African Americans from throughout the South into large northern urban centers like Chicago, Detroit, and Harlem in New York City. This movement primarily occurred between the two World Wars, or about 1915 through 1940, but continued through about 1970. It is known as the Great Migration. To understand the scope of the Great Migration, consider the populations of Mississippi and Michigan during the early twentieth century:

  • Between 1910 and 1920, the total black population of Mississippi dropped from 1,009,487 to 935,184. By contrast, the total white population between these two years rose from 786,111 to 853,962.
  • Between 1910 and 1920, the total black population of Michigan rose from 17,115 to 60,082. Between 1920 and 1930, the total black population of Michigan grew to 169,453. This is a nearly ten-fold increase between 1910 and 1930, the opening years of the Great Migration.

The Great Migration affects genealogy research, insofar as many northern families will find their origins in the South. In many cases, the family remembers where they came from in the South. However, if this information has been lost to previous generations, there are ways to discover the place of origin. The federal census is the most useful tool, as you can often find the family on enumerations in the South prior to migration. You can also find places of birth on vital records, later census records, draft registration records, and other records. Use these records to discover the places of origin and families of those who moved to the North. For more information on the Great Migration, check out the Encyclopedia of Chicago - Great Migration, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture - In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, and the Great Migration Wikipedia.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.