The Great Migration & Populism

The Great Migration: Blacks in White America
Lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and economic hardship made southern blacks feel as if very little had improved
since emancipation. Beginning in the 1890s and lasting well into the 1970s, a "Great Migration" of southern
blacks to the West and North changed the demographic structure of the nation. Blacks turned to the
"Promised Land" of the North in search of jobs and greater racial toleration. However, such basic demands
fueled increasing debate over the place of blacks in predominantly white America in the late nineteenth and
twentieth centuries.
Questions to keep in mind:
Why did so many African-Americans migrate to the North during the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries?
Who were some of the most significant African-American leaders during this period? How
did their visions for American society differ?
"In a poll by Book Week, [Invisible Man] was judged 'the most distinguished single work' published in
America between 1945 and 1965. Its complex time structure, spacious setting, nameless ethnic protagonist,
allegorical and legendary characters, rites of passage, ironic theme, and ritualistic use of music and language
suggest that Ellison drew on African-American folklore and the Western epic tradition to render his vision
of the historical odyssey of blacks in America to define themselves." (Source: The Reader's Companion to American
History, edited by E. Foner and J. A. Garraty. Published in Boston by Houghton Mifflin. ©1991.)
Ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man, examines the painful inability of many African-Americans to
understand their identity in a largely white world. Ridiculed, rejected, and often left without a clear sense of
self, black Americans have often had to exist to a world where the rules are made by white Americans. This
point became increasingly clearer during the late-nineteenth century, when blacks began moving from the
rural South to Northern cities. As early as the 1870s, large numbers of blacks had migrated to states like
Texas, Kansas, and other predominantly rural areas to escape the negative aspects of life in the Deep South.
By the 1890s, an increasing number of blacks were moving farther and farther from the land that had been
their home since before the Civil War. Almost a quarter of a million blacks moved to the North between
1890 and 1910, while about 35,000 blacks moved to the Far West during this same period.
The "Great Migration" increased dramatically in the years between about 1910 and the early 1920s.
Between 300,000 and 1,000,000 African-Americans moved north during this period, largely in response to
an increased number of unskilled factory job openings as northern manufacturers boosted production for
World War I. Black migration between 1916 and the 1960s remained strong, except during the Great
Depression. More than 6 million southern blacks made the move to the North during this period.
Black Population Trends
1890s 1960s
A Great Debate:
What Should Be the Place of Blacks in White America?
Booker T. Washington
"Born a slave on April 5, 1856, in
Franklin County, Virginia,
Washington, whose father is believed
to have been white, was taken by his
mother, with her two other children,
to Malden, near Charleston, West
Virginia, after the emancipation.
Having always been eager to acquire
an education, he went to the Hampton
Normal and Agricultural Institute in
Virginia in 1872, and there studied for
three years, working as a janitor to
pay his expenses....The founding of
Tuskegee Institute, a Negro normal
and agricultural school in Tuskegee,
Alabama, in 1881, and the choice of
Washington as its first principal,
began his major career....A staunch
believer in industrial training for
Negroes rather than liberal-arts
education, he was shunned by many
black intellectuals, notably W. E. B.
Du Bois, who saw in his philosophy
the guarantee of continued Negro
Source: Webster's American Bio.,
G&C Merriam Co., 1975.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and
"The wisest among my race understand that agitation for social equality is an
extremist folly. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours but it is
vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of those privileges."-Booker T. Washington, speech at the Atlanta Exposition, 1895
W. E. B. Du Bois
"Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on
February 23, 1868, W. E. B. Du Bois was of
African, French, and Dutch ancestry. He was
educated at Fisk and Harvard universities and soon
after obtaining his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1895 joined
the faculty of Atlanta University, where he taught
economics and history from 1897 to 1910 and
edited the Atlanta University Studies, 1897-1911.
With his Souls of Black Folk in 1903 he announced
the intellectual revolt against the accomodationist
principles of Booker T. Washington that
crystallized two years later in the founding, under
Du Bois's leadership, of the Niagara Movement.
When this group was merged with the newly
founded National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in
1909, Du Bois became editor of the association's
journal, Crisis, holding the post until 1932....A
thorough scholar and an eloquent public speaker,
Du Bois became and remained an influential and
profoundly inspiring figure among blacks in the
United States and abroad....During the 1940s Du
Bois began a move from non-ideological
radicalism toward a Marxist and pro-Soviet
viewpoint; this change culminated in his joining
the Communist party in 1961...."
Source: Webster's American Biographies, G&C Merriam Co., 1975.
"By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world
accords to men."--W. E. B. Du Bois
Marcus Garvey
"Born on August 17, 1887, in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, Garvey was
largely self-educated and began working as a printer's apprentice at
fourteen. He moved to Kingston three years later and became
foreman of a large printing company. Blacklisted after leading the
employees in a strike for higher wages, he worked briefly for the
government printing office, founded two nationalistic publications
and a political club, and then sought more lucrative employment in
South America. He returned to Jamaica in 1914 and founded the
Universal Negro Improvement Association (U. N. I. A.) and the
African Communities League.
In 1916 he moved to New York City, establishing the headquarters of U. N. I. A. there and founding
branches during 1919-1920 in nearly every urban area of the country where there was a substantial black
population. He also founded the Negro World, the weekly U. N. I. A. newspaper, which continued from
1919 to 1933....[He urged] that black men accept a black Deity, exalting African beauty, expounding on the
lives and notable achievements of Negroes throughout history, and projecting plans for Negroes to resettle
in Liberia in a "back to Africa" movement. He began several enterprises, including the Black Star Steamship
Line and the Negro Factories Corporation, financed by the sale of stock to U. N. I. A. members. Much of his
traveling became promotional; he declared that black-owned, black-operated ventures would rebuild the
confidence of Negroes in their own people and prepare them for economic independence.
Throughout this time he was harassed by both white and black members of middle-class society....In 1925
he was convicted of fraud in connection with his handling of the funds of the Black Star Line, which had
gone bankrupt. He was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, but his sentence was commuted by President
Calvin Coolidge and in 1927 he was released and immediately deported to Jamaica...."
Source: Webster's American Biographies, G&C Merriam Co., 1975.
"Up you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will! The negro of yesterday
has disappeared from the scene, and his place is taken by a new negro who stands
erect, conscious of his manhood rights, fully determined to preserve them at all
costs."--Marcus Garvey
White Attitudes and "Scientific Racism"
All but the most staunchly racist whites were willing to accept Booker T. Washington's plans to uplift
African-Americans. Washington, after all, was essentially arguing that blacks should work jobs that most
white Americans did not really want. Du Bois's assertiveness and Garvey's veiled threats of racial violence,
however, frightened many Northern whites. Many whites, in fact, turned to late-nineteenth-century
"science" to justify segregation and racism.
Evolutionary "Science"
Ethnology and anthropology, along with many other "-ologies," first gained popularity in the United States
during the late nineteenth century. Many ethnologists and anthropologists accepted the idea that all humans
had evolved from a common ancestor, but had branched off into different races: Caucasian, Mongolian,
Negroid, and Indian. Some ethnologists and anthropologists maintained that the Negroid race had emerged
after the other three. These scientists argued that the Negro race had not had time to develop and was
therefore inferior to the other races. Other ethnologists and anthropologists contended that Negroes were the
first offshoot of the human tree. As such, they were the most primitive and backward race. These scientists
pointed to evolutionary "proof" that showed the first life forms on the planet were the simplest and least
developed. T. T. Waterman, a prominent ethnologist of the day, stated that Negroes were by far the most
primitive race on Earth; so primitive, in fact, that they faced danger of extinction due to their inability to
adapt to modern society. As such, Waterman urged his fellow Caucasians to "save out a few good Negro
Hereditary "Science"
The work of Charles Darwin sparked an interest in the means by which an organism's traits are passed to the
next generation. Eugenics and genetics both emerged when scientists attempted to explain such phenomena.
Early eugenicists and geneticists used scientific "proof" to strike fear in the white population when they
predicted that that racial interbreeding would destroy the purity of the Caucasian race and undermine civil
society. Such scientists, like W. E. D. Stokes, felt that they could selectively breed the best human traits into
the next generation and improve human stock. Stokes was an experienced horse breeder who argued, in The
Right to be Well-Born, or Horse Breeding in its Relation to Eugenics, that scientists should apply the
principles of fine racehorse breeding to humanity.
One of the lasting legacies of early psychology was the invention of I. Q. testing. Many psychologists
believed that they could discover just how smart people were and rank their intelligence level on a
comparative scale. Early psychologists relied on I. Q. tests to assert that blacks were, on average, less
intelligent than whites. George O. Ferguson, in The Psychology of the Negro, claimed that the average I. Q.
of a white American was 100, while the average score of an African-American was just 75. He went on to
argue that lighter-skinned African-Americans scored higher on intelligence tests.
Life in America was changing dramatically in the years following the Civil War. Large cities emerged
across the continent, railroads made transportation cheaper and more reliable, businessmen and laborers
struggled to shape American capitalism, and immigration and migration forced Americans to reconsider
their definition of who exactly was an "American." This turmoil, however, was not simply confined to the
East or North, or even to urban centers. Rural America, in fact, increasingly became a political and
economic battleground at the end of the century. As technological, political, religious, and economic
changes transformed rural life, many small farmers began to fear that society was "going to hell in a hand
The Rise of Populism
Beginning in the 1870s, worsening conditions in rural America caused many people to abandon
their farms. At the same time, changes in farming practices and the agricultural marketplace made
farmers more dependent on commercial decisions made by big-city businessmen. In reaction to
these trends, farmers began to take political action that led to the emergence of the national
Populist movement in the 1890s. This lecture investigates changing agricultural conditions in the
United States during the nineteenth century and explores how many rural Americans mobilized to
deal with their crushing economic and political problems.
Some questions to keep in mind:
How did agriculture change in the United States between 1870 and 1900?
How did farmers try and protect their economic interests and way of life during this
period? Were they successful? Why or why not?
Who were the Populists? Why were they so appealing to farmers? Did they change
American politics? If so, how?
Changes in Agriculture
1. Mechanization of
The mechanization of
agriculture led to huge
improvements in efficiency,
but caused problems for the
yeoman (independent)
Problems Presented by
More capital needed
demanded upkeep
and repair
Added to the
financial risks that
independent farmers
had to take
Mechanization of agriculture
The "Little Giant" thresher, like other farm machinery, reduces farm labor needs,
but increases capital costs
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin
2. Opening of new
agricultural lands
As land prices went up and
crop prices fell, farmers
began mortgaging their
property in order to put more
land in cultivation.
Unusually high levels of
rainfall also fueled a drive
for land acquisition during
the 1870s and the early
1880s. By cultivating more
land, farmers hoped to pay
off their growing debts.
Many urban businessmen,
however, charged farmers
extraordinarily high interest
rates on their mortgages.
When drought struck the
Midwest in 1886, the
combination of unwatered
crops and high interest rates
was disastrous for many
farmers. By the mid-1880s,
Midwestern farmers had the
highest per capita debt in the
United States.
Wisconsin threshing scene, September
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin
3. Growth of specialization in farm products
Although American farmers experimented with new plants and methods on a regular
basis throughout the nineteenth century, most preferred to grow familiar crops. As a
result, while urban businessmen were diversifying their holdings, farmers continued to
invest all of their capital in a single crop and increased their chances of sliding into
financial ruin.
4. Changing
character of
markets for
agricultural goods
Prior to the Civil War, only a
handful of American farmers
sold their crops abroad. After
the War, however,
international markets for
United States agricultural
goods expanded
dramatically. In the years
from 1860 to 1900,
agricultural products
comprised 75% of the United
States' total export trade.
Many farmers, however, did
not understand fully the
financial complexities of
commodity markets or
foreign trade. Middlemen,
especially railroad agents
and owners, profited from
the ignorance of the farmers.
Thus, even as markets for
farm products expanded,
farmers often did not benefit
from that expansion..
Loading a grain steamer at Milwaukee--linking
Midwestern farmers with the world economy
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Farmers remained largely ignorant of basic business practices after the Civil War. They had none
of the power that had made other businessmen prosperous. Farmers had no control over the
marketplace. Their prosperity, in fact, depended on six factors which they could not regulate:
Business Cycles
Labor Supply
Price Structure
Government policies
In reaction to these problems, farmers began to take political action.
"Agrarian Myth"
This is the concept, popularized by Thomas Jefferson, that the self-reliant yeoman farmer was the
bedrock of American society. The gulf between this ideal and the reality of farming--falling
income, and loss of profits to the railroads, exasperated farmers. For this reason, many tried to
form organizations that would make the Agrarian myth a reality at the end of the nineteenth
The Grange
The full name of the Grange was "The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry." The
word "grange" comes from an archaic word for "granary," but, in the context of American
history, the word refers to an association of farmers founded in the United States in 1867. The
Grange worked to pass pro-farmer legislation and instituted the cooperative movement to allow
farmers to pool capital and purchase machinery, supplies, and insurance.
"At first most of the [Granges] were in Minnesota, the home of the founder, Oliver
Kelley. During the 1870s, however, the movement spread rapidly, fed by agrarian
desperation over hard times, high railroad shipping rates, and tight money. By 1875, the
membership had passed 850,000. During these years, the Grangers placed growing
emphasis on the extent to which farmers were being victimized by railroads, merchants,
and banks. The Patrons of Husbandry stood at the head of a nationwide agrarian
movement[...] that created hundreds of cooperatives, founded banks, pushed through
legislation regulating railroads and grain elevators, and campaigned for political
candidates.[...] Because of opposition from local businesses as well as the Grangers' own
inexperience, few of their economic initiatives succeeded. Nevertheless, they set
important precedents with their legislation, particularly those regulating railroads (as
affirmed by the Supreme Court in Munn v. Illinois, 1877). More important, the Granger
movement marked the beginning of an aggressive and self-conscious effort by the
nation's farmers to define their problems in economic terms and to address those
problems through economic and political action." Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, eds., The Reader's
Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) 464-65.
Munn v. Illinois
The United States Supreme Court decided Munn v. Illinois in 1877. In its ruling, the court upheld
the right of state legislatures to regulate railroad rates.
"Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite wrote the majority opinion. In it he stated that private
property becomes subject to regulation by the government through its 'police powers'
when the property is devoted to the public interest" Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, eds., The Reader's
Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) 759.
"Common carriers exercise a sort of public office, and have
duties to perform in which the public is interested.... Their
business is, therefore, 'affected with a public interest.'"—
(From the majority opinion of Chief Justice Waite.)
After this legal victory, the Grange backed away from political activism. In addition, improved
agricultural conditions in the Midwest caused membership to drop. Three new organizations
eventually succeeded the Grange in the 1880s.
Farmers and Laborers'
Union of America was a
regional association in the
Southwest. By 1890, it had 3
million members.
Northwest Farmers'
Alliance began in Chicago
and spread throughout the
Midwest. By 1890, it had 2
million members.
Colored Farmers National
Alliance addressed the
needs of African-American
farmers in the South and in
the Midwest. By 1890, it had
between 1 and 1.5 million
The last meeting of the First Farmers Alliance at their First House
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin
These three groups held a convention in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1889, but they were unable to
overcome regional differences and form a national organization. In the elections of 1890, however,
southern farmers allied with local Democrats, while Midwestern farmers formed their own local
parties which became known as "People's Parties." Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas farmwoman,
was one of the Populist orators who traveled throughout rural America trying to whip up support
for pro-farm candidates in the election of 1890.
Main critiques made by Populists:
The American legal system placed too much emphasis on property rights
Monopolies were an economic and social evil
Social Darwinism & laissez-faire were bankrupt ideologies
Industrial society had turned individuals into economic commodities
Wealth was unevenly distributed
Populism and Presidential
William Jennings Bryan was nominated for
president by both the Democrats and the
Populists in 1896. ((WHAT??)) At the 1896
Democratic national convention, Bryan delivered
the "Cross of Gold" speech, which called for
unlimited coinage of silver. He held that
government should protect individuals and the
democratic process against the growing power of
monopolies. Bryan lost to the Republican
candidate, William McKinley, who ran on a
platform of "prosperity for all." In 1900, Bryan
ran again for president and hoped to make the
election a referendum on American imperialism,
but lost to McKinley a second time. His final
campaign for president was in 1908, when he
lost to William Howard Taft.
William Jennings Bryan (18601925), Populist leader
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of
William McKinley (1843-1901)
© 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Rural America underwent massive transformations in the late-nineteenth century. In
response, farmers began a nationwide movement demanding a new kind of politics. More
and more people began to view the federal government as a possible source of protection
against the ravages of industrial society. Farmers, however, were not the only Americans
who championed government power as a means to financially assist with the problems
that they were subject to in society. As conditions in cities worsened in the late-nineteenth
century, more and more city folks began to make similar calls for government action.
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