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African American Women and the Second Great Migration

In 1941, A. Phillip Randolph’s March on Washington movement forced the nation to take notice of African Americans. Following the march, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that mandated the end of racial discrimination in defense industries. The agency in charge of enforcing the executive order, the Fair Employment Practices Committee, was weak. Still, the agency provided a forum for African Americans whose complaints, until then, would have fallen on deaf ears. Although discrimination against African American people was prevalent throughout the United States at this time, nowhere were racial tensions as high as they were in the South.

In numbers large enough to be coined the “Second Great Migration” African American people left the south and headed north and west to find employment in defence industries. With the political and social climate slowly beginning to change, the “Second Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to northern and western cities had a unique character.

Unlike the “Great Migration” which took place during World War I, the World War II migration included a vast number of women.# During the first migration African American men outnumbered women three to one. By the second migration, this was no longer the case as increasingly men sent for their wives, families travelled together, and women even sometimes travelled alone.

Although they are often ignored in accounts of migration out of the South, women had many of the same motivations to leave the South that men had. Just as men longed to escape the agricultural work of the South, women too hoped to escape low-wage domestic labour. Women, like men, wished to flee the harsh realities of racism. The music and other media that enticed men to head west also enticed women. Often the reality was that life for men and women out West was little different from life in the South, but the hopes and dreams that encouraged men to leave their homes in the South also encouraged women. While men hoped to get out of the fields, women hoped to get out of the kitchen.#

World War II had an important impact on gender roles in the United States. Women, both black and white, were asked to challenge feminine roles and do “men’s” work in wartime industries. For African American women, this change was particularly poignant because until that time their only employment option had been private domestic labour. During World War II the need for labourers was so great that even African American women were recruited heavily.# For the first time, African American women had the chance to make a fair amount of money in skilled labour, and they leapt at the opportunity.

In fact, the demand for labour in the West began before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As the United States began to do battle with both Japan and Germany, production was vastly increased.# Because the war with Japan was a naval war there was an increased demand for ships and other naval materials which were built and shipped from the West and Pacific ports. During the early years of the second migration, men were twice as likely to travel to the furthest destinations—California, Oregon, and other points west.

Women tended to stay closer to the South venturing only as far as areas to the North. However, this was not the case for long, because, over the course of the second migration, migrants were more likely to be married than non-migrants. Many of the strategies employed during the first migration were employed during the second migration with wives following their husbands, families migrating together or leaving children in the care of relatives, and single women joining with relatives.#

It was clear that much had changed since World War I. During World War I, African American women who migrated to the North from the South were likely to work in the same household jobs they held in the South.# By contrast, the federal census shows that between 1940 and 1950 the percentage of African Americans employed in household work fell from 24 percent to 15.1 percent. In the South, the change was even more remarkable. Before World War II more than 70 percent of women in several southern cities worked in household labour. After the war, this number dwindled from 70 percent to 50 percent in Atlanta, with similar shifts throughout the South.# Although this change often meant that women were leaving domestic labour to do domestic labour outside of the home, this transformation did usually signal higher wages and more benefits. Although African American men were more likely to join unions than their female counterparts, some women benefited from unions as well.

The demand for labourers in defence industries during World War II was so great that African American men were able to take on trades they could not have fathomed before leaving the South. They worked in construction and transportation, and even a few found jobs in banks, insurance companies, and municipal utilities. Although change came slowly for African American women, some were able to find work as secretaries, clerks, and stenographers.# Financially, African American men and women fared far better in the west than they had in the south.

In Seattle, Washington, for instance, Boeing hired a steady stream of African Americans to build commercial aircraft for the military. Between 1945 and 1950 the African American population increased by five thousand people and the median income for African American families grew to $3,334, only slightly below that of white families nationwide.

Southern African Americans were drawn to the job opportunities in the west, but they also longed to escape their work in the South. However, dissatisfaction with their lives in the South does not seem to have been a strong motivation, in itself, for the second migration. A decade before the second great migration, during the 1930s, African American migration out of the South totaled only 347,000 people, about a fifth of the number who left in the 1940s.

It appears that Southern African Americans were pulled to the West more than they were pushed out of the South. Still, it is difficult to measure the degree to which African Americans felt forced out of their home in the South. For instance, although the major growth in defence industries took place in the West, the South also received a boost from the war. Several military bases were located in the South, and Southern textile factories, steel mills, and oil refineries all thrived during the war. However, perhaps because the demand for workers was still comparatively low in the South, Southern whites were able to avoid hiring vast numbers of African Americans.

On the West Coast, where workforce demands increased by almost fifteen times, there was less room for racial discrimination in hiring. Ultimately it seems that African Americans were more concerned with their financial wellbeing than their social and political wellbeing. Although racism had always abounded in the South, it was racism in hiring practices that caused African American men and women alike to flee the South or embrace the West, whichever the case may be. Still, African Americans undoubtedly carried with them the hope that in the West they would find reprieve from the harsh racism of the South.

“The War made me live better. Hitler was the one that got us out of the white folks’ kitchen.”# These were the words of Fanny Christina Hill that capture the essence of African American female sentiment post World War II. African Americans were hardly embraced by the North and West, but there was a palpable difference in their treatment. As long as America was at war the federal government had a vested interest in the wellbeing of African Americans. The federal government took on a more integrationist attitude out of the necessity for labour.

The government was not alone. East Bay shipbuilder Kaiser employed a vast number of African Americans. Through prefabrication and other improved production techniques, Kaiser was able to reduce the skill level required to enter the workforce.# This benefited both African Americans and women who were less likely than white males to be trained in maritime work. Employers that attempted to maintain discriminatory hiring practices often received pressure from the federal government to refrain from doing so. By contrast, companies in the South, such as Bell Aircraft outside of Atlanta, employed few blacks. Only 2,500 out of 35,000 employees were African American.# The majority of African American employees were cafeteria workers, janitors, or “domestic” labourers. African American men and women alike fared better in the west, where there was a tremendous demand for skilled labour.

In West Coast plants African American workers often worked alongside whites, were in the same unions, and ate in the same cafeterias. Such treatment helped lead 23,000 African Americans away from Oklahoma and 338,000 African Americans into California. By the end of the 1940s, the West’s African American population had grown by 443,000.# After the war, many women who were not already in the West joined their fathers and husbands on military bases. Others left the South in response to correspondence from friends and relatives who had made the sojourn. They spoke of a better life with more employment opportunities and less racist attitudes. At the end of the post-war decade, California was more African American and more female.

Racist attitudes were, nonetheless, prevalent in the western states. Although several industries hired African Americans it was often begrudgingly. One of the largest companies to hire African Americans, Washington-based Boeing, did so only after intervention by the federal government. African Americans were also not the only ones to leave the South in search of work opportunities. White Americans came as well and carried with them the racist Southern ideologies many African Americans had hoped to leave behind.

African Americans faced racism at the workplace as well, with unequal treatment from employers and coworkers alike. Despite improvements over conditions in the South, aside from their ability to work, African Americans were not welcomed in the West. Racism did not disappear on the Western Coast for men or for women, and by the time of the Watts Riots of 1965, this had become apparent.

Travelling from the South to the West was challenging in the 1940s. African Americans often packed all of their possessions into a car and drove the long trek through Texas and New Mexico. They had very little money and would have had difficulty paying for hotels if there were hotels willing to take them in.

There were few hotels willing to take in African Americans in any event, so migrants camped on the side of the road or took turns driving. Most left their homes in the South with dreams of lucrative jobs in the heads and songs in their hearts. Although difficult to measure, the music of the era undoubtedly had a role in attracting young African Americans out of the South and into the West and Mid-West. Artists such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway sang of the magic of Chicago.

African Americans could not help but be attracted to sweet lyrics about a land where they could not only vote, but talk back to white people. And the women sang too; artists such as Ella Fitzgerald certainly must have inspired young Black women. Many of the up-and-coming artists were themselves, migrants. Georgia may have been on Ray Charles’ mind, but he opted to move to Seattle. Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley both left their homes in Mississippi to settle in Chicago.

Reality and fantasy both played a part in the second migration. African Americans both envisioned real-life improvements in their socio-economic status and with the aid of popular culture fantasized idealized world glitz and glamour.# Unfortunately, both the real-life improvements and the dreams were short-lived for most African Americans.

African American women were, for the most part, the last to get hired during World War II and the first to get fired after the war. By 1947, only two years after the end of the war, African Americans were left largely unemployed. In Oakland, African Americans constituted only ten percent of the population but made up half of the applications for welfare. The black population of Portland decline by half during this time. Those that managed to farewell were the few, primarily men, who had gained access to union membership and union jobs. African American women were less likely to have access to union membership and skilled labour and thus had no job security.

By the end of the 1940s African Americans had come to realize that the West Coast was not the land of dreams they had hoped for. The racism, sexual discrimination, and poverty they had hoped to escape were alive in California and other western states. African Americans had managed to trade one nightmare for another. They had travelled from one coast to the other; they stayed because there was nowhere else to go.

The story of the second great migration, while no fairytale, included women. Women shared in the triumphs and disappointments of the west, perhaps even more than their male counterparts. The opportunities that the West promised were perhaps even more appealing for women, who until the war had been restrained by both racial and gender barriers. With nowhere left to go, these men and women began to challenge social and political ideologies and helped lay the groundwork for the many political struggles that would later take place in the West.

Sources (* Indicates that image is attached)

*Benjamin, or ‘Pap,’ Singleton and His Followers from The Journal of Negro History, vol 33. no. 1 January 1948.

*Bowles, Gladys Kleinwort. Net Migration of the Population, 1950-60: By Age, Sex, and Color. Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1965.

Chafe, William H., et al. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. New York: The New Press, 2001.

Farley, Reynolds, and Walter R. Allen. The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1987.

Graaf, Lawrence and Bette Yarbrough. The Evolution of Black Music from Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California. University of Washinton Press. Seattle, 2001.

Letters from P. Brown, Consumnes River, CA to Mrs. Alley Brown, c/o Berhard Pratt, St. Mary’s P.O., Ste. Genevieve Co., Mo, 1 December 1851.

Migration Status of Black Population of the South 1940-1970. United States Census (Washington D.C.)

*Negro Population in Urban Areas 1870-1950

Riley, Glenda. American Daughter: Black Women in the West from Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Spring 1988

*Testimony of J.W. Wheeler. Negro Exodus from Southern States, 1880.

Tucker, Susan. Telling Memories Among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1988

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