The Great Migration

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Black Protest and the Great Migration: An Interpretation

The term exodus is an emotive one. It conjures striking biblical imagery of the Israelites fleeing their ancestral lands in search of religious freedom and a distinct identity. In many ways this mirrors the plight of the African Americans in the latter half of the 19th century as well as the early 20th century, as they left the south for the north in search of opportunity and sovereignty. Arnesen’s book Black Protest and the Great Migration attempts to dissect this geographic movement of people by discussing its role in the creation of a national black identity, increased black presence in the workforce, and the formation of African-American political organizations all in the context of the first World War.

Although slavery had ended over 60 years prior to WWI, African Americans were far from free. Many members of this large community were born into a life of indentured servitude through the oppressive and unequal program of sharecropping. Under this southern economic system African-Americans fared slightly better than they had under the horrors of slavery in previous decades. They had little chance for social and economic improvement, and as a result were stuck in the lowest strata of society. A compounding set of issues involving white on black intimidation, little to no economic oppurtunity, and the nature of the African-Americans arrival in America led many to yearn for a life without the institutionalized oppression encountered in the South. This landscape changed dramatically in 1914 as WWI emerged and began to consume the world. As war ravaged Europe, the influx of European immigrants into America diminished significantly, the number “fell sharply from 1.2 million in 1914 to three hundred thousand in 1915” (Arnesen 7). This drop in immigration compounded with the large number of white American workers conscripted to fight in the war created the dire need for workers in the factories and...
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