With the establishment of Miami, the growing military significance of Jacksonville, Tampa, and Key West, and the development of trade with Latin America; plus, the proximity of Florida to the newly constructed Panama Canal, migration to Florida increased during the first two decades of the 20th-century. Through the first half of the century, most migrants – an overwhelming majority of them White – arrived from the former Confederate states. Agriculture boomed in Florida, mainly in the citrus industry but Freedmen and their descendants grew cotton for export. In the second half of the 20th-century, the population of Florida increased dramatically as the new “migrant,” typically white and from states in the Northeast and Midwest, were attracted by a booming service economy and affordable air-conditioning. As the White population of Florida increased even more dramatically throughout the 20th-century, the African American population grew at a much slower rate and, in some parts of the state actually decreased (see Map 1 and 2) by way of the first and second waves of the Great Migration.
Map 1: This map illustrates the loss of African American population (green shaded circles predominantly in the South) in southern cities and towns. The northern cities, most denoted by purple shaded circles, demonstrate a growth in the African American population. These cities in the north were host to industry and/or were railroad heads where many railroad workers would live. The African American population of some southern cities and towns increased, these cities were not as heavily involved in the cotton industry as the vast majority of the areas where the population decreased.
From 1910 through to 1970 these two waves of the Great Migration of African Americans occurred as over the decades six million men, women, and children left the South looking for better social and economic opportunities in the North and Midwest. The strongest ‘push factors’ encouraging African Americans to move northward and westward during the ‘First Wave’ (1910-1940 and the main focus of this project) included the low-profit agricultural system that had dominated the southern economy since the colonial era, deepened by the arrival of the boll weevil in the early part of the 20th-century. Secondly, the “retarded industrial development” which limited non-agricultural employment possibilities to southern workers – for the most part, the South did not industrialize during the early 20th-century. Thirdly, the repressive social, economic, and political conditions due to the ‘Jim Crow Laws’ established in the post-Reconstruction years.1
Primarily limited to sharecropping and the crop-lien system, Freedmen and their descendants worked in what was the old ‘Cotton Kingdom’ of the South. Not able to make much of a profit and often times living in debt, the African American watched helplessly as the boll weevil penetrated the South, first in southern Texas (1892), and as early as 1912 had made its way to the Florida panhandle and all but obliterated the cotton crop (see ‘Boll Weevil Map’). One reaction of the devastation to their crops, African Americans abandoned the South.2 Jacksonville, Tallahassee (state capital), Tampa, and Key West all lost African American population as each city was either directly involved in the production of cotton or the export of cotton from Florida and making a living was near to impossible. Miami and Orlando both gained a small percentage of African Americans between 1910 and 1940 as they were centers for the citrus industry.
The arrival of the boll weevil occurred at the same time as the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. ‘Jim Crow’ created two separate societies in the South, except when African Americans were to play subservient roles (tenant farmers, house servants). When African Americans attempted to break out of their assigned role in southern society violence against them rose. African Americans were more than happy to leave the South, although not experiencing full equality – and in some cases were victims of race riots (Chicago in 1919, for example) – overall, African American life was economically, politically and socially improved from their experience in the South.3 “Migrants moving North could easily make more as unskilled laborers than they had as artisans in the South. This was constantly pointed out to them and was undoubtedly a large part of the North's appeal.”4
Beginning in 1914, as what little economic opportunity there was in Florida continued to deteriorate, economic opportunity (the pull factors) in the North increased. When The Great War broke out in Europe, overseas migration to the United States all but ended. However, American industry still had a need for workers. By 1914 African Americans had begun their move northward however, not in large numbers. As tenancy as an agricultural system was failing the African American in Florida, in early 1916, the first recruiters from northern factories and railroads arrived in Florida to entice African Americans to move north for jobs, albeit with minimal pay. Needing workers to endure adverse conditions for “inadequate wages,” African Americans took positions in turpentine camps and timber operations, iron and steel manufacturers. Soon after, “the Pennsylvania, Erie, and New York Central railroad sent recruiting agents into the South offering “six to seven dollars a day in wages to people who were working for a dollar or less.” More than enough African Americans were willing to leave Florida and other southern states to settle around the Great Lakes and Northeast regions.6 With Jacksonville being the major railroad hub in Florida at first, hundreds of African Americans were able to quickly take the opportunity to move.7
By the 1920s, southern Black church leaders and educators, along with white landowners and businessmen began to notice the growing exodus of southern African Americans. “Those deemed in their communities to be the ‘better class’ of Black and White persons deplored the outflow as endangering the region’s institutional and financial life.” An attempt was made to “stem the migration tide through reform.”8 However, these attempts at reform seemed to not work as there was no recognized leadership of the mass exodus. African American families were leaving on their own. In fact, African American leaders (mainly ministers) watched as their congregations dwindled. Eventually many of these ministers joined their congregations in the North.9
By the end of the 1930s, approximately two million African Americans moved northward. Most settled around the Great Lakes and in the Northeast. The found jobs mainly in factories or working for the railroads. Some African Americans went further and made their way into Canada, despite strong attempts by the Canadian government to keep African Americans out of their country. However, the Canadian Pacific Railway sought out African Americans to work in their profitable sleeping car service. By 1921, the Black population in major cities in Canada almost doubled.10
The Great Migration was not over at the end of the 1930s. A second, even larger wave would impact Florida beginning in the 1940s through to 1970 (see Map 2). However, this topic would need to be covered in a future project, perhaps in the Spring Semester 2023 (?). Also, according to William H. Frey of the Brookings Institute, in a study he completed in 2004 – a third Great Migration took place between 1965 and 2000 – based on the study of four census reports, the South’s African American population saw net gains at the expense of three other regions of the United States. “Of the 10 states that suffered the greatest net loss of blacks between 1965 and 1970, five ranked among the top 10 states for attracting blacks between 1995 and 2000.”11 This topic too would be excellent for another project.
Map 2: This map illustrates the Second Wave of the Great Migration. The number of African Americans leaving the South was much greater between 1940 and 1970. African Americans who left Florida headed to the same areas as those who took part in the First Wave. As the Great Depression was coming to an end, America became involved in World War II – creating the necessity of opening factories to provide for the war effort. Thousands of workers were needed to take the jobs created in these factories, thus the pull factor that began the trek for thousands of African Americans across the South, one of the most impacted states was Florida.
Eichenlaub, Suzanne C., Stewart E. Tolnay, and J. Trent Alexander. “Moving Out but Not Up: Economic Outcomes of the Great Migration.” American Sociological Review 75 no. 1: 101-125. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122409357047?casa_token=kPmxKagNjDsAAAAA:H_o8DzHySc1JN9lUchHsxMeQGmRZ2q9C2--RRKQxTFKqsWvfe1GkdKWsPpMk_VMKjBNTSPRWFXYs6g
Franklin, John Hope and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
Frey, William H. “The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965-2000.” The Living Cities Census Series – The Brookings Institute. May 2004.
Lange, Fabian, Alan L. Olmstead, and Paul W. Rhode. “The Impact of the Boll Weevil: 1892-1932.” The Journal of Economic History 69 no. 3 (Sept., 2009): 685-718. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40263940
Marks, Carole. “Black Workers and the Great Migration North.” Phylon 46 no. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1985): 148-161. https://www.jstor.org/stable/274413
Mathieu, Sarah Jane. “The Black Experience in Canada Revisited.” In Migrants and Migration in Modern North America: Cross-Border Lives, Labor Markets, and Politics, edited by Dirk Hoerder and Nora Faires, 297-310. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Shoffner, Jerrell H. “Florida and the Black Migration." The Florida Historical Quarterly 57 no. 3 (Jan., 1979): 267-288. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30148524
“USDA Map of Spread of Boll Weevil, 1892-1921.” ResearchGate. Accessed December 3, 2022. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/USDA-Map-of-Spread-to-Boll-Weevil-1892-1921_fig1_239766507
- Suzanne C. Eichenlaub, et al. “Moving Out but Not Up: Economic Outcomes of the Great Migration.” American Sociological Review 75 no. 1: 102 DOI: 10.1177/0003122409357047 [↩]
- Fabian Lange, et al. “The Impact of the Boll Weevil: 1892-1932.” The Journal of Economic History 69 no. 3 (Sept., 2009): 685-688 https://www.jstor.org/stable/40263940 [↩]
- Shoffner, “Florida and the Black Migration,” 268-269 [↩]
- Carole Marks, “Black Workers and the Great Migration North.” Phylon 46 no. 2: 152 https://www.jstor.org/stable/274413 [↩]
- “USDA Map of Spread of Boll Weevil, 1892-1921.” ResearchGate. Accessed December 3, 2022. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/USDA-Map-of-Spread-to-Boll-Weevil-1892-1921_fig1_239766507 [↩]
- Jerrell Shoffner, “Florida and the Black Migration.: The Florida Historical Quarterly 57 no. 3 (Jan., 1979): 268. [↩]
- Shoffner, “Florida and the Black Migration,” 267-269 [↩]
- John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 365. [↩]
- Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom, 365-366 [↩]
- Sarah Jane Mathieu, “The Black Experience in Canada Revisited.” In Migrants and Migration in Modern North America: Cross-Border Lives, Labor Markets, and Politics, edited by Dirk Hoerder and Nora Faires, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 303 [↩]
- William H. Frey, “The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965-2000.” The Living Cities Census Series – The Brookings Institute. May 2004, 1 [↩]