Why the New Great Migration Matters

Image of a family from South Carolina in 1928 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the recent documentary “South to Black Power,” Charles Blow reaffirms his previous call for a “Second Great Migration.” His manifesto appeals to African Americans to return to the American South as a political strategy. However, the political reckoning he calls for has been ongoing since the late 1960s. While African American migration narratives typically trace migration from the American South, most African Americans still lived in the region even at the end of the Great Migration. Then, starting in the 1970s, African American migrants shifted their sights onto the region as they became “aware of the opportunities that have opened up in the South.”1 This new awareness fueled the start of one of the most significant events in twentieth century African American History—the start of the New Great Migration.

The New Great Migration is the movement of Black people to the American South, especially southern cities, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. It started in the 1970s and continues into the present. Migrants, who disproportionately consist of upwardly mobile, young professionals, moved in search of jobs, education, and reunification with family. The scope and impact of the New Great Migration can be examined through demographics, politics, and culture.

The New Great Migration is named after the Great Migration, the largest and arguably most influential demographic shift in the history of the United States. The Great Migration—the migration of millions of African Americans from the South into the North, Midwest, and West—shapes how African American history and culture are studied and understood. At the start of the movement, the vast majority of African Americans lived in the South, and northern cities like Chicago and Detroit only had small Black communities. By its end, cities like Chicago and Detroit had dynamic African American communities that shaped Black culture, politics, and economics into the present.2

Then, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, demographers noticed that “a new pattern of Black migration” was emerging.3 More Black people staying in the region instead of migrating out of it marked this new pattern. It was also marked by the South shifting from a net loser to a net gainer of African American migrants. For example, in 1965, Mississippi topped the list of states with the largest net loss of Black migrants. Just ten years later, in 1975, New York topped the list and continued to top it until the turn of the twentieth century.

Similarly, by 1985, Georgia had transplanted California as the largest net gainer.  Furthermore, the South was the only region with a net gain of Black migrants from 1975 until the turn of the twentieth century.4 Consequently, the New Great Migration further increased the number of Black people living in the region and demonstrated that most African Americans were willing to make a home for themselves in the region.

Interestingly, the New Great Migration does share an important demographic characteristic with the Great Migration—Black urbanization defined both movements. Approached together, the Great Migration and the New Great Migration represent nearly a century-long increase in the number of African Americans living in cities. This shared characteristic highlights connections between the emergence of communities like Harlem and Chicago’s Black Belt, the rise of majority-minority cities like Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, and Memphis, and the rapid depeopling of the Black Belt of the rural South and the massive decline in the acres of Black-owned land.5

Electoral politics also played an influential role in motivating African Americans to migrate to the South. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, civil rights leaders and black political leaders in the South—two groups that were often one and the same—called for Black people to “come home.” For example, Julian Bond called for Black people to move South and fight to make the “exciting potential political circumstances” a reality.6 The political possibilities that Bond foretold became realities by the mid-1970s. For example, in the case of Atlanta, Jackson would become the city’s first Black mayor in 1974. This meant he was also the first Black mayor of a major southern city. Besides Jackson, in the 1970s, Andrew Young served as Georgia’s Congressman from the fifth district, which covered Atlanta, and Julian Bond represented the city in the Georgia House of Representatives.

However, even more than its political impact, the Great Migration is one of the best-known events in twentieth century African American history because of its cultural importance. From the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance to the music of Aretha Franklin, the movement played a singular role in shaping American culture.

The same is true for the New Great Migration. From the emergence of Atlanta as the “Black Hollywood” to the rise of southern hip hop, the post-soul Black South has influenced American culture. The television series Queen Sugar is one of the most recent and critically acclaimed visual representations of the New Great Migration. Accordingly, the series director, Ava DuVernay, states that she hopes the series challenges viewers to reckon with African American History.

The first season of Queen Sugar centers on the struggles of the Bordelon siblings to keep the land they inherited in rural Louisiana from their recently deceased father. It largely follows the personal struggles of the three Bordelon siblings. Among these main characters, the middle child of the siblings, Charley Bordelon West, is the character whose migratory decisions reflect the dynamics of the New Great Migration.

Half-sister to the other Bordelon siblings, Charley was not reared in the American South but spent summer vacations in Louisiana on her father’s farm. Her tenuous connection to the family farm is a fact that complicates her perceived authenticity as a Southerner. She is initially reluctant to establish a permanent residence in the community, which causes other local Black farmers to question her ability to run the family farm. Charley eventually proves herself by making a permanent home in the same community as the family farm. Her family history motivated this decision, especially the lives her family lost in fighting to keep the land. Through this brutal history, Charley cultivated a more permanent connection to the region, and her migration to the South is framed as an intergenerational act of redemption.

The history of the New Great Migration suggests that African Americans’ identity, culture, and conceptualizations of history and freedom never stopped being deeply connected to the region. Furthermore, it offers scholars a generative lens for examining some of the key developments of the late twentieth century, including the development of the Black middle class, the political gains of multiple liberation movements, and the rise of the Global South.

  1. William Chaze, “Migrating Blacks Are Returning to Changing South,” Tallahassee Democrat, December 8, 1972.
  2. William H Frey, “Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965–2000,” 2004, 3, 5.
  3. “The Social and Economic Status of the Black Population in the United States: 1974,” Report Number P23-54, July 1975, 1.
  4. Frey, 3.
  5. Fuguitt, The Shifting Patterns of Black Migration from and Into the Nonmetropolitan South, 1965-95, 7.
  6. “Black Voices of the South,” Ebony, August 1971, pages 50, 52.
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Beatrice J. Adams

Beatrice J. Adams is an Assistant Professor of History at the College of Wooster. She received her Ph.D. in African American and African Diaspora History from Rutgers-New Brunswick in the spring of 2021. While at Rutgers, she served as a researcher for the Scarlet and Black Project and contributed to three volumes of the project’s award-winning book series. She also served as a researcher for the Rise Up Newark Digital History Project—a public history project that explores the dynamics of the Modern Black Freedom Movement in the urban North. Her book in progress, “We Might as Well Fight at Home: African Americans Claiming the American South,” examines the experiences of African Americans who remained in and returned to the American South during the Great Migration and the emergence of the New Great Migration. Her research has been supported by the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University. She received her BA in History and Religion & Philosophical Studies from Fisk University in 2012 and her MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago in 2013.

Comments on “Why the New Great Migration Matters

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    Excellent, illuminating article.

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    Well done, very interesting topic.

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    Thank you for this essay. I am struck by this sentence: “African Americans’ identity, culture, and conceptualizations of history and freedom never stopped being deeply connected to the region.” Is there scholarship that addresses this concept in the period before the 1970s?

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    Good Essay. Important topic – black demograghic in the City of Yonkers is real. From about 2000 – 2010 I noticed our pop. decline in the city. I want to read your books and learn more.


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