African American Migration

Segregated railroad waiting room at the Union Terminal; Jacksonville, Florida, 1921

Segregated railroad waiting room at the Union Terminal; Jacksonville, Florida, 1921
Courtesy Florida State Archives, RC09666
Article in the African American newspaper the "Cleveland Advocate," March 6, 1920. Like many black newspapers, the "Advocate" reported on the great migration.

Article in the African American newspaper the "Cleveland Advocate," March 6, 1920. Like many black newspapers, the "Advocate" reported on the great migration.
Courtesy Ohio Historical Society, Vol 6, Issue 43, Page 3
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African Americans were just one ethnic group who migrated in great numbers to northern cities like Omaha, Nebraska in the first years of the new century.
From the 1994 NET Television program A Street of Dreams


Strikers (photo 1 of 4) at the Burlington Railroad Shop Yards Plattsmouth, Nebraska, 1922. The brotherhood of Railroad Car men and the International Association of Machinists.

Strikers (photo 1 of 4) at the Burlington Railroad Shop Yards Plattsmouth, Nebraska, 1922. The brotherhood of Railroad Car men and the International Association of Machinists.
Additional strikers (photo 2 of 4). Note the frustration in the faces of white strikers against the Burlington Northern Railroad in nearby Plattsmouth in 1922.

Additional strikers (photo 2 of 4). Note the frustration in the faces of white strikers against the Burlington Northern Railroad in nearby Plattsmouth in 1922.
Between 1910 and 1920, the African American population of Omaha doubled from around 5,000 to 10,315. Those 10,000 blacks made up five percent of Omaha’s population. Blacks made up only around one percent of the population of the state. Even with these small numbers, the rate of growth of the minority population was becoming alarming to the white population.

Why did African Americans come to Omaha and other northern cities? In 1910 — nearly 50 years after the Civil War ended — 89 percent of all blacks remained in southern states, and nearly 80 percent of those lived in rural areas. But between 1915 and 1920, at least 500,000 blacks migrated north. Some estimates double that number to a million. Thousands more migrated west. There were a number of reasons for the migration.

  • Prices for cotton dropped and then boll weevils (insects) destroyed much of the cotton crop. 
  • Floods destroyed homes and farms.
  • Segregation under “Jim Crow” laws kept African Americans separated from whites in many public places.
  • Blacks were kept from voting.

Those were some of the factors that pushed African Americans away from the South. There were other factors that pulled migrants to the North.
  • Northern businesses were growing, especially as the war in Europe began creating a demand for war goods.
  • The war had limited immigration from Europe so American workers were badly needed.
  • When America got into the war, many young white men (and some young black men) were recruited into the military, leaving their old jobs open.
  • Salaries were higher in the North. Wages in the South ranged from 50 cents to $2 a day. In the North, workers could make between $2 and $5 a day.
  • During labor strikes blacks were willing to become "replacement workers," as the companies called them, or "scabs," as the unions called them.
  • The packing plants in Omaha were actively recruiting African Americans throughout the South.

Additional strikers (photo 3 of 4)

Additional strikers (photo 3 of 4)
Additional strikers (photo 4 of 4)

Additional strikers (photo 4 of 4)

As if these "pushes" and "pulls" were not enough, the packing plants in Omaha were actively recruiting African Americans throughout the South, despite laws against recruiting in several southern states. Meatpacking in Omaha was big business, but there weren’t enough workers to fill the available jobs during the 1910s.

Also, the city’s black newspaper, the Omaha Monitor, was filled with stories of how good it was for blacks in the city. The Star and other black newspapers regularly reported on the progress of the migration. They knew this was an historic event.

White newspapers took note as well. During the first week of August 1919, the Omaha Bee newspaper reported that as many as "500 Negro workers," mostly from Chicago and East St. Louis, arrived in Omaha looking for work in the packing houses.

When Omaha experienced labor strikes, blacks were hired to replace the striking workers. The white newspapers and workers who had been replaced were very angry with this.

The Omaha Bee hyped the stories and caused increased racial tension. So the migration of blacks to Omaha and the hiring of black workers was a source of irritation in the labor market that added to existing racial hostilities.