The African Americans

Search for Truth and Knowledge

By Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.

Part Thirty-Three: African Americans and Urban America

African American and Politics

Since World War II this tradition of leadership on the national level has re-emerged after the election of Oscar DePriest in Chicago and Adam Clayton Powell, jr. in New York. Today the African Americans in Congress and those that are mayors and state legislators represent the greatest Black level of full participation in American society. The Presidential Campaign of Jessie Jackson in 1984 demonstrated this newly won position of strength.


African American Mayors and Congressmen

There is a special relationship between African Americans and some of the leading American cities. Often this relationship goes back to the founding of the cities as frontier trading posts or farming settlements in swamps. Four of the most important American cities are Washington, the capital of the nation; New York, the financial center and largest city; Chicago, the hub of the nation and second largest city; and Los Angeles, the Mecca of the west and third largest city. All of these great cities have special historical links to the African American population from the earliest colonial period to the founding of the nation in 1786 and its rise as an industrial power in the 19th and 20th centuries. Like many of America's leading cities today, Washington, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are examples of historical African American ties to America's early development as well as the growing political power emerging from the concentration of Americans of African descent in the urban areas. New York has the largest and most diverse population of African Americans. Over the past decade Black mayors have been elected in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles.


Internal Migration

Many of the largest cities in America have received waves of new migrants from within the United States. These newcomers have often crowded into already crowded inner city neighborhoods in the industrial centers of the East, the Midwest and the West. As a result, cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis, Newark, Los Angeles and Oakland have large African American populations. Although most of these cities have had African American residents for centuries, there has been a rapid increase over the last twenty-five or thirty years. Since World War II, there has been an enormous movement from rural areas to the cities by all Americans but this is especially true of African Americans. In contrast, white Americans have moved from the city center to the suburbs since the 1950's. This has created an ethnic mix in urban America that has often established a Black center city and white suburbs. As a result of this urban population shift over the last twenty-five years, there has also been a decisive change in political power. Since 1967, when Carl Stokes became the first Black Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, there has been a steady increase in African Americans who have been elected mayors of the largest American cities.

Today there are hundreds of African Americans who have been elected to run American cities and towns. Besides the four cities cited above, African Americans have been elected to the office of mayor in other large cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Oakland, Newark, Hartford, Gary, Birmingham, Cleveland, Berkeley, and Kansas City. This urban concentration of African Americans has also helped to increase the number of Black men and women elected to Congress. They have formed the Black Congressional Caucus and act in concert to protect the rights of African Americans and promote their general welfare. There are more than twenty African American congressmen and congresswomen. This represents the largest number of Black elected members of Congress since the First Reconstruction Period after the Civil War. In fact, more than 3,000 African Americans are elected officials throughout America. They are the results of the Second Reconstruction Period that grew out of the struggles in the 1960s over Civil and Human Rights. Even after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rural concentration of African Americans continued. There was no great migration North until around World War I. By 1900, 90% of Africa Americans still lived in the South.

During the Great Migration of African Americans from the South into northern cities between 1910 and 1930. European immigration came to a standstill. African American migration was affected by the "push and pull" factors. The push out of the South came from natural and unnatural forces.

An important natural force was the destruction of the cotton crop by the Boll Weevil forcing farmers, sharecroppers and tenants off the land. A crucial unnatural force was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan gangs, which terrorized and intimidated African Americans.

The pull in the North came from the labor needs of expanding industries stimulated by World War I. This lure to the northern industrial cities was accelerated by labor recruiters who went into the South and signed up workers. Curing this period a quarter of the African American population moved into the cities of the North.

Although the flow of African American migrants into the cities slowed to a trickle in the 1930s because of the Great Depression, World War II rekindled the flame of migration. New Immigrants crowded into already crowded cities. Racial and ethnic conflicts increased in the struggle over living space and jobs. By the 1960s over one half of the African American population now resided in the large cities, particularly in the North.


The Great Migration 1910–1930

From the earliest days of the American nation until World War I, the Africa American population was concentrated in the rural areas of the South because of slavery. In contrast, the Free African American population in the North and the South was concentrated in the urban areas, where they depended upon domestic work, unskilled labor or craftsmen jobs. After the Civil War, Africa Americans continued to be concentrated in the South. Several factors combined to cause the Great Migration to the cities around the World War I period. The leading international factor was the expanding war effort that created the need for labor in northern industrial centers. At the same time, the war conflict halted the flow of European immigrants that had come to American by the millions between 1890 and 1910.

The first large-scale in-migration of African Americans to many northern cities occurred between 1910 and 1930 in the World War I and Post-World War I era. During this period, large racially homogeneous areas of African Americans developed in places such as Harlem in New York and the Southside of Chicago.

During the 1940s, World War II restrictions on housing construction increased segregation and further limited the ability of African Americans to obtain housing. The war effort and post-World War I recovery stimulated increased migration to the cities, but housing supplies were limited, forcing more segregation and deterioration of the housing stock. After the 1950s the opening up of the suburbs with federally subsidized housing development expanded residential patterns, but kept the basic framework of white suburbs and Black inner cities.

A high degree of racial residential segregation is universal in American cities. Whether a city is a metropolitan center or a suburb; whether it is in the North or the South; whether the African American population is large or small; in almost every case, white American and African American households are highly segregated. These patterns of discrimination and restrictions have had negative effects on America's urban development.

In the 1968 Kerner Report on racial disturbance in the cities of the United States, it was pointed out that America was moving toward two societies, one white, one Black, separate and unequal. What are causes of this development? What are the implications of these segregate patterns?

A century ago, the majority of the population of the United States lived on farms and depended on agriculture for a livelihood. Cities contained only 20% of the total national population in 1860. At that time there were 4,500,000 African Americans in the United States and more than 85% were slaves. Over 90% of this African American population lived in the South and in the rural areas.

Today the vast majority of African Americans live in the urban areas and this shift has had significant implications for the cities and the nation.

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