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Great Migration Shortened Lives of Blacks Who Fled Jim Crow South

The move North for millions of African-Americans during Great Migration brought greater economic opportunities but also new stresses that shortened their lives.
African American Migrants
Photograph of African American men, women, and children who participated in the Great Migration to the north, with suitcases and luggage placed in front, Chicago, 1918. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)Getty Images

The move North for millions of African-Americans during the Great Migration brought greater economic and educational opportunities — but also new stresses and big city vices that actually shortened their lives, according to a new study.

Published this month in the American Economic Review, the study found that mortality rates increased at 40 percent for black men and 50 percent for black women who fled the dangers and discrimination of the Jim Crow South in search of better lives. Common causes of death for the migrants included cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and cirrhosis — all linked to bad habits like smoking and drinking.

The study’s findings contradict a common assumption among economists that more education and wealth automatically benefit one’s health, said Duke University economist and demographer Seth Sanders.

“We thought what we would find was that migration north extended life and made the African-American population healthier,” said Sanders one of the study’s co-authors. “We actually found exactly the opposite. Urban life is stressful. Being away from your roots is probably stressful.”

Roughly six million African-Americans left the Deep South from approximately 1910's to 1970's — about half of black America at that time. They left traditional farm economies in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, boarding trains for destinations like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago — industrial centers very different from the places they left behind.

Manufacturing spiral puttees
African American women at work manufacturing spiral puttees at plant of Alexander Propper & Company, New York City.NARA / Getty Images

The study found that if an African-American man lived to age 65 the chances that he would make it to age 70 if he remained in the South were 82.5 percent; if he migrated to the North the chance of surviving to age 70 dropped to 75 percent.

For an African-American woman who lived to age 65, the chances that she would make it to age 70 if she remained in the South were 90 percent; if she migrated to the North, the chance of surviving to age 70 dropped to 85 percent.

With better paying jobs came more disposable income and the habits that accompanied having more money. Drinking and smoking were aspirational activities for all Americans then — and whites migrating to cities from the Great Plains during the same time period also smoke and drank more.

But added to the difficulties already present in adjusting to city living, blacks faced unique challenges that added to their stress — the racism of the North, which included being forced to live in overcrowded neighborhoods, being allowed to join unions, and being underpaid for the work they were doing. Such circumstances only gave them another reason to find ways to cope, said Isabel Wilkerson, author of “THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”

“They were fleeing the violence of the caste system in the South, only to be met with challenges and obstacles in the North,” Wilkerson explained. “They were searching for ways to manage in a world that had not welcomed them… where they were met with hostility upon their arrival. I would not find it surprising that their health would suffer as a result.”

African American Resident of Plain City, Ohio smoking a pipe outside of a clothing store
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1935: African American Resident of Plain City, Ohio smoking a pipe outside of a clothing store.Getty Images

And rather than simply being exposed to these environments, African-Americans were relegated to them. Discrimination and violence prevented many from moving away from the slums that operated as vice districts that would’ve been in conflict with a Southern upbringing often heavily rooted in faith and morality.

“There was a general moral concern having to do with the lack of godliness in their experiences in the big city,” Wilkerson explained. “There was a fear of what was going to happen to people … without their family or community connections that were the moderating force in their lives. (The vice districts) were the only place they were permitted to live… all of the things that would not have been permissible in other neighborhoods were allowed. And when they sought to leave, they were met with resistance.”

Still, Wilkerson said, the trade-off would have been worth it for people whose daily survival far outweighed the notion of making it to old age.

“This is the price that they paid for the freedom that they sought,” Wilkerson said. “They were moving to an unknown land with challenges they could not have imagined. Yet, in spite of the risks they had to take, for them, at that time, their actions showed that it was worth the risk in order to live freer than they were at home.”

Sanders points out that the study’s findings are not just lessons about the Great Migration, but are a microcosm of what happens to any group of people moving from rural poverty into the city, from low-skilled to higher-skilled, industrial, diverse economies.

“To understand the Great Migration will help you understand what’s going on in the world today,” said Sanders, who cited present-day migrations in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. “Nothing is universally true. You can’t say migration was good or bad. To ask, ‘Was it worth it or not?’ is kind of an impossible task.”