Historical & Current Events dictionary

Great Migration

[ greyt mahy-grey-shuhn ]

What does Great Migration mean?

The Great Migration was a migration of approximately six million African Americans from the US South to cities and other areas in the North, West, and Midwest from roughly 1910 to 1970. These population shifts shaped the longstanding demographics of many areas of the US.

Historians typically divide the Great Migration into two major phases: one large wave of migration between 1910 and 1940 and another lasting until around 1970.

The large-scale relocation is often attributed to several different factors, notably the desire of Black Southerners to escape the Jim Crow laws that were widespread throughout the South along with other pervasive forms racism and discrimination; and the greater availability of jobs and educational opportunities in Northern urban areas, particularly around the time of each World War.

The migration resulted in significant Black population increases in many Northern cities and the formation of Black communities there. These communities are often considered to be the basis of Black urban culture and the growth of Black arts movements, such as the Harlem Renaissance.

Though the North did not have the widespread Jim Crow laws of the South, Black people were nonetheless targeted by Northern whites with racist policies and discrimination, such as redlining and de facto segregation. The legacy and persistence of such policies continue to affect Black communities.

Though Black populations in the South declined overall during the period of the Great Migration, many Black Southerners stayed in the South or moved to urban areas within the South during the era.

More recently, the term Great Migration has been used in discussions of similar relocation trends and demographic shifts in the 2000s (beginning perhaps as early as the late 1990s) involving Black Americans moving from Northern and Western states to Southern states, especially Southern cities. This movement has been called the “new Great Migration” in some reports about it.

Other meanings

The term Great Migration is also used in another completely different way to refer to the yearly migration of many migratory animals in East Africa, including millions of wildebeest.

Related words

Black History Month, Black excellence, Black joy

Where does Great Migration come from?

text: Great Migration

Records show that the term Great Migration, in the sense of the 20th century demographic shift in the US, has been used since at least the 1960s, when it was still in progress. The term became more commonly used by historians and others in the 1970s and 1980s after the shift had largely ended.

In Great Migration, the word great is used in the sense of “large” or “significant,” a sense that’s also used in the names of other important historical events, such as the Great Depression.

Examples of Great Migration

My great aunt mailed me the original labor contract that was offered to the thousands of black women who traveled from south to north during the great migration. I am weeping.
@tressiemcphd, January 3, 2020
The series of artworks contextualizes America’s Great Migration, which ushered in the first Black arts movement.
Bianca Marcof, The Miami Times, January 25, 2022

Who uses Great Migration?

The historical event known as the Great Migration is often discussed in the context of US history and the legacy of its long-term results, including demographic shifts and the formation of Black communities and urban culture.


Sometimes, the term is used in the discussion of more recent relocation trends, including what’s sometimes called the “new Great Migration.”

Unrelatedly, the term Great Migration is also popularly used to refer to the annual migration of wildlife in East Africa.

Just Added

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of Great Migration like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of Great Migration that will help our users expand their word mastery.