Cities in Black History
Atlanta to Washington, DC: landmarks in African-American history
by David Johnson
In 1910, fifty years after the Civil War, 89% of all Black people still lived in the South, and 80% in rural areas.
But in the years that followed, one of the largest mass movements in American history got underway. Beginning in 1913, a series of calamities devastated the cotton crop. First, world cotton prices plummeted, then boll weevils infested huge areas, and finally in 1915, severe floods inundated the Mississippi Valley.
Farmers Lost Everything
Already suffering under racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws, many Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers fell deeply into debt or lost everything. At the same time, World War I had slowed foreign immigration to the cities of the North while increasing demand for industrial goods. The result was a severe labor shortage in many northern and western cities.
Mass Migration North
In what became known as the Great Migration, Black people poured off the farms in search of urban jobs. Between 1915 and 1920 as many as one million African Americans moved to northern cities. Nearly another million joined them in the decade that followed. In addition, tens of thousands of Black people went west, especially to California, while several hundred thousand moved to southern cities.
Although the Great Migration slowed during the Depression, nearly one-fourth of all Black people lived in the North or West by 1940. The trend continued during and after World War II. By 1960, 40% of all Black people lived outside the South, while 75% of all Black people lived in cities. By transforming their rural southern backgrounds to fit their new urban homes, African Americans created a new Black culture.
Here are some of the important places in African American political, intellectual, and artistic life.
Blacks did not become a major presence in Atlanta until after the Civil War. In the late 1800s, nearly half of Atlanta's residents were Black. However, the city remained racially polarized. In 1906 white mobs attacked Black neighbors, claiming that Black men were threatening white women. In 1915 Atlanta became the headquarters of the newly revived Ku Klux Klan. In the 1960s Atlanta minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as leader of the civil rights movement, bringing increased prominence to the city. The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, which includes the King Center for Social Justice, his birthplace, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, has helped make Atlanta a major tourist attraction for those interested in Black history.
In 1963, Birmingham became a tragic chapter in the civil rights movement when four young Black girls attending Sunday school were killed when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a popular location for civil rights meetings. Riots erupted. It was here that Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests, and where he wrote his famous Letter From Birmingham City Jail, arguing that individuals have the moral duty to disobey unjust laws. Some of the most powerful and influential photographs documenting the civil rights movement were taken during a demonstration in Kelly Ingram Park—the brutal images of Bull Connor's police dogs attacking Black marchers helped wake up the world to southern racism. Birmingham's first Black mayor, Richard Arrington, elected in 1979, helped create a historic district devoted to the civil rights movement. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum and research center, opened in 1992.
Although it was an important slave port in the 1600s, Boston had an active abolitionist movement by 1700. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, and by the 1830s Boston had become the center of American abolitionist sentiment. The 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a Black unit from Boston, fought in the Civil War. While the Great Migration did not have much affect on Boston, the city has received substantial immigration from the Caribbean in recent decades.
- Black History in Boston: A Virtual Field Trip
- New Bedford, MA Virtual Field Trip: Underground Railroad Sites
With its sizzling jazz and blues, substantial middle class, and political clout, Chicago's Black community rivaled Harlem's in the 1920s and 30s. Drawn by the city's meatpacking houses, railway companies, and steel mills, the Black population in Chicago skyrocketed from 44,000 in 1910 to 235,000 in 1930. In 1928 the first Black congressman since Reconstruction, Republican Oscar De Priest, was elected. In the 1930s the Democratic party machine took control, diminishing Black political strength. The city remained segregated. In 1966 Martin Luther King, Jr., began the Chicago Freedom Movement to push for integrated housing, while Jesse Jackson launched Operation Breadbasket to increase Black employment. Serious riots rocked Chicago in 1966 and 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Great Migration increased Detroit's Black population from under 6,000 in 1910 to 120,000 in 1930. Working in the auto and other industries, a Black middle class soon developed, creating an important cultural community. For instance, W.D. Fard founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930. In the 1960s, the Black-owned Motown Record Corporation propelled many leading Black performers, including Diana Ross and the Jackson Five, to stardom. Serious race riots rocked the city in 1943 and 1967, sending thousands of whites into the suburbs. In 1973 Coleman Young was elected the first Black mayor. Today the city is more than 75% Black.
HARLEM, NEW YORK
The political and cultural center of Black American life in the 20th century has been the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, located north of Central Park in Manhattan. After a period of inflationary speculation, Harlem real estate prices collapsed in 1904. The completion of the Lenox Ave. (Sixth Ave.) subway made commuting to lower Manhattan easier. Black people, including many from the South and the West Indies, began moving in.
Led by intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, Black culture soon flourished, culminating in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Although Harlem's political clout continued to grow, by 1960 the Black middle class had largely abandoned it, leaving behind a poor community struggling with various social problems. The area is currently undergoing a revival.
Stretching along the Mississippi River, Beale St. was a center of the blues in its heyday in the first half of the 20th century. During the Jim Crow laws, Black people flocked Beale St., which was a thriving oasis of Black businesses. After a prolonged slump, Beale St. is now being revived. Memphis is home of the excellent Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, is a popular tourist attraction.
The capitol of Alabama represents a milestone in the civil rights movement. In 1955 a Black seamstress, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white man. The subsequent boycott of the city's segregated bus system by Montgomery's 17,000 Black residents, led by Martin Luther King, received nationwide publicity and helped launch the civil rights movement. The 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march helped create the momentum that passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A major port, New Orleans has been affected by diverse cultural influences. By the Civil War, a class of light-skinned Black people called Creoles, descended from French and Spanish settlers and African slaves, had created a vibrant middle-class community. Many Creoles were well educated and lived apart from the Black slaves. The slaves, on the other hand, congregated in Congo Square and kept alive vestiges of African culture by performing traditional songs and dances. The imposition of Jim Crow laws in the latter part of the 19th century classified Creoles as Black people and barred them from white institutions. Creoles were forced to mix with Black people, many of whom had come from the Mississippi Delta, and the West Indies, in particular Haiti. Jazz and blues arose from the fusion of these cultures, earning New Orleans the reputation as one of the most musically creative cities in the U.S.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. When its levees were breached, about 80% of the city was submerged by the flooding. As most of the city's citizens fled the city, those without cars or the financial means to relocate were left behind, trapped in the city without power, food, or drinking water. The 100,000 who remained in the drowning city were largely poor and predominantly Black, exposing the racial dimension of New Orleans's persistent poverty: 28% of New Orleanians are poor (twice the national average) and 84% of those are Black. Although billions of dollars have been allocated to the city's reconstruction, rebuilding efforts have been chaotic and slow, and there is currently no master plan for rebuilding large-scale infrastructure. Many residents will never have the opportunity to return to their beloved city.
As Reconstruction came to an end in the 1870s, many Southern Black people feared they would lose their civil liberties. Known as "Exodusters," thousands fled to a number of newly created Black towns, such as Nicodemus. Founded in 1877, Nicodemus was promoted as "the Promised Land." Within two years the community had 700 residents. But bad weather and subsequent crop failures, followed by the Union Pacific Railroad's decision to bypass the town, spelled its doom. Nicodemus was soon deserted.
While most Black towns met a similar fate, a number are still in existence. The towns of Boley, Langston City, Porter, and Taft, in Oklahoma; Booker and Kendleton, in Texas; and Fairmount Heights and Glenarden, in Maryland, outside Washington, DC, all began as havens for Black people. While some criticized the establishment of Black towns, the communities offered African Americans opportunities that were often rare in the 19th century.
A major stop for runaway Southern slaves, Washington, DC, attracted large numbers of Black people after the Civil War. By 1960 the city had a majority Black population. The presence of Black political organizations and the large marches in the 1960s made Washington a major center of the civil rights movement. Today it is one of the largest and most prominent Black-dominated communities in the United States.
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