Agrarian Trust

The Great Migration

PBS Documentary sheds light on a problem that lingers in the land legacy of the U.S. 

“We were a land based agrarian people from Africa. We were uprooted from Africa and we spent 200 years developing our culture as black Americans and then we left the South. We uprooted ourselves and attempted to transplant this culture to the pavements of the industrialized North. It was a transplant that didn’t take. I think if we had stayed in the South we would have been a stronger people and because the connection between the South of the 20s, 30s, and 40s has been broken, it’s very difficult to understand who we are.”

August Wilson, playwright

The Depression took hold in the South long before the 1929 stock market crash. From 1914 through the Depression, black land ownership was severely threatened. White violence against blacks, coupled with spiraling cotton prices caused by boll weevil damage forced many black tenant farmers and landowners to seek relief in Northern cities. Also, when factory workers went off to fight in World War I and the war curtailed European immigration, there was a shortage of factory workers in the North. Badly in need of laborers, Northern industrialists set aside their racial prejudices and recruited African-Americans from the South. Recruiters painted glowing pictures of life in the North, often exaggerating the benefits and glossing over the hardships that lay in wait.

By 1930 an estimated 1 million blacks had left the South, in what is known as the Great Migration.

The End of the Independently-Owned Black Banks
As cotton prices plummeted, black farmers defaulted on their farm loans, crippling 30 of the 55 independent black-owned banks, the first of which was founded in 1888. In a domino effect, the crippled banks shut down and black farmers lost their life savings. Hordes were unable to recover, their lives devastated and uprooted by poverty. The Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916, which promised to provide credit to farmers at reasonable rates, systematically discriminated against black farmers, cutting them off from aid that was rightfully theirs.