Life in the North
In the Great Migration and Life in the South sections, students explored the historical, economic, social, and political reasons that prompted one million African Americans to move from the South to the North. But what happened when they got there? Did the North meet their expectations?
Adjusting to city life was not easy. Overcrowded conditions, the added expense of urban living, and new social mores led to many disappointments. For some migrants, the struggle was just as difficult as it had been in the South. They were faced with scarce and unsanitary housing and new forms of discrimination.
When migrants arrived in the North they sought family and community as a way to enmesh themselves in their new surroundings. Many migrants gravitated towards people who were from the same region in the South, and predominantly black neighborhoods emerged, such as Harlem in New York and the Southside of Chicago.
There are many different ways students can engage with this part of the story in The Migration Series. In the classroom activities, students can empathize with a migrant’s experience of arriving in a new environment, connect primary sources with Lawrence’s panels to create their own advertisement, and explore the unique experience of African American women during this period.
Farm Security Administration, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Photograph, April 1941View Detail
The Migration Series, Panel No. 45
Acquired 1942; The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
Casein tempera on hardboard, 1941View Detail
In the Classroom: Letter Writing Activity
Letter writing was one of the primary ways Americans communicated at the turn of the 20th century. This was especially true for African Americans who had made the journey North and wanted to stay connected to their families. For example, in Panel No. 33 (above), Lawrence portrays a woman lying in bed with a little girl as she reads a letter. The caption reads, “Letters from relatives in the North told of the better life there.”
Using the Letters from the North Worksheet as a guide, ask students to write a letter from the perspective of an African American who has moved to a northern city and is writing to family back home.
Students should imagine their own experience as a migrant, selecting a city they are from in the South and a city they migrated to in the North. Make sure students select specific cities so they can conduct more research about how the Great Migration impacted that city and their decision to leave.
In addition to questions in the worksheet, students could also express what their expectations were before they arrived in their new city and empathize with how they’re feeling now.
The photograph of a group of migrants on their way home to Cranberry, New Jersey, from Florida and W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Migration of the Negroes” which appeared in The Crisis in June 1917 can help students connect with different voices of migrants and gain a better understanding of their experiences.
In the Classroom: Compare and Contrast Activity
The situation that African Americans faced in the South motivated them to move North. When they arrived in various cities across the country, they were met with new challenges.
Analyze different panels on the Travel Search Game worksheet. Based on what students know about The Migration Series and the history of The Great Migration, identify whether Jacob Lawrence was depicting a scene from the South or North. How do you know? How does his use of color and shape affect how you recognize the scene he is portraying?