Monday, February 3, 2014

The River Runs North: African Americans and the Great Migration

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

During the first quarter of the 20th century, Elmira’s African American population was quite small, numbering in the hundreds.  Most were the descendants of people who had been here since before the Civil War or who had arrived soon after.  Beginning around World War II, their numbers grew rapidly.  The number of blacks in the city jumped from just under 1,000 in 1930 to around 3,000 in 1960.  These newcomers represented part of a larger trend known as the Great Migration. 
At the turn of the 20th century nearly 90% of African Americans lived the South.  1910 was the beginning of a radical population shift now known as the Great Migration.  Millions of African Americans left poor, rural areas in southern states and headed to Northeastern, Midwestern and west coast cities.  From 1910 to 1930, nearly 1.3 million African Americans moved north.  Most of this first wave headed for larger cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit.  There was a lull during the Great Depression, but in the end over 5 million people took part in the Great Migration from 1910 to 1970. 
Why did so many people leave their homes?  Pushing them out of the south were an oppressive system of Jim Crow laws and the constant threat of lynching and other forms of violence.  Meanwhile, northern business including railroads and some larger manufacturers were actively recruiting black workers.  The lure of northern cities where blacks could actually vote, not to mention send their children to good, integrated schools, was strong 

Elmira largely missed out on the first wave of the Great Migration.  It had recently experienced an influx of white immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe which had easily filled local employers’ needs.  Additionally, most local unions refused to allow blacks which meant that they couldn’t get certain types of skilled manufacturing jobs.  World War II was a different story.  There were no less than 8 local manufacturers involved in around the clock war production and all were desperate to fill their shifts.  These businesses recruited not only African Americans from down south but also groups of blacks from Jamaica and Barbados to assist in war production.  Here, they made more money than they ever could back home.  Still, not everything was sunshine and roses.  Black workers were consistently paid less than whites and often excluded from the more social aspects of factory life.  The war workers flooding the city caused a serious housing shortage and no one was willing to rent to blacks outside of the city’s pre-existing neighborhood on Elmira’s east side.  

Bendix-Eclipse workers from Barbados, 1944

After the war, most of the Caribbean workers were sent home, but the American-born blacks not only stayed, but encouraged their friends and relatives to come.  In a recent interview, one African American man talked about coming to Elmira to stay with his older brother.  The brother had gotten a job at the G.E. Elmira Foundry and agreed to put him up so he could attend EFA and get a better education than he could have hoped for back in Kentucky hometown.  Another interviewee talked about living with relatives in South Carolina until his mother earned enough money to bring him to Elmira.  Both men spent the rest of their lives and raised their families here.  

Tom Reed at Bendix-Eclipse, 1944

Unidentified worker at the G.E. Foundry, ca. 1950s


  1. An excellent article, on an often overlooked topic. Are there issues of the Chemung History Journal that deal with the African-American experience of the Chemung Valley?

    1. Yes, I wrote an article on civil rights in Elmira that was published in February, 2012.

  2. Thank you for sharing this important historical information about the African American community in Elmira.