Great Migration Centennial Commemorates Historic Event

This year marks the centennial of what’s known as the Great Migration, during which approximately seven million African-Americans left the rural south for the urban north. A little more than 500,000 settled in Chicago between 1916 and 1970, bringing the city’s population of African-Americans to 33 percent from 2 percent.

The Great Migration Centennial is a yearlong, statewide celebration commemorating the historic event. The Chicago Defender played a pivotal role in the movement.

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“Chicago Defender founder Robert Abbott instigated the Great Migration,” said Kai El’Zabar, executive editor of the Defender. “He also established May 15 as the start date of the northern movement. The Great Migration would not have happened without the Chicago Defender.”

Pullman porters helped the Defender’s message reach African-Americans in the south.

“The Pullman porters were instrumental in the Great Migration. They’d secretly distribute the Chicago Defender in the South,” said David Peterson, executive director of the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. “They often strategically hid the papers on the trains in the south and would also strategically drop them in places where the paper had been outlawed.”

While African-Americans went to many different cities in the north, El’Zabar said Chicago stood apart from other cities because of Abbott.

“He served as the example of what your life could be like in the north. He left Savannah, Georgia for Chicago and became successful,” El’Zabar said, adding that Abbott faced obstacles as lawyer which led him to become a newspaper publisher. “Chicago really became the heartbeat of the Great Migration.”

El’Zabar and Peterson join Paula Robinson, president of the Black Metropolis National Area Heritage Commission and a member of the 2016 Great Migration Centennial Commission, to talk about this historic event.  

In addition to raising awareness of the centennial, Robinson is working to bring tourism to Bronzeville and get Chicago’s Black Metropolis Area (18th Street to 71st Street; Lake Michigan to the Dan Ryan) designated as a National Heritage Area.

“Congress has to approve that, and I’m hoping that the events this year and publicity around the centennial will help make that happen,” Robinson said.

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