The Prints & Photographs Division regularly receives questions about how to find pictures related to the Great Migration – when millions of African Americans, many of whom lived in the rural American South, permanently relocated to cities to the north and west. These individuals had many reasons for leaving their homes, but they were spurred in large part by a desire to seek opportunities in locations not governed by oppressive Jim Crow laws and the social structures that upheld them. They established lives and created communities in new cities, enriching and changing the American landscape. Because it can be challenging to find visual evidence of social movements, we have created a new guide that we hope will aid researchers looking for images related to the Great Migration.
The “Searching for Images” page of the guide suggests search strategies for finding images related to the Great Migration. For example, when searching our online catalogs, researchers will be most successful when using keyword terms and subject headings that refer to specific places, people or events. I knew that “Black Belt” was sometimes used to describe the area on Chicago’s South Side that experienced a population boom during the Great Migration. Entering the keywords “black belt chicago” in the online catalog yielded a number of images of the area from April of 1941 from the Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection, including the above photo of girls jumping rope.
The same page of the guide also provides some questions to consider as you evaluate your search results, to assess how a given image might or might not reflect the experiences of individuals or communities affected by the Great Migration. It may be helpful to point out that we have not found much imagery that shows people clearly identified as being on a journey to a new home outside the South, but we have a lot of materials that reflect aspects of the experiences that may have helped prompt their migration and what they encountered in their new homes.
Some images have a clearer message than others. Do the image and caption at right provide evidence that black migrants aiming to settle at Detroit’s Sojourner Truth federal housing project faced racist resistance? Similarly, what, if anything, might the photograph of girls jumping rope say about the effects of the Great Migration?
Wondering what specific collections might cover the years and places associated with the Great Migration? If so, consult the “Selected Collections” page of the guide, which suggests newspaper and magazine photograph collections, collections that have a broad geographical scope, images from personal and organizational records, materials in a variety of formats such as photographs, posters and fine prints, and other visual resources that may be relevant to the study of the Great Migration. It is often possible to search within specific collections.
The resources listed on the “Major Reference Works” page provide some general context for the Great Migration and other aspects of African American history and culture, and may supply ideas for keywords that you can use to search the online catalog. Some of the listed publications make strong use of visual resources and may inspire new avenues of research.
We expect that this guide will help you with your Great Migration-related research, but we know that no guide can answer every question. If you have any questions about the guide or our collections, please contact us through our Ask a Librarian service.
- Explore the new guide “Great Migration: Finding Pictures.”
- View more photographs of Chicago’s South Side made by Edwin Rosskam in 1941.
- Read this post, from the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog, discussing the value of textual primary sources for researching the Great Migration. Or, check out the “Voices of the Great Migration” post from the Recorded Sound Division’s Now See Hear! blog discussing their Great Migration-related materials.
- Look at the portion of the “African-American Mosaic” online exhibit that focuses on migration.
- Contact us through our Ask a Librarian account if you have questions about our collections. You can also access the “Ask a Librarian” form from each page of the guide by clicking on the icon at left.