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Negro Boys on Easter Morning. Russel Lee, 1941

The Great Migration in Library of Congress Primary Sources

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Letter from Mrs. J. H Adams of Macon, Georgia, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois

This guest post comes to us from Meg Steele, who works with K-12 educators at the Library of Congress.

The Great Migration, the largest internal migration in the history of the United States, took place in the early decades of the twentieth century. By 1930 as many as 2 million African Americans had moved from the south to northern cities. Cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City saw their African American population increase exponentially in this time period.

Primary sources can help identify  explanations for this event. Students can start with letters from two prospective migrantsone from Macon, GA and one from Mobile, AL.  Students can read each letter and determine the author’s point of view, identify key details about their motivation, and make inferences about their lives in the south.  As with all primary sources, students should also consider what’s missing.

Students and teachers can connect details from these letters with those offered by newspapers in the northern cities the letter writers sought to enter.  The site Chronicling America offers full text searches of historic newspapers. You may choose to narrow your search, for example, to the early part of the Great Migration, or to African American newspapers, or those in the north.  By analyzing these newspapers, students can evaluate and integrate information from different accounts, building their understanding of the Great Migration from a global, national, regional, and personal perspective.

Front page of the Washington Times, October 23, 1916



These front pages from Chronicling America can get you started:

  • In The Washington Times, a  front page headline of October 23, 1916 reads “South Unable to Put Stop to Negro Exodus” highlighting the role of labor agents, as well as some of the difficulties faced by African Americans seeking to move.
  • A few years later, the front page of the October 9th, 1920 issue of the African American newspaper, The Kansas City [MO] Sun offers a snapshot view of conditions impacting migrants in one northern city, offering details of a labor meeting, opportunities offered by immigration restrictions, and an appeal from presidential candidate Warren G. Harding to secure the black vote.

What else would your students want to know about the Great Migration and how might you guide their research?


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Comments (6)

  1. Thank you. I love to use compare and contrast skill as well as the author’s point of view to stir questions and thinking. Great sources! I will use.

  2. My students would be quite interested in following the historical path of a specific person or family. They would be quite interested in age appropriate books that could give them a glimpse into the journey.

  3. Thanks, this source is helping me in so many ways on my History Project !

  4. Another great LoC resource would be this sign in a Detroit neighborhood telling black migrants that they are not wanted

    I’m giving it to students without identifying information first and having them guess the location. Should be a good way to spark conversation about anti-black sentiment in the North

  5. I am going to use the analysis for an apush project!

  6. I’ve read on other credible sources that it was more like 6 million people that moved north

    but otherwise thank you very much, this helped me a lot.

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