During the 1910s and 1920s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the South for the great urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest. Spurred by declining opportunities at home, this internal migration of African Americans in the United States, dubbed the “Great Migration” by historians, significantly altered the racial makeup of the South Carolina population.

During the 1910s and 1920s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the South for the great urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest. Spurred by declining opportunities at home, this internal migration of African Americans in the United States, dubbed the “Great Migration” by historians, significantly altered the racial makeup of the South Carolina population. For most of the state’s history prior to the Great Migration, a majority of the population had been African American. During most of the half century prior to the Civil War, black South Carolinians outnumbered whites by a ratio of about three to two. Neither the Civil War nor emancipation significantly changed this ratio, and South Carolina joined Louisiana and Mississippi as the only states in the nation with black majorities. In the early twentieth century, however, about as many African Americans began to leave the state as were born there, while only a comparative few whites left. As a consequence, each subsequent census recorded an increased ratio of whites to blacks. By 1930 the Census Bureau reported that, for the first time since the 1810s, a majority of South Carolinians were white. This out-migration of African Americans continued throughout most of the twentieth century. By 1970, when black Carolinians ceased to flee the state, African Americans made up just under one third of the population of South Carolina, or 790,000 people.

Migration had always characterized the lives of black Carolinians, beginning with their forced emigration from Africa in the seventeenth century and through their involuntary dispersal across the South as slaves. During the era of slavery, however, the number of African Americans in South Carolina increased steadily with each census. After 1820 the proportion of blacks to whites remained steady at about three to two. Following the Civil War and emancipation, migration continued, only now blacks chose to migrate. From 1870 through 1900, between 75,000 and 100,000 African Americans left South Carolina each decade, with almost all relocating to other southern states and remaining rural laborers. But the overall racial composition changed little during this time. In 1860 the Census Bureau classified 58.6 percent of South Carolinians as African American; in 1900 it so classified 58.4 percent.

The 1910 census, however, recorded the first significant change in the state’s racial balance since the early nineteenth century. Between 1900 and 1910 the percentage of black Carolinians dropped from 58.4 percent to 55.2 percent, even though the total number of African Americans had increased by about 100,000. Equally significant, the direction of migration began to change in 1910, assuming a south-to-north direction. In 1900 only 2.7 percent of the African Americans who had left South Carolina settled in a northern state. In 1940, 75 percent did so. In 1900 about 2,000 black Carolinians had settled in New York; by 1920 the number was 13,000 and reached 41,000 a decade later. By 1940 more than one-third of the black South Carolina migrants settled in New York state. Other northeastern cities likewise saw the number of black South Carolinians in their population increase dramatically during this era. Between 1917 and 1923, almost half of the African Americans leaving South Carolina went to Philadelphia, and by 1930 ten percent of the city’s black population had been born in the Palmetto State.

Several forces conspired to create this fundamental shift in the racial demography of South Carolina and the nation. Beginning in the mid-1890s, a series of hurricanes crippled lowcountry rice plantations, which, coupled with competition from other domestic and foreign sources, effectively ended rice cultivation in South Carolina. In addition, by 1920 the boll weevil had reached South Carolina and devastated the cotton crop, leaving tens of thousands of farm laborers with no means of subsistence. At the same time, the 1895 constitution had disenfranchised virtually all black voters and imposed throughout the state a system of racial apartheid that all but denied African Americans access to public education and more lucrative forms of work. Finally, an increase in racial hatred and violence against African Americans likewise encouraged many to leave their native region. These agricultural, political, and social forces were not limited to South Carolina, but characterized the entire lower South in the early twentieth century.

Despite the cold winters and white racial hostility, black South Carolinians looked northward for relief. For many, their initial migration from rural areas took them to small and midsize southern cities such as Charleston and Greenville in South Carolina, or Savannah, Georgia. By 1914, however, opportunities for blacks in the North increased significantly when World War I cut off further European immigration and the North’s primary supply of cheap labor. American entry into World War I in 1917 expanded the demand for black labor in the North, a trend that continued during the prosperous 1920s. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, migration to the North slowed, but with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the demand for black labor again expanded as tens of thousands of black South Carolinians fled the state for jobs in the North, especially New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. This second wave of black migration continued through the 1960s fueled by postwar prosperity and the civil rights movement. In the 1970s migration from South Carolina slowed in response to improved economic opportunity in the state, desegregation and improvement of public education, and the enforcement of black civil rights, including voting rights and access to public accommodations. Conditions for African Americans improved so much that in the 1980s many African Americans who had left South Carolina returned. Blacks with no South Carolina roots also migrated to the state. According to the 2000 census, African American in-migration to the state exceed out-migration and the proportion of whites to blacks had stabilized at about two to one.

Ballard, Allen B. One More Day’s Journey: The Story of a Family and a People. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Devlin, George A. South Carolina and Black Migration, 1865–1940: In Search of the Promised Land. New York: Garland, 1989.

Dodd, Don, and Wynelle S. Dodd, eds. Historical Statistics of the South, 1790–1970. University: University of Alabama Press, 1973.

Kiser, Clyde Vernon. Sea Island to City: A Study of St. Helena Islanders in Harlem and Other Urban Centers. 1932. Reprint, New York: Atheneum, 1969.

Newby, I. A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Great Migration
  • Author William B. Scott
  • Author Peter M. Rutkoff
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/great-migration/
  • Access Date December 16, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date May 17, 2016
  • Date of Last Update January 22, 2019