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The Great Black Migration
Between the years 1910 and 1970, there was a mass emigration of about 6 million African-Americans from the South to the North of the United States in what came to be known as the Great Black Migration. By the time the migration was coming to an end in 1970, the percentage of blacks living in the South had dropped to 53% from 90% in 1900. The same period saw African-American populations surge in the receiving areas of the emigration: “from 4 percent to 19 percent in the Northeast, six to 20 percent in the Midwest, and one to nine percent in the West” (Eriksson & Niemesh, 2016). Contrary to arguments that the migration opened more economic opportunities for blacks, this paper argues that the Great Black Migration increased the mortality rate of African Americans in the 20th Century.
As already mentioned, black Americans migrated North during the Great Migration so as to escape from the economic deprivations the South had subjected them to. Most rural African-Americans were relegated to being landless by the South’s sharecropping system and plantation agriculture (Tolnay, 2003). This meant they hardly had any opportunity of ascending the agricultural ladder. Cities and towns in the South were also largely characterized by occupational segregation which saw female African-American workers being confined to domestic work and their male counterparts being pushed to unskilled jobs. These were enough conditions to motivate southern African-Americans to seek for economic opportunities somewhere else, which happened to be the North. Many families increasingly found it difficult to earn a living and fend for themselves due to the diminishing economic opportunities and rampant discrimination in the South. They believed they would improve their economic fortunes by migrating to the North (Tolnay, 2003). Therefore, the major factor that informed southern blacks’ decision to move to the North was economic motivations.
In spite of the large income increases, the movement North of African-Americans resulted in an increase in infant mortality. The health environment of infants was drastically lowered by the migration. Not even a healthy father could transfer their health to their infants. As a matter of fact, “migrating to northern cities increased the likelihood that an infant born to a migrant would die in the first year of life” (Eriksson & Niemesh, 2016). There was thus a wide health gap between African-American infants and White infants in these northern cities neighborhoods. This gap was majorly attributed to the unhealthy neighborhoods within which African-American residential locations were found within the cities.
According to Black et al. (2015), the Great Black Migration may have been detrimental to the health of African Americans through a number of pathways. Examples might include: behavior changes related to diet, alcohol consumption, and smoking; being highly exposed to poorer sanitary conditions or environmental hazards, and; increased stress owing to being dislocated from communities and families. Smoking especially affected male immigrants more than female ones during the Great Black Migration. Black et al. (2015) further establish that the use of alcohol and smoking was lowest among non-migrant populations and highest among African-American populations that had moved north. Even those who had moved elsewhere other than the North experienced higher use of alcohol and smoking than those who never migrated at all.
It is further noteworthy that an increased mortality rate clouded the gains that were made by many African-Americans who had migrated during the great migration. According to research, this trend had likely been caused by unhealthy habits that were encouraged by vices that were characteristic of the big cities. As per Hartsoe (2015), “…if an African-American man lived to age 65 the chances that he would make it to age 70 if he remained in the South were 82.5 percent; if he migrated to the North the chance of surviving to age 70 dropped to 75 percent.” This translated into a 40% mortality rate increase. For a woman, migrating to the North would mean she had 85% chances of living up to age 70 if she was 65 while remaining in the South would allow them 90% chances of reaching age70.
African-Americans faced a variety of serious health problems in the North due to a combination of poor access to quality medical attention, poverty, and overcrowding. The situation was further compounded by the fact that hospitals were generally segregated even in the North and black physicians were few. Migrants became especially susceptible to a variety of infectious diseases because they worked in badly ventilated spaces and for long arduous hours. The conditions at home were equally unhealthy. Additionally, they did not get sufficient nutrition and rest. This meant that there was consistently higher death rates amongst the African-Americans as compared to their White counterparts. This was why as pointed out by Reich (2014), many died before they became 10 years old with more than 25% of this number succumbing before they were even one year old.
While the Great Black Migration might have been meant for the ability to access more economic opportunities, it turned out to be more harmful to African-Americans in the 20th Century. The migration meant that the lifespan of African-Americans who had migrated became shorter. As has been seen, this population had to put up with a variety of health hazards and life threatening living conditions. A change in environment also meant that they had to contend with new work conditions which were basically pathetic. It may then be safely concluded that an African-American would have been safer remaining in the South instead of embarking on the Great Black Migration.
Black, D., Sanders, S., Taylor, E., & Taylor, L. (2015). The impact of the great migration on mortality of African Americans: evidence from the Deep South. American Economic Review, 105(2), 477-503.
Eriksson, K., & Niemesh, G. T. (2016). Death in the promised land: the great migration and black infant mortality [PDF]. Retrieved from https://economics.yale.edu/sites/default/files/eriksson_niemesh_gm_dec2016.pdf
Hartsoe, S. (2015). Unhealthy choices boosted mortality rates for blacks who migrated north. Today.duke.edu. Retrieved November 29, 2017 from https://today.duke.edu/2015/02/migrationrelease
Reich, S. A. (2014). The great black migration: a historical encyclopedia of the American mosaic. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Tolnay, S. E. (2003). The African American “great migration” and beyond. Annual Review of Sociology 29(1), 209-232.