Portal Spotlight: Migrations and the Black Experience

Today’s post was written by Netisha Currie, archives specialist at the National Archives at College Park.

The latest Black History portal at the National Archives delves into a huge part of the American experience – the freedom of movement. Considering many people of African descent were forcibly brought to and moved throughout the United States, the ability to participate in purpose driven, or voluntary movements make the act of migration in the country a significant act of freedom and agency for Black people. With every mass movement, Black people would profoundly change the nation’s demographic makeup, influence culture, and effect changes on local and national laws, economy, and labor force.

ledger listing names, date, place of married people
Record of Marriages among Freedmen in Arkadelphia, 1865 (NAID 594898)

After the end of the American Civil War and African Americans were freed from slavery, the Freedmen’s Bureau was one of the most important government agencies in the lives of Black people. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (that makes up Record Group 105), also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865. While a major part of the Bureau’s early activities included the supervision of abandoned and confiscated property, its mission was to provide relief and help freedpeople become self-sufficient. No longer held in bondage, freedpeople had active interest in locating and reuniting with family members that had been separated during slavery. The Bureau kept records and assisted in this effort by providing transportation. The Bureau also provided relief, legitimized marriages, and assisted US Colored Troops in obtaining their pension and back pay. 

2 girls standing side by side dressed in sun hats and cotton ankle length dresses
Exoduster Children, Elsie and Lela Scott (NAID 7722802)

After Emancipation, African Americans who were formerly enslaved were still subjected to unequal living conditions, due in large part to the failure of Reconstruction. The established system of sharecropping tethered Black farmers to land owners in an arrangement closely resembling slavery; while white supremacist groups and racist legislation kept people disenfranchised and socially oppressed. With the oppressive conditions in the South, African Americans began relocating out West. Led by Benjamin “Pap” Singleton starting in 1873, at least 40,000 African Americans became “exodusters” – moving to Kansas and surrounding states in search of a better life that was free from domestic terrorism.

The migration of African Americans out of the South continued into the twentieth century and greatly increased during the time of both World Wars. An estimated six million Black people moved throughout the United States from the 1910s to the 1970s. Once again, they left behind Jim Crow, lynching and racial oppression, and flocked towards non-agricultural jobs and educational opportunities in the North, Midwest, and West. Chicago was one of the most impacted cities, who saw about a 30% growth in its Black population. Met with housing discrimination and restrictive covenants, African Americans were forced to settle in the South and West side sections.

Records are collected in this portal under topics that are important chapters in U.S. history. The records created by the federal government actively contributed to conditions that enabled or forced people to move. They also observed and reported on the social and demographic impacts resulting from the major shifts in the population.

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