Livin’ for the city: African American ethnogenesis and depression era migration

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    Urban ethnogenesis is a process by which a group creates andmaintains social networks and communication patterns as the basisfor institutional and communal life in urban areas. Ethnogenesis isa foundation upon which most historical, urbanward migrationshave been built, including the "Great Migration" ofAfrican Ameri-cans during the first halfof this century. Although a period of de-creased migration, the Depression was marked by sizeable move-ment in which nearly 10% ofthe total African American populationmoved interregionally. Ethnogenic measures such as NAACP activ-ism, the number of community newspapers directed at AfricanAmericans, and the longevity of a chapter of the National UrbanLeague significantly increased migration flows.

    Since the period of Reconstruction, African Americanshave used geographic mobility to pursue a better life throughbeneficial ethnoracial affiliation and greater opportunity.Both before and during the Depression, growing numbers ofAfrican American southerners were essentially evicted fromrural areas because of efforts to stabilize farm prices throughcrop reduction (Fligstein 1981; Gottlieb 1991). Although theDepression crippled the nation's economy and imposed hard-ships and deprivation on all Americans, African Americanswere often "precariously clinging to the bottom rung of theeconomic ladder" (Moore 1991;117). Migration during the1930s was more limited than it had been from 1915 to 1930,the first wave of the Great Migration. Still, nearly 10% ofthe African American population migrated to a different re-gion, and most of this Depression Era movement was to ur-ban areas (Johnson and Campbell 1981; Price-Spratlen 1998,1999). Although there were few urban opportunities duringthe Depression, many African Americans moved into citiesand towns rather than starve in the countryside when forcedoff the farms (Fligstein 1981).

    "Townsand Price-Spratlen, The Ohio State University, Department ofSociology, 300 Bricker Hall, 190 North Oval Mall, Columbus, OH 43210;E-mail: The research for this paper was begun while theauthor was a Predoctoral Fellow of the American Sociological AssociationMinority Fellowship Program. This research was supported in part by theNIA Training Grant T32AG00208 and the Population Research Institute,The Pennsylvania State University, which has core support from NICHDGrant I-HD28263. For their helpful comments, I am indebted to Avery M.Guest, Barrett A. Lee, Stewart E. Tolnay, Daniel T. Lichter, KrishnanNamboodiri, Joan Huber, Bill Form, Frank Mott, Thaddeus H. Spratlen,Robert D. Mare, the current journal coeditors, and two anonymous review-ers. Thanks also to the late Clifford C. Clogg for his help in completing thediagnostic evaluations ofthese data. I extend a very special thanks to LaurenJ. Krivo for her detailed, kind, and consistent inputs.

    Demography, Volume 36-Number 4, November 1999: 553-568

    In this paper, I present an analysis of the relationshipbetween historic urban primacy, ethnogenesis, and the urbanmigration of African Americans during the Depression.Ethnogenesis is the process by which ethnic groups comeinto being by developing and refining a communal socialstructure and a collective ethos from the interplay betweensociocultural characteristics and American social structure.African American ethnogenesis has been an ongoing simul-taneous product of both external forces of racial exclusionand internal forces within African American communities. Itis both a counterformation, or a reaction to exclusion frommainstream social processes, and a proactive formation, or ameans by which African Americans seek to reaffirm their tiesto a cultural past through organizational development andvoluntary communalism (Taylor 1979; see also Jones 1985;Myrdal [1944] 1964; Price-Spratlen 1998, 1999).

    Most previous research on African American migrationhas either emphasized the importance of government andsouthern regional dynamics (e.g., Fligstein 1981; Tolnay andBeck 1992) or provided single-city analyses of destinations(e.g., Gottlieb 1987; Thomas 1992). I extend this research,providing a systematic analysis of the importance of urbancharacteristics across a number of destinations simulta-neously. I consider how moving to urban areas throughoutthe United States between 1930 and 1940 was influenced byAfrican American destination-area ethnogenesis, or the in-stitutional and organizational exigencies of survival and animproved quality of urban life. Other researchers have illus-trated the importance of social organization, employmentopportunity, and industrial expansion during the heaviest pe-riods of the Great Migration before and after the Depression(Kusmer 1976; Marks 1989; Tolnay and Beck 1990, 1992).It is unclear, however, whether this ethnogenic motivationmaintained its importance as the migration continued in theface of the limited opportunities of the 1930s. I predict thatDepression Era ethnogenesis was an important social attrac-tion shaping the urban migration of African Americans. Theexpected opportunity to improve their quality of life moti-vated many African Americans to migrate to urban areas. Ifso, the heaviest flows should be to counties in which thehighest levels of ethnogenesis were taking place.

    AFRICAN AMERICAN ETHNOGENESISEthnicity may have relatively little to do with Africa, Asia,and Europe, "but much more to do with the exigencies ofsurvival and the structure of opportunity in this country"(Yancey, Ericksen, and Juliani 1976:400). Evaluating


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    ethnogenesis can help one detail the content and historicaloutcomes of these exigencies of survival. Thus, AfricanAmerican ethnicity should be viewed in relation to urbaniza-tion and internal migration. For all groups, there is often adirect relationship between urbanism, ethnic identity, andmigration when in-migrant groups create and sustain a vari-ety of specialized institutions and services after reaching acritical mass. Prior research has shown that "the coincidenceof occupational concentration, residential segregation anddependence on local institutions and services promoted thecrystallization of ethnic identities and communities in Ameri-can cities" (Taylor 1979:1405; see also Fischer 1975;Herschberg 1973; Massey 1990). Occupational concentra-tion, in fact, may have fostered as much restrictive competi-tion as it did ethnic or racial crystallization. The process ofracial occupational concentration has previously been evalu-ated as the proletarianization of African American labor, orthe rise of the African American urban working class (e.g.,Fligstein 1981; Gottlieb 1987; Steinberg 1981).

    To evaluate the historical influence of ethnogenesis, onemust evaluate the migration consequences of African Ameri-can efforts "to develop and sustain group cohesiveness andidentity [and] to establish social networks and communica-tion patterns as the bases of their institutional and communallife" (Taylor 1979:1405). For example, in an analysis of1960s migration, Liu (1975) concluded that social living con-ditions were the most influential factors in the interstate mi-gration of people of color. African American ethnogenesis isthe means by which such living conditions have been en-hanced. It is the process by which African Americans refineda sense of "urban place" in the first half of this century.Ethnogenesis improved conditions in urban destinations, in-creasing the likelihood of cognitive liberation among urbandwellers and prospective migrants alike (McAdam 1982).Cognitive liberation is "a new sense of efficacy [that makes]people who ordinarily consider themselves helpless come tobelieve that they have some capacity to alter their lot" (Pivenand Cloward 1979:3-4). The effect of cognitive liberationon subsequent mobility was, in part, a function of "thestrength of integrative ties ... [within the] established interac-tion network[s]" (McAdam 1982:49) that ethnogenesis es-tablished and maintained. In international migration, theseinteraction networks have increased access to network con-nections and substantially increased the likelihood of migra-tion to the United States (Durand et al. 1996; MacDonaldand MacDonald 1964; Massey et al. 1987).

    The infrastructure of African American ethnogenesisduring the Great Migration consisted of four basic elements,each of which was an important determinant of migration inearlier historical periods: (l) a readily transferable writteninformation source (community newspapers), (2) employ-ment-related transitional services (job placement support),(3) religious supports (churches), and (4) secular support(volunteer organizations). First, African American newspa-pers and other publications detailed opportunities and thequality of life in potential urban destinations. They were themost transferable source of information and, as a result, were


    often the most influential in shaping perceptions of urbandestinations. Second, job placement, business development,and other forms of occupational support by the National Ur-ban League (NUL) established and cultivated connectionswith urban businesses and played a leading role in findingjobs for African American migrants upon their arrival in themetropolitan areas. Third, churches provided access to nu-merous social supports and spiritual empowerment. Finally,volunteer organizations provided important opportunities forpolitical activism and the promotion of social awareness. Thegrowth and development of chapters of the National Asso-ciation for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP),which focused primarily on local legal cases, often paralleledthe rising tides of racial awareness and racial discriminationin urban areas. NAACP activism was often a barometer ofthe potential for a be