The Harlem Renaissance and The Great Migration

The Great Migration, formally spanning the years 1916 to 1917, was deemed in scholarly study as “the relocation of more than 6 million African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West.” As white supremacy steadily ruled the American south, and the dismal of economic opportunities and extremist segregationist legislation plagued greater America, African Americans were driven from their homes in search of more “progressive” acceptance in the North, or rather, above the Mason-Dixon line. Did you know that in the year 1916, formally recognized by scholars of African-American history as the beginning of The Great Migration, “a factory wage in the urban North was typically three times more than what blacks could expect to make as sharecroppers in the rural South?” In Northern metropolitan areas, the need for works in industry arose for the first time throughout World War I, where neither race nor color played a contributing factor in the need for a supportive American workforce during a time of great need.

By the year 1919, more than one million African Americans had left the south; in the decade between 1910 and 1920, the African-American population of major Northern cities grew by large percentages, including New York (66 percent), Chicago (148 percent), Philadelphia (500 percent) and Detroit (611 percent). These urban metropolises offered respites of economical reprieve, a lack of segregation legislation that seemingly lessened the relative effects of racism and prejudice for the time, and abundant opportunity. The exhibition highlights The Great Migration: Journey to the North, written by Eloise Greenfield and illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, to serve as a near-autobiography highlighting the human element of the Great Migration. “With war production kicking into high gear, recruiters enticed African Americans to come north, to the dismay of white Southerners. Black newspapers—particularly the widely read Chicago Defender—published advertisements touting the opportunities available in the cities of the North and West, along with first-person accounts of success.” As the Great Migration progressed, African Americans steadily established a new role for themselves in public life, “actively confronting racial prejudice as well as economic, political and social challenges to create a black urban culture that would exert enormous influence in the decades to come.”

As a consequence of the seemingly quickened pace of African-American migration to Northern urban locales, housing arrangements often caused a great deal of strife, and ultimately led to defined pockets of African-American culture within larger cities. Suddenly, the growth of a new urban, African-American culture peered out of the forefront of black life: the Harlem Renaissance emerged. Once a well-known, upper-class, all-white neighborhood in New York City, Harlem was transformed into a dense, culturally-rich hotspot that “housed some 200,000 African Americans by 1920.” As the New Negro Movement developed, shortly evolving into the Harlem Renaissance, “the black experience during the Great Migration became an important theme in the artistic movement” that would have immeasurable impact on the culture of the era for generations of African Americans to come. Considered a golden age in African-American culture, the progressive social and political landscape was manifested in literature, music, stage performance and art. Myriad of prominent figures became solidified in the great American story at this time, from Langston Hughes to James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston to Aaron Douglas; Augusta Savage and Jacob Lawrence; and Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway. The authors, artists and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance left an infinite mark on the realization and recognition of well-respected African-American culture.

It was at this time that African-American books and periodicals designated for the readership of the young population of African Americans was founded. Scholar and activist W.E.B. Dubois published The Brownies’ Book (1920-1921), the first magazine in its entirety devoted to African-American children. The monthly publication featured columns, illustrations and photographs designed to educate children and showcase the achievements of people of color. While the Harlem Renaissance only lasted a short time, it laid the foundation for future African-American children’s literature. Many of the pieces enigmatic of the cultural African-American explosion are included in Telling a People’s Story, these works seek to recognize the abundance of the African American cultural spirit as presented in the exhibition. In particular are Sweet Music in Harlem, written by Debbie A. Taylor and illustrated by Frank Morrison (2004), to Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry, written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan (1997), and Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney (1998).

Explore the entire collection of books featured in the exhibition and engage in meaningful discussion on the Miami University Art Museum’s book explorer Facebook page.


The Great Migration: Journey to the North. Written by Eloise Greenfield. Illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. Amistad/Harper Collins, 2011.

Sweet Music in Harlem. Written by Debbie A. Taylor. Illustrated by Frank Morrison. Lee & Low, 2004.

Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry. Written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan. Atheneum, 1997.

Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra. Written by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Hyperion,1998.



Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance. Laban Carrick Hill.

The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930. Steven Watson.

The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary For The Era. Bruce Kellner, Editor. Staff. “Great Migration.”, A&E Television Networks, 2010,