Great Migration

Between the 1920s and the 1970s, more than 14 million Americans left their rural homes in search of jobs and new opportunities. Known as the Great Migration, this exodus represents one of the largest internal resettlements in American history. Arkansas played a leading role in this development, as the state lost more people than any other; more than 1.2 million left during this period. In fact, Arkansas had witnessed steady population decline since the 1890s, and, according to U.S. census records, lost people in every decade of the twentieth century until 1970.

Migration out of Arkansas was largely caused by two factors: the lack of high-paying jobs (which tended to drive out educated Arkansans) and the lack of available arable land (which led to rural depopulation). The latter issue probably played the most decisive role in the Great Migration. In the nineteenth century, relative to neighboring states, rural Arkansas was actually over-populated, at least in terms of available farm land. As a result, Arkansans began leaving the state once it became apparent that few economic opportunities existed in the countryside. While historians studying the Great Migration as a nationwide phenomenon have tended to argue that mechanization drove Americans off the farm, in Arkansas, out-migration preceded mechanization by at least twenty years. National studies have also emphasized the predominance of African-American migration that occurred throughout most of the twentieth century. In Arkansas, most people who left were white; however, a greater proportion of black Arkansans left the state.

Arkansas’s Great Migration dramatically increased during World War II as residents left for higher-paying jobs, often in defense industries. The state’s population losses were the greatest in the early 1950s, with more than 355,000 leaving between 1951 and 1955, most likely leaving the farm for urban manufacturing jobs. As the economy improved later in the decade, out-migration continued, but at a slower rate than at any time since the nineteenth century. By the 1960s, migration out of Arkansas had declined further, and in the following decade the state enjoyed the first increase in its population in almost a century. At its peak, Arkansas led the nation in population losses, with a twenty-two percent decline between 1940 and 1960. Only Mississippi, with a 19.9 percent loss during the same period, approached Arkansas’s exodus.

Arkansas’s Great Migration played an important role in its civil rights movement, though the degree to which it did has proven difficult for historians to assess. The departure of black citizens, coupled with farm mechanization, made Jim Crow segregation in rural Arkansas gradually vulnerable, as longstanding intra-racial job competition that had driven racial tensions began to dissipate. The breakdown of the Arkansas plantation system ended the social controls that had been in place for over a century, and the depopulation of rural black Arkansas helped propel the civil rights movement forward by eroding rural paternalism and urbanizing the struggle.

Among the destinations for Arkansans who left the state, California received the largest number of people. Census records show that roughly 313,000 native Arkansans lived there in 1960. Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri absorbed, respectively, the second-, third-, and fourth-largest numbers of Arkansan migrants. Movement to these states belies the conventional notion that the Great Migration marked a wave of rural Southerners leaving for northern industrial cities. While such resettlement certainly occurred, most Arkansans migrated to neighboring states or to the West Coast. Recent research on Arkansans who left between 1950 and 1970 reveals that the typical migrant was forty years old and from a farm. About eighty percent of migrants were white. High school graduates were more likely to migrate than less-educated Arkansans. More than seventy-five percent of migrants moved to cities.

The Great Migration had an enormous impact on Arkansas. Politically, it helped shift power to urban centers. Economically, the number of farms in the state declined, and those that remained tended to be much larger. The Great Migration also contributed to Arkansas’s gradual industrialization, which accelerated in the post–World War II era. While migrants certainly experienced upheaval in their lives, those who remained underwent adjustments too as the state witnessed permanent changes in its race relations, as well as in its overall demographic composition. In general, those who migrated enjoyed new educational and economic opportunities, better housing, and higher incomes. Some observers remarked with alarm about the Great Migration as it unfolded, yet, with hindsight, it can also be seen as a positive development in Arkansas, both for those who left and for those who stayed.

For additional information:
Blevins, Brooks. Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Bolton, S. Charles. “Turning Point: World War II and the Economic Development of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 61 (Summer 2002): 147–149.

Holley, Donald. “Leaving the Land of Opportunity: Arkansas and the Great Migration.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 63 (Autumn 2005): 245–261.

Johnson, Ben F., III. Arkansas in Modern America, 1930–1999. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Smith, C. Calvin. War and Wartime Changes: The Transformation of Arkansas, 1940–1945. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.

Brent E. Riffel
College of the Canyons

Last Updated 11/15/2011