The Great Migration of African Americans to the Bay Area

From the Bayou to the Bay

Thanks for joining me for the 12th issue of the Golden Stats Warrior, a newsletter for data-based insights about the Bay Area. If this is your first time reading, welcome! If you haven’t signed up yet, you can do that here. I am so grateful for your support.

It is Black History Month, so let’s talk about the Great Migration to the Bay Area.

From 1910 to 1970, six million African Americans migrated out of the south to other parts of the country. Historians consider it the largest internal movement of any group in American history. Hundreds of thousands of those migrants came to the Bay Area.

In her brilliant history of this event, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the author Isabel Wilkerson writes:

It was during the First World War that a silent pilgrimage took its first steps within the border of this country. The fever rose without warning or notice or much in the way of understanding by those outside its reach. It would not end until the 1970s and would set into motion changes in the North and South that no one, not even the people doing the leaving, could have imagined at the start of it or dreamed would take nearly a lifetime to play out...

Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become perhaps the most underreported story of the twentieth century...

The men and women who were part of the Great Migration felt compelled to migrate to escape persecution and to search out economic opportunity. In the 20th Century, this meant the atrocities of the Jim Crow South combined with the employment opportunities afforded by labor shortages in the Industrial North and West.

The Bay Area did not play a large role in the first wave of the Great Migration from 1910 to 1940. The 1.6 million African Americans who migrated over that period mostly went to cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The black population of the Bay Area only increased from about 4,000 to 22,000.

It was during the second wave of the Migration from 1940 to 1970 that the Bay Area became an important destination. Wartime jobs in the shipyards and post-war jobs in manufacturing led the black population to increase by more than 300,000 people in just 30 years. Those migrants still faced virulent racism from the Bay Area’s white community, as Gary Kamiya detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Africans Americans came to the Bay Area from nearly every southern state, but throughout the Great Migration, an unusually large number came from Louisiana. In 1950, about 25% of all African Americans in the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area in 1950 were born in Louisiana, compared to 22% born in Texas, and 19% born in California. If we only look at adults, the share from Louisiana was closer to 30%.

This representation of Lousianans in the Bay Area was unusual. In Chicago, for example, less than 5% of the black population was from the state. Migrants from Mississippi and Tennessee were far more common.

Why did such a large share of people come from Louisiana and Texas? It’s likely a combination of train routes and chain migration.

As Evan Nicole Brown writes for Atlas Obscura, the Southern Pacific Railroad (aka the “Sunset Route”) connected New Orleans to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Since it was a straight shot from New Orleans to the Bay, it was a logical place to head. San Jose State University sociologist Faustina DuCros explained to Nicole Brown that Pullman porters, black men who worked as sleeping car attendants, were pioneers in moving westward. They saw California while working the trains, and many were convinced it was a relatively promising place to settle.

The rest can be explained by chain migration, the phenomenon of later migrants following earlier migrants. Just as this impacted European immigration to the United States—Irish following Irish to Boston, and Swedes following Swedes to Minneapolis—chaining helped determine the internal migration of African Americans in the United States. Many of the first black migrants to the Bay Area came from New Orleans, and so others followed.

One such migrant from Lousiana was Betty Reid Soskin. Now 98 years old, Reid Soskin moved to Oakland from New Orleans in 1927. As she chronicles in her book Sign My Name to Freedom, she lived an illustrious life, that culminated in her involvement in planning the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Park in Richmond (it’s well worth a visit).

Reid Soskin became the oldest National Park Ranger in the US, and as recently as 2019 gave lectures about her life at the Park several times a week. She had a stroke in late 2019, but still visits the museum periodically. I highly recommend you listen to this interview she gave to KQED. Soskin refuses to let World War II history to be romanticized or whitewashed.

Since 1990, the black population of the Bay Area has slightly declined. Many African Americans are either moving to cheaper parts of California, as well as to Texas and Nevada. Contra Costa is the only major Bay Area county where the black population continues to grow.

If you want to learn more about the African American experience in the Bay Area, the Oakland Public Library will be hosting an event to discuss the life and work of Delilah Beasley, a columnist for the Oakland Tribune in the early 20th Century. East Bay Yesterday’s Liam O’Donoghue will be interviewing Dana Johnson and Ana Cecilia Alvarez about their new book, Trailblazer: Delilah Beasley’s California.

Here is a link to the event. I am excited to attend.

Bay Area media recommendation of the week

NIMBYism is an even more powerful force in the Bay Area than you might realize. In a recent story for Curbed, Sasha Perigo explores the rise of Livable California, an organization which fights against all kinds of new housing in the Bay Area. Livable California and their allies prefer the term “anti-density” to NIMBY (not in my backyard). They have successfully fought bills that would have required places like Marin County and Cupertino to build more housing units.

Perigo points out that the development plan for Marin takes a page from racist housing policies of the 20th century:

“The final map of priority development areas looked remarkably similar to the redlining maps that restricted where people of color could buy homes in the mid-20th century. Development was only planned in formerly redlined communities, not in the suburbs where anti-density advocates were the most active.”

h/t to the great Tim Fernholz for sending this article along.

(If you read or listened to something great about the Bay Area this week, please send it to me!)

Dan’s favorite things

In cities across the globe, the group CreativeMornings puts on morning lectures once a month. It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s opportunity to learn more about your community. My friend and Quartz colleague Daniel Wolfe is the host of the Oakland chapter of CreativeMornings, and the reason I’ve become an attendee. I asked him to tell me why he it’s one of his favorite things:

The first time going to CreativeMornings felt like introducing yourself to something you had not known you were missing. I was working out of my first “Designer” job and was surprised that I still didn’t feel quite at home in my career and my identity. More than six years ago, sitting by strangers, enjoying free—and good—coffee and breakfast, hearing from peers in all sorts of ages, backgrounds and careers felt like it was giving me direction without pointing a singular way. Nowadays, it’s a real privilege to create and offer that space to my neighbors in true community building: producing a stage and audience for folks to share their struggles, dreams, and achievements.

On February 28th, the entrepreneur and artist Ari Takata-Vasquez is the speaker. Register here.

Thanks for your time, and see you in a couple weeks.

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The Golden Stats Warrior logo was made by the great Jared Joiner, the best friend a nervous newsletter writer could have. Follow him @jnjoiner. Also, thanks to my favorite neighbor, the brilliant Natalie Nava, for copyediting this week.