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The Great MigrationThe-Great-Migration

  • Subject: U.S. History
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Oral interviews can be a significant source of historical insights.
2. Since the 16th century, immigration has played a major role in the United States.
3. In addition to being, except for Native Americans, a country of immigrants, the United States is also now remarkable for the frequency with which people move around the country, from region to region.


For this lesson, you will need:
Atlases, encyclopedias, almanacs, and other sources of information about interviewees' original homes


1. After your students have learned about the plusses and minuses that African Americans experienced in the 20th century as a result of moving from the South to the North, invite your class to explore the general issue of leaving one's home to improve one's life somewhere else. Explain that students will gather firsthand research through interviews to see if today's newcomers to an area have experiences similar to or different from the experiences of the people who were caught up in the Great Migration. Later, students will convert the interviews into written reports.
2. Brainstorm with students to determine where the class can find people who have immigrated to your town or area from another part of the country or from another part of the world for improved economic and social conditions. You and students may come up with the following suggestions:
  • Students who themselves are recent immigrants
  • Students' parents or other relatives who came to your town before the students were born
  • Religious or other community organizations that help new arrivals to an area
  • Clubs that immigrants establish to help them keep in touch with other people who moved to this town or area from the same place
3. If your students plan to interview someone who came here recently from a place where English is not the first language, you may have to figure out with your class how to conduct an interview in a language other than English. Is one or more students in the class fluent in the interviewee's language and able to do immediate translations? Will the class have to invite a translator to accompany the interviewee? Or will you decide to interview people only if they have acquired a certain proficiency in understanding and speaking English?
4. Organize groups of, say, five students who will work as a committee to conduct a successful in-class interview with a person who moved to your town or area from elsewhere in the hope of improving his or her lifestyle. Allow the committee to choose a spokesperson who will approach an individual regarding an interview or will contact an organization that can suggest an individual who would make a good interview subject. The spokesperson may make the request for the interview by phone or in writing. (The invitation to the individual or group should make clear that a group of students will conduct the interview and that the interviewee will have to come to the school building.) This spokesperson will also lead off the in-person interview and draw it to a conclusion later. Make sure the other students on the committee understand they must contribute to the research that precedes the interview, help to generate prepared questions, ask follow-up questions during the interview, and collaborate on the final, written report about the interview.
5. Once students find out whom they will be interviewing, they should do research on the place the subject comes from so that they may understand more readily why the person chose to move away.
6. Teach students the general guidelines for conducting an effective and courteous interview with someone they may not have met before:
  1. The interviewer must accommodate the interviewee's schedule, inconveniencing the interviewee as little as possible. Once the interviewee agrees to be interviewed, the interviewer should make a specific appointment and then confirm the appointment as the date approaches. During the interview, the interviewer must watch the clock and not exceed the agreed-upon duration for the interview.
  2. The interviewer must find the right balance between showing genuine respect for the interviewee and not letting the interviewee duck critical questions.
  3. The interviewer must do his or her homework and completely avoid asking questions of facts about the interviewee's original home. As noted previously, students should do their own research about the place the interviewee left to come to your town or area.
  4. The interviewer should go to the interview with four or five substantive questions thought out in advance. Then the interviewer must listen carefully to the interviewee's response so that he or she can ask a follow-up question or two based on the response instead of slavishly following the list of questions he or she brought to the interview.
  5. As much as possible, the questions should be built around Who? What? Where? When? and How? so that answers provide substantive information rather than simply yes or no.
  6. The interviewer must take careful notes or, with permission from the interviewee, tape-record the interview.
  7. As soon after the interview as possible, the interviewer should write up the interview, contacting the interviewee if necessary to clarify or verify facts.
  8. Without being obsequious, the interviewer should thank the interviewee for agreeing to the interview and for responsiveness during the interview. The interviewer should offer to show the interviewee the write-up of the interview before publishing or otherwise using the interview.
7. Help each committee generate questions that will elicit the interviewee's thoughts about leaving a home to move here and adjusting to this town or area. These questions should reflect to some degree what the students learned about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Chicago in the 20th century. Questions may concern the following:
  • Expectations versus realities of living here
  • Homesickness
  • Goals already accomplished by moving here
  • Additional goals the interviewee has
  • The best and the worst parts of moving here
  • Advice the interviewee might give to other people moving here
Review each committee's first draft of questions, giving them advice for revisions if necessary.
8. Have students conduct practice interviews with each other so that you and classmates can offer constructive criticism on interview content and style.
9. As each committee appears ready to conduct its interview, make any arrangements that are necessary in your school for guests.
10. After the interviews, give the committees instructions about what to include in their written reports based on the interviews. You may tell them to include the following:
  • A generalization about the subject's experiences in moving here
  • Plenty of examples to support the generalization
  • A comparison-contrast of the subject's experiences with the experiences of people who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration
  • A statement of what students learned about preparing for and conducting personal interviews; a statement of what, if anything, they would do differently next time
11. If any students have not taken part on the interview committees, have them act as peer editors of the committees' written work, calling for revisions as appropriate.

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Adaptations for Older Students:
Older students may conduct their interviews at sites other than your classroom. Since you will not be observing them during the interview, they should rate themselves on the quality of the interview session. That is, they will have to tell you how the interview session transpired: very smoothly, mostly smoothly, or not smoothly (see Evaluation).

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Discussion Questions

1. Discuss which changes in technology, society and world events were most significant and essential in setting the stage for the "Great Migration" of African Americans to the North. Without which factors would this migration not have happened?
2. Compare and contrast the lives of rural African Americans in the South with the "seductive and frightening" lifestyle in Chicago.
3. Did Ernest Whitehead make the correct choice in leaving for Chicago rather than accepting the offer to manage and inherit a farm? Why did he make his choice? What sort of things might have happened to him if he had stayed?
4. Analyze the status of voting rights for African Americans in the South during the 1940s. Was the "understanding clause" used in Mississippi the exception or the rule? What advice could you give blacks to fight that type of discrimination?
5. How can you explain that white America was not aware of the movement of millions of people during the Great Migration? What were the attitudes of whites in the South and the North toward African Americans during this time?
6. Discuss the feelings that many blacks had when they crossed the Mason-Dixon line. What was the basis of these attitudes? Was the Mason-Dixon line a symbolic boundary only or was there more to it than that?
7. Why did the film, in referring to the housing in Chicago's south side, say that the "landlords had a holiday on us?" What were the reasons for the conditions there? What could have been done about this?
8. Discuss the reaction of white citizens to black families moving into their neighborhoods in Chicago. What justification might they have given for their actions? How much validity did they have?

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You can evaluate the committees using the following three-point rubric. Only when you think a committee has done enough legwork to earn a 3 or 2 should the committee make its final plans for meeting with its subject.
    Three points: more than three sources used for research about where interviewee comes from; first draft of interview questions in very good shape; very smooth and respectful interview; complete and well-written report on the interview
  • Two points: three or fewer sources used for research; first draft of interview questions needing substantive revision; mostly smooth and respectful interview; adequate report on the interview
  • One point: inadequate sources for research; first draft interview questions unsuited for the interview; respectful interview

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Dramatization: North toward Home?
Have members of the class play the roles of members of a family trying to decide whether to move from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1920s or the 1940s. Make sure the students don't all hold the same opinion about moving north. Suggest that students consider the following in determining whether to stay in Mississippi or to move to Chicago:
  • Geography (including climate)
  • Economic opportunities
  • Schools
  • Social and political opportunities

The Fine Line of Freedom
Ask students to determine why the Mason-Dixon Line was so important to African American migrants to the North. Ask them to research the history of the Mason-Dixon Line and to write an essay about its actual and symbolic meanings.

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Suggested Readings

Oh, Freedom! Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement With the People Who Made it Happen
Casey King and Linda Barrett Osborne; foreword by Rosa Parks; portraits by Joe Brooks, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
Interviews by young people with participants in the civil rights movement accompany essays that describe the history of efforts to make equality a reality for African Americans.

The New African American Urban History
Kenneth W. Goings and Raymond A. Mohl [editors], Sage Publications, 1996
This collection of essays covers: 1) the transplanted social customs of rural blacks to the North, 2) the experience of newly-urbanized blacks as household wage laborers, 3) Black working-class opposition in the Jim Crow South, and 4) overviews of black Americans as city dwellers from the early-to-late 20th century.

Journey to Freedom: The African-American Great Migration
Maurice Isserman, Facts on File, 1997
This work, a volume of the "Library of African-American History" series for young people, discusses the journey of rural Black Southerners to the urban North and the status of race relations both before and after the migration.

Bound for the Promised Land: The Great Black Migration
Michael L. Cooper, Lodestar Books, 1995
This treatment of the 20th-century internal black migration is targeted more towards slightly younger readers (middle-to-junior high readers) than those in previous cites.

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America
Nicholas Lemann, Vintage Books, 1992
This work represents the fullest overview of the rural-to-urban migration of black Southerners and is appropriate for serious, more senior high school students.

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The Chicago Defender
Chicago Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott. Forbidden to practice law because of racial discrimination, Mr. Abbott turned to printing, the skill he had learned at Hampton Institute.

African American Heritage Tour of Mississippi
Although the migration to Chicago was extensive, Mississippi still has the largest African American population. Learn more about it here.

The African American Teachers Lounge
This site is intended to facilitate communication between African American educators by providing numerous lesson plans and ideas. All grade levels are included.

The Delta Blues Museum
Learn more about the musical heritage of The Promised Land. Visit the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

The National Urban League
The Book is a black history tour through African American culture in words, images, and sound.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    sharecroppers
Definition: A tenant farmer who is provided with credit for seed, tools, living quarters, and food, who works the land, and who receives an agreed share of the value of the crop minus charges.
Context: All the sharecroppers he knew lived out their lives in debt to the white man.

speaker    mechanization
Definition: The conversion to machinery, especially to replace human or animal labor.
Context: All through the cotton belt, mechanization is spreading and growers are alert to its advantages.

speaker    Delta
Definition: region of northwest Mississippi between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers.
Context: Only handfuls of blacks owned the land in the Delta.

speaker    fraudulent
Definition: Deceitful; dishonest.
Context: In practice, it required blacks to answer fraudulent questions.

speaker    exodus
Definition: A mass departure.
Context: The great exodus began.

speaker    prosperity
Definition: The condition of being successful; economic well-being.
Context: On the south side of Chicago they saw prosperity they had never seen before, and they saw 47th Street.

speaker    migration
Definition: The movement from one country, place, or locality to another.
Context: The migration struck us because we lived right on the Illinois Central track and every day the train would arrive.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II United States.
Understands agricultural innovation and consolidation in the postwar period and its impact on the world economy.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II United States.
Understands scientific and technological developments in America after World War II (e.g., the new system of scientific research and development, advances in medical science and how they improved the standard of living and changed demographic patterns, the global influence of the communications revolution ushered in by American technology).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.
Understands individual and institutional influences on the civil rights movement (e.g., the origins of the postwar civil rights movement; the role of the NAACP in the legal assault on segregation; the leadership and ideologies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; the effects of the constitutional steps taken in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government; the shift from de jure to de facto segregation; [triangle symbol] important milestones in the civil rights movement between 1954 and 1965; Eisenhower's reasons for dispatching federal troops to Little Rock in 1957).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.
Understands significant influences on the civil rights movement (e.g., the social and constitutional issues involved in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) court cases; the connection between legislative acts, Supreme Court decisions, and the civil rights movement; the role of women in the civil rights movement and in shaping the struggle for civil rights).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: geography
Understands that culture and experience influence people's perceptions of places and regions.
Knows how technology affects the ways in which culture groups perceive and use places and regions (e.g., impact of technology such as air conditioning and irrigation on the human use of arid lands; changes in perception of environment by culture groups, such as the snowmobile's impact on the lives of Inuit people or the swamp buggy's impact on tourist travel in the Everglades).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: geography
Understands that culture and experience influence people's perceptions of places and regions.
Understands why places and regions are important to individual human identity and as symbols for unifying or fragmenting society (e.g., sense of belonging, attachment, or rootedness; symbolic meaning of places such as Jerusalem as a holy city for Muslims, Christians, and Jews).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: geography
Understands the patterns of human settlement and their causes.
Knows ways in which both the landscape and society change as a consequence of shifting from a dispersed to a concentrated settlement form (e.g., a larger marketplace, the need for an agricultural surplus to provide for the urban population, the loss of some rural workers as people decide to move into the city, changes in the transportation system).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: geography
Understands the patterns of human settlement and their causes.
Understands the physical and human impact of emerging urban forms in the present-day world (e.g., the rise of megalopoli, edge cities, and metropolitan corridors; increasing numbers of ethnic enclaves in urban areas and the development of legislation to protect the rights of ethnic and racial minorities; improved light-rail systems within cities providing ease of access to ex-urban areas).

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Sandy and Jay Lamb, history and social studies teachers, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Virginia.

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