The Great Lakes region was a major destination for two earlier mega-migrations.
The first took place in the late 1700s through the mid-1800s as thousands of settlers and dreamers, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants from Europe, arrived in search of cheap, fertile land, jobs, lumber and other natural resources to extract or mercantile opportunities to exploit.
Groups like the Washtenaw County Society for the Information of Emigrants, just as modern-day economic development promoters do, touted Michigan as a settlement destination. They even had a promising song, “We here have soils of various kinds, To suit men who have different minds, Prairies, openings, timbered land, And burr oak plains, in Michigan.”
Yet not all was as promised or hoped for as arrivals found much of the affordable land to be swampy, infertile or inaccessible. A 19th-century song advised, “Don’t go to Michigan, that land of ills; the word means ague, fever and chills.” Some emigrants were defrauded by “land-sharks” who “sold” land they didn’t own.
Later came the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the factories of Detroit and Youngstown, Akron and Chicago, Gary and Cleveland.
The movement took off in 1914-15 as World War I loomed and the influx of European immigrants stalled. As University of Detroit-Mercy history professor Roy Finkenbine explained, labor organizers recruited Black sharecroppers and other workers, while African American media such as the Chicago Defender spread the word about economic opportunities in the North.
They were, in a way, also environmental migrants, but only tangentially because of the natural environment, Finkenbine said. Rather they were escaping the social, business and education environment of the South and its racial violence.
There was “terribly little planning (to accommodate the newcomers) outside the initial recruitment efforts,” and new arrivals frequently found themselves in cramped housing in densely populated neighborhoods such as Chicago’s South Side and Detroit’s Black Bottom, he said.
“What planning takes place is in the hearts of individuals and families that go north,” Finkenbine said. “They could work on it for years. Settling up for sharecroppers at the end of the year to help pay for the railroad ticket, or gas in the later years if you had a car.”
As for the racial climate and living conditions in the industrial cities of the Great Lakes, he said, “They knew it was not perfect but knew it was better than what they left behind.”
Eric Freedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.