The movement of peoples was significant, as nearly all blacks heading north settled in urban areas. The black population grew spectacularly in places like Detroit, New York, and Chicago; the latter two gained more than 60,000 black residents and Detroit acquired 36,000. The percentage increases of the black population in northern cities ranged from 150 to 600 percent.
The quest for a better life-an idea that combined economic, political, and social aspirations-was the prime motivation. According to Adam Clayton Powell, a prominent black leader of the time, "we were tired of being kept out of public parks and libraries, of being deprived of equal educational opportunities." They were tired also of being denied the vote and of being the object of unchecked violence perpetrated by white southerners who knew they would never be brought to justice. Blacks thus left the South in record numbers, a trend that continued for several decades, transforming the political, social, and cultural landscape of twentieth- century America.
World War I provided black Americans with the opportunity to serve their country in a war that was fought, as President Woodrow Wilson famously observed, to "make the world safe for democracy." Whether or not this was actually the case, leading race reformers sought to use Wilson's noble rhetoric to energize their followers and to legitimize their aims to the nation and the international community. If the United States had embarked on a crusade to bring democracy to the world, surely it was right and proper to bring democracy to Mississippi and Alabama. Civil rights leaders made this claim repeatedly at home and abroad during the Great War.
But for all his noble rhetoric, Woodrow Wilson was no progressive on the subject of race relations, and while fulminating for justice abroad, he issued an executive order that reimposed segregation in government offices in Washington, D.C. Black federal employees were once more forced to use separate eating facilities and rest rooms, despite the fact that nearly 400,000 African Americans were serving their country overseas in the war for democracy.
With the end of World War I, much of the fervor for domestic reform evaporated, and the postwar decade saw little tangible progress in race relations. The NAACP, in particular, had few notable successes in these years, and the northward black migration continued, as an estimated 750,000 to 1 million blacks left the South for the urban North. By 1930, of the five cities with the largest black populations, not one was located in the South.
Among the most significant developments in African American life in the 1920s was the cultural flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance. Literature, painting, and music blossomed in Harlem, a place one observer described as the "great Mecca for the pleasure-seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious, and the talented." Contributing to a developing sense of black identity, the cultural movement was part of the larger social and political struggle for racial justice, and its implications would be felt for years to come.