In search of better economic and social opportunities, more than 7 million Black residents of the South migrated to the North between 1915 and 1970. As of 1940, the median Black household income in the North was almost double that in the South, and poverty rates were about half. Nevertheless, socioeconomic outcomes for Black migrants were mixed. Despite higher earnings for northern Black workers, their incarceration rates were higher and life expectancy was shorter.1

To the benefit of the migrants’ children, school quality was better in the North, with far fewer underfunded segregated schools than in the South.2 Despite the apparent advantages for children, however, little work has been done to quantify the effects of the Great Migration on children’s educational outcomes.

In their paper, “The Great Migration and Educational Opportunity,” Cavit Baran of Northwestern University, Eric Chyn of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Dartmouth College, and Bryan Stuart of the Philadelphia Fed estimate the impact of moving to the North on Black children’s educational achievement during the Great Migration’s early years (1915–1940). This topic is of high relevance, the authors argue, given “the importance of improvements in school quality in shaping Black economic opportunity.”

Countervailing forces created challenges for Black migrants, the authors note. One previous study shows that between 1915 and 1930, public expenditures declined in places with a large migrant presence, and other studies show that White residents left cities and neighborhoods with a large influx of Black migrants.3 Still other research shows that northern cities that received more Black migrants between 1940 and 1970 had lower rates of upward mobility for Black children born in the 1980s.4 Given the findings of these prior studies, the authors question whether the Great Migration ever yielded meaningful benefits to children, thus providing the motivation for their study.

To compare the educational impact of migrating to the North versus staying in the South, the authors compiled 1940 Census data on more than 720 destinations at the county level. Next, they used an econometric model to estimate the impacts of moving to each county on the educational outcomes of the migrants’ children, representing the level of “place-specific effects.” Additionally, the authors undertook a novel descriptive analysis to understand the relationship between these place effects and historical measures of local characteristics. Finally, they compared their historical measures of place effects with more recent data on place-specific economic mobility of Black children born during the 1980s.

The authors estimate that Black children added 0.8 years of schooling on average by being relocated to the North by their parents as of 1940 (which is 12 percent of the average educational attainment of 6.8 years in their sample). This increase in educational attainment reduced the nationwide Black-White educational gap in 1940 by 24 percent.

Although moving to the North provided better educational opportunities on average, the authors show that the results varied by geographical area. For example, children moving from New Orleans benefited more on average because opportunities in New Orleans were of poor quality at the time, while those leaving Birmingham, AL, received fewer educational gains on average because opportunities in Birmingham were equivalent in quality to some of the best places in the North.

Digging deeper, the authors find that Black children had better opportunities in places with greater investments in schools, superior job opportunities for Black workers, and less crime. They also show that students had better educational outcomes on average in locations that had a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which the authors used as a proxy for “social capital.”

When comparing data from the Great Migration with more recent data, the authors discover that many of the same counties that had the greatest positive impact on children’s educational advancement in the 1940s, including the counties encompassing Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis, are now providing “relatively poor opportunities for Black youth.”5 The authors identify changes in economic opportunities for Black individuals, school investments, crime rates, and incarceration rates in the latter half of the 20th century as potential root causes.

In summary, Baran, Chyn, and Stuart show that the first wave of the Great Migration helped to reduce U.S. educational disparities based on race. Moreover, educational outcomes for Black children during the early part of the migration depended heavily on place-specific characteristics. Considering the more recent deterioration of beneficial place effects in numerous counties, the authors suggest that strengthening local factors, such as investments in schools and improvements in public safety, could help to further narrow the Black-White educational opportunity gap.

  1. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia or the Federal Reserve System.
  2.  Leah Platt Boustan, Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017; Dan Black, Seth Sanders, Evan Taylor, and Lowell Taylor, “The Impact of the Great Migration on Mortality of African Americans: Evidence from the Deep South,” American Economic Review, 105:2 (2015) pp. 477–503; and Katherine Eriksson, “Moving North and Into Jail? The Great Migration and Black Incarceration,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 159 (2019) pp. 526–538.
  3. Robert Margo, Race and Schooling in the South, 1880–1950: An Economic History. Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1990.
  4. Marco Tabellini, “Racial Heterogeneity and Local Government Finances: Evidence from The Great Migration,” Harvard Business School Working Paper 19-006 (2019); Leah Platt Boustan, “Was Postwar Suburbanization `White Flight’? Evidence from the Black Migration,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 125:1 (2010) pp. 417–443; and Allison Shertzer and Randall Walsh, “Racial Sorting and the Emergence of Segregation in American Cities,” Review of Economics and Statistics, 101:3 (2019) pp. 415–427.
  5. Ellora Derenoncourt, “Can You Move to Opportunity? Evidence from the Great Migration,” American Economic Review, 112:2 (2022) pp. 369–408.
  6. For more on recent outcomes, see Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie Jones, and Sonya Porter, “The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 25147 (2020).