Black History Month - The Great Migration and Migrant Students

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Black History Month - The Great Migration and Migrant Students

Carter G. Woodson established Negro History week in 1926 because he realized the importance of providing a theme to focus the attention of the public. The intention has never been to dictate or limit the exploration of the Black experience, but to bring to the public’s attention important developments that deserve emphasis. Driven from their homes by unsatisfactory economic opportunities and harsh segregationist laws, more than 6 million African Americans were relocated from the rural South to the Northern cities introducing The Great Migration.  ASALH’s (Association for the Study of African American Life and History) 2019 theme, Black Migration, emphasizes the movement of people from African descent to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities. This theme focuses especially on the twentieth century through today. In the early twentieth century, African American migration patterns included relocation from southern farm to southern cities; from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West; from the Caribbean to US cities as well as to migrant labor farms; and the emigration of African Americans to Africa and to European cities after the end of World War I and World War II.  This resulted in a more diverse urban population.  This changed much of what was known at the time such as the rise of the Garvey movement, the emergence of black industrial workers and black entrepreneurs, the growing number and variety of urban churches and new religions, new music, and the blossoming of visual and literary arts.

Life for Migrants in the City

By the end of 1919, some one million African Americans had left the South.  Between the years of 1910 and 1920, the black population of major Northern cities grew by large percentages (New York-66%, Chicago-148%, Philadelphia-500%, and Detroit-611%).  Many found jobs in factories, slaughterhouses, and foundries, where working conditions were often dangerous. Female migrants had a much harder time finding work. While segregation was not legalized in the North, racism and prejudice were widespread.  After the US Supreme Court declared racially-based housing unconstitutional, some residential neighborhoods enacted covenants requiring white property owners to agree not to sell to any blacks.

The Impact

Because of housing tensions, many blacks ended up creating their own cities within big cities. The Black experience during the Great Migration became an important theme in the artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, which had an enormous impact on the culture of the era. The Great Migration also began a new era of increasing political activism.  Black migration slowed considerably in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, but picked up again after World War II. When the Great Migration ended in 1970, its impact was obvious. In 1900 9/10 of Black Americans lived in the South, and ¾ lived on farms, by 1970 the south was home to less than half of the country’s African Americans, with only 25% living in the region’s rural areas. 

Migrant Children Today

Migrant children served by the MEP are children and youth ages 0-21 whose families work in the agricultural and/or fisheries industries and who will often move across districts and state lines several times within a short period of time, following the various crops by season. It is not unusual for children to also work in the fields with their families. The most recent data from the US Department of Education shows that in 49 states, the MEP served a total of 485,340 students in preschool through 12thgrade during the school year and an additional 164,667 during the summer. Migrant children are in every state. Nationwide, California serves close to 34% of them, but large numbers of migrant children are also in Texas, Florida, Washington State, and Oregon. It is estimated that 90% of migrant children are of Latino origin and that 34% are ELLs.

Challenges for Migrant Families

While there have been improvements, many of the National Commission on Migrant Education’s (NCME) findings are worrisome.  Migrant farmworkers have one of the most labor-intensive, physically demanding, hazardous, yet grossly undercompensated, occupations in the country.  Migrant families tend to live in isolation from the communities where they work.  It is also not uncommon for parents and children to be separated if parents want the children to finish the school year at the same school while they move on to the next work site.  Migrant children experience more poverty, health problems, social alienation, educational disadvantages, mobility and lack of educational opportunities than any other school population segment.  Migrant parents have the lowest of educational attainment of any occupational group.  Large numbers of migrant students lack English proficiency and require remedial instruction.  Migrant children have one of the highest dropout rates in the US.  Federally-funded programs for migrant children are not sufficiently funded to meet the children’s needs.  Many migrant farmworkers in Florida will only earn $2.50 per large bucket of peanuts, and they can expect to fill 10 buckets per person for in a 12-hour work day. Poverty, low wages, deplorable and unsafe living/working conditions, interrupted schooling, lack of social mobility, and lack of educational opportunities still plague migrant families.

 With school children as young as six still working in the fields (despite legislation to keep children out of the fields). it is no wonder that migrant children fall behind in school and end up dropping out.  It may seem that schools and teachers are helpless in the face of this devastation, but here are some ways to support migrant children in your classroom:

Teachers must expose migrant students to the latest technology. Many lessons and books are available on the internet.  Teachers shouldn’t try to fit the students to a school calendar that won’t function to their way of living and learning.  Teachers should try their hardest to accommodate learning to fit the student’s needs.  Educational materials and books should be ready for them before they arrive.  Set some materials aside so that you don’t have to spend time looking for them later.  You may also ask migrant parents to call the school ahead of time.  Keep an academic portfolio on each student, including copies of their academic records on math, English and oral language.  This will help you have it ready for distribution to other schools that will request this information.

If at all possible, push for the student to have a bilingual teacher.  Lack of bilingual support is a turn-off for most students.  They will quickly start skipping school and dropping out because they feel that schools do not want them there and that they are outsiders.  We should stop focusing on promoting the use of English only and at all times, and promote learning. It is important that educators teach all migrant students to know how learning English is important and to know how important it is to understand the system and work within the system.  It will be to their advantage to know two languages. It will also help them to interact with the rest of the children.  It would also be beneficial for teachers to make an effort to schedule educational trips so that migrant students can learn how to behave within the different environments, be with other students, and learn in the process. Educators of migrant students are responsible for teaching all administrators and local boards of education that migrant children are an asset and not a liability.  

Be prepared for migrant students before they come to your school. Another important thing for teachers to do is to focus on ways to boost their self-esteem. Migrant children need continuous praise from all teachers, parents, family, staff, and the entire community.  It is important to praise all the positive accomplishments and provide them with additional steps and educational tools. Teachers should make sure that these students realize that they CAN make it if they try hard and study every day. Teachers should not lower their standards or expectations, but they should identify their students’ skills and work off that.

Lastly, we know that these students are from economically disadvantaged environments, but before we start placing labels on migrant students, try to identify their strengths and make them feel comfortable. Understand that migrant children have a hard life and their futures can be greatly enhanced by education—by you.

For some extra insight on working with language learning students check out our course: Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners in the Classroom

Works Cited:

“Meeting the Educational Needs of Migrant Students.” Classroom Rewards Reap Dividends for Teachers and Students | Education World,

“Challenges and Solutions for Educating Migrant Students.” Edgar Leon. July 1996

“Supporting Students From Immigrant Families.” Teaching Tolerance,

Lbreiseth. “Migrant Students: What We Need to Know to Help Them Succeed.” Colorín Colorado, 15 June 2017,

“ASALH - The Founders of Black History Month | ASALH Announces 2019 Black History Theme, Black Migrations.” ASALH | The Founders of Black History Month (Est. 1915), 12 Dec. 2018,

“ASALH - The Founders of Black History Month | BLACK HISTORY THEMES.” ASALH | The Founders of Black History Month (Est. 1915), 10 Jan. 2019,

“Black History Month 2019.” The Huffington Post,,

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