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The Great Migration was awful for black people’s health

African American flood refugees are vaccinated for typhoid at Camp Louisiana near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Many would have joined the 'Great Migration' to northern cities.
African American flood refugees are vaccinated for typhoid at Camp Louisiana near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Many would have joined the 'Great Migration' to northern cities.
Everett Historical / Getty Images

The 6 million African Americans who left the Deep South behind between 1915 and 1970 did so in search of a better life — but new research shows the Great Migration had disastrous effects on their health.

In a study published in the American Economic Review, a team of economists and demographers found that while the black migrants who moved from states like South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia to Northern industrial centers like New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC, may have found more economic opportunities, they paid a major price when it came to their lifespans.

The mortality rates for 65-year-old black women who migrated out of the South increased by 43 percent, according to the researchers. For men of the same age, it jumped by a full 50 percent.

"We thought what we would find was that migration north extended life and made the African-American population healthier," Duke University's Seth Sanders, one of the study's co-authors, told NBC News.  But, he said, "we actually found exactly the opposite. Urban life is stressful. Being away from your roots is probably stressful."

Why the move took a toll

Specifically, researchers blamed "unhealthy habits picked up by vices common in the big city, such as smoking and drinking" for the migrants' decreased life span.

Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, which chronicles the multifaceted racism African Americans faced when they traveled north, told NBC that the results lined up with what she knew this component of the African-American experience in a larger sense, as well. "[Black migrants] were fleeing the violence of the caste system in the South, only to be met with challenges and obstacles in the North," she said. "They were searching for ways to manage in a world that had not welcomed them ... where they were met with hostility upon their arrival. I would not find it surprising that their health would suffer as a result."

The connection between racism, stress, and health

It's possible that the African Americans who moved to the North faced a type of racial hostility they experienced as different, more intense, or more taxing than what they were used to in the South. If so, the results of this new research align with we know about racism, stress, and health. In a 2013 article for the Atlantic, Jason Silverman reported on a growing body of literature that supports the idea that racism "works in a cycle to damage health" by causing increased stress among the very people who are less likely to have the resources to deal with it in ways that don't harm their health further.

And that's not a phenomenon that ended with the Great Migration.

"At a time when the first generation of African Americans born in the post–Jim Crow Era is only 40 years old," Harvard professor of social epidemiology Nancy Krieger wrote in 2005, "it is probably not accidental that current life expectancy among African Americans resembles that of White Americans 40 years ago."