The first great wave of migration began during the period of World War I. The manufacture of war supplies had demanded increased production while the draft, and disruption of immigration, left the factories short of much needed labor. As the pool of labor dwindled, companies began to look elsewhere for workers to fill the positions. The southern African-American population made up a substantial resource for unskilled workers and northern companies made extraordinary efforts to recruit them. Companies sent agents to the South and offered the African-Americans high paying jobs, transportation north, and housing arrangements upon arrival at their new location (Crew). The economic and social climate in the South during this period made the offers too good to resist and set off the first great wave of migration.
The opportunity for greater wealth was a powerful motivation for the migration during the war. Blacks were leaving behind the rural life they knew to seek a new destiny. Many were leaving behind their families, wives, and children with the hope of creating a better future, and the opportunity for more money did not disappoint them. While most laborers in the South were earning little more than $2,00 per week, a letter published in 1919 explains to his friends back home, "Never pay less than $3.00 per day [...] Remember this is the very lowest wages. Piece work men can make from $6 to $8 per day " ("Don[']t Have to Mister"). Spurred by these tales of high pay, people left behind their social ties and the only way of life they knew with the promise of one day sending for those they left behind. If money had been the only factor, their decision to leave might have been more difficult, but there were other considerations in the South.
The social and political climate in the South made the African-Americans even more eager to leave their rural way of life. The constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War that were to protect the rights of blacks were largely ignored in the South. Local laws, hostile prejudice, and Jim Crow laws left them vulnerable to violence, imprisonment, and death. The economics of sharecropping had also taken its toll on the farm workers. Bad crops, low prices, and unpredictable weather had left most of them in debt to the white landowners (Crew). By 1910, emancipation had a hollow meaning and the living condition of the former slaves were no better than they had been 50 years earlier. Migrating north offered them an escape from the ever-present oppression and the economic means to finally carve out their own identity.
It is estimated that by 1919, the number of Blacks that had migrated north numbered near 1 million. Most settled in the industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC, and Pittsburgh. Many of the new arrivals found the promise of better pay and human dignity a reality and were pleasantly surprised to find that the letters they read from people who had migrated before them had been accurate about the opportunities for work. They also enjoyed a new sense of identity, in a new place with attitudes more sensitive to their condition. In a letter dated 1917, a worker in Philadelphia expresses the simple joy of even the most modest