Migration & Urbanization
African Americans in Food Service
As early as the late 1800s, but particularly during the first two decades of the 1900s, large numbers of Africans Americans began emigrating from rural to urban areas and from the South to cities throughout the Midwest and along the eastern seaboard. In these cities, African American food traditions from the South encountered food traditions of the newly arriving European immigrants. This environment resulted in the incorporation of new food and the development new dishes within African American food traditions. Much of this transfer, passing along, and creating new dishes happened in the Black restaurants, diners, and "soul food " places that developed to serve these new urban communities of African Americans from the South. Black consumers began to incorporate various foods into their food traditions. Some of these foods include like Polish sausage (in gumbos and stews), sauerkraut and baked ham, macaroni and cheese (as a side dish with greens and chicken), and oven-baked spaghetti (with bread and tossed salad).

New and rapidly expanding black populations in provided an solid market for black restaurant-owners in places like Hasting Street in Detroit, Harlem in New York City, and Chicago's south side. There were small black diners and take-out shops sprinkled through the black communities of virtually every small town and city.

Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Ham

The urban scene of the 1920s was a time of great cultural vibrancy. In New York City, for example, arriving migrants had created a mass of population that resulted in the proliferation of goods, services, and establishments specifically targeting an African American market. The Black population was culturally diverse, a creative blend of Southern Black, Caribbean, and native New Yorker. Harlem clubs featured menus offering dishes typical of the period, and elegant and urbane versions of the traditional dishes that blacks brought with them from the South.

Migration pictures from an African American Photo Album
Credit:Schomburg Digital Archives

In several cities, schools and training academies for young women and men laborers arriving from rural areas were also established.

Springfield, MA, Work Experience Center, 1941
Credit: National Archives and Record Administration

T he impact of the Great Depression was keenly felt in many African American households-both in rural and in urban areas. African American-based religious missions were notable in the 1930s for their efforts to feed the urban poor. White-clad women followers of Father Divine in New York City and Daddy Grace in Detroit served hundreds of meals for a few cents. The meals were delicious and abundant, for they were often so memorialized in the literature and music of the period.

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