Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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Black Migration

African Americans have long migrated into, out of, and through Kentucky seeking better lives. Before emancipation, runaway slaves traveled the Underground Railroad through Kentucky. (See KET’s Kentucky’s Underground Railroad—Passage to Freedom for more historical background on this period.) Following the Civil War and freedom, blacks left rural areas to move to more urban environments, attempting to find employment beyond farming.

Some of them left the state, heading to Kansas and other places that seemed to offer greater opportunities. But others saw Kentucky itself as that land of opportunity. In the late 1800s, many African Americans from the Deep South moved into the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, seeking jobs as miners. At one time, there were as many as seven primarily black communities in Eastern Kentucky. But the mechanization of coal mining eliminated many jobs, causing miners to look elsewhere for jobs to support themselves and their families. With Jim Crow laws and segregation providing additional incentives for leaving Kentucky, many black Kentucky families left for Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Dayton, Indianapolis, and cities in Canada.

But even within the state, African Americans left rural areas for cities. In 1890, 28% of Kentucky’s blacks lived in urban areas as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. By 1900, that number was 35%; and by 1910, it had climbed to 41%. The shift of the black population from rural to urban areas continued throughout the 20th century. By 1960, 71% of Kentucky’s black citizens lived in the cities.

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