Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” on "the biggest underreported story of the 20th century"
Why did 6 million US blacks leave their homes? Author Isabel Wilkerson talks about "the Great Migration" and how it reshaped the US.
Between about 1910 and 1970, some 6 million blacks left the Jim Crow South and moved to cities in the north and west of the United States. This mass migration reshaped America's northern cities, forced change in the South, and helped to fuel the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Yet for Isabel Wilkerson, award-winning New York Times correspondent and the child of parents who participated in the "Great Migration," this huge population shift has remained perhaps "the biggest underreported story of the 20th century." She hopes that her new book, "The Warmth of Other Suns," will change that. Wilkerson recently talked with Monitor Book editor Marjorie Kehe. Here are excerpts of their conversation:Skip to next paragraph
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Why did you write this book?
I wrote this book because I essentially grew up with this phenomenon without recognizing it. [My parents migrated] from Virginia and Georgia to Washington D.C. In some way I’ve been writing this book all my life. I think as I matured as a writer and journalist I became aware that there really was no “Grapes of Wrath” for this migration.
Why not? It’s such a huge phenomenon.
It went on so long. It was reported in the early phases. Carl Sandburg was a reporter, one of the early reporters of migration. [But] it went on so long – it would have been very difficult for any one institution to follow it from beginning to end. It spanned the careers of multiple journalists. When it comes to journalism it’s a hard thing to grasp. We’re thinking about that day’s story; we’re not thinking about the kind of glacial movement. [Telling the story of the Great Migration] was reserved, at first, for sociologists and demographers.
And what did those sociologists and demographers see?
They looked mostly at the problems that occurred in the cities. But that was not the only story to be told. There were 6 million people who participated in this, and they each had a story: 6 million different reasons for leaving, 6 million different events, 6 million permutations of the outcome. There was really very little [literature] that looked at the people themselves, why they did what they did, how they gathered the courage and the resources, whatever it took for them to leave the only place they’d ever known for a place they’d never seen, what propelled them, and how they adjusted to this new place.
You talked to more than 1,000 people who made this journey. What surprised you most?
I don’t think I realized how much they had sacrificed, how painful it was to leave, and, often, how dangerous it was to leave. And the longing for the old country – I had in a way a child’s view. As a child you have the luxury of not having to think about what your parents have gone through. Until you’re grown up and living your own life you don’t think about their pain and hurt, their disappointments and heartaches.
Is there one main reason why so many people undertook this difficult journey?
What they were doing was simply defecting from a caste system that limited their every move. I did not know the long list of things you could not do [in the Jim Crow South]. A black person and a white person couldn’t play checkers together in Birmingham. In South Carolina black people and white people working in the same building could not walk up the same staircase. How was that even logistically carried out? How do you do that?
Who were the migrants and what were their hopes?
They had modest expectations. They were not coming to run Fortune 500 companies and own office towers. They were coming to merely be able to have their kids go to good schools, the kind of schools that they themselves were not permitted to go to, and to be able to own a home. And the majority of people who made this trip did [eventually] become homeowners. Demographically, they were more likely to be married and to remain married than the small number of blacks who were already [living in the cities that they moved to] and they were slightly better educated. Generally they were also better educated than the people that they left behind. It takes something unusual for someone to have the [inner] resources to leave. It’s so much easier to just stay where you are.