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.

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    Isabel Wilkerson's parents were part of the Great Migration, leaving rural Georgia and Virginia for Washington, DC.
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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:

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.

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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.

How did this Great Migration impact the lives we lead today?

[It caused much of today's] suburban angst and inner-city desperation. The northern and western cities didn’t really know what to do with the [migrants] so they ended up being in some ways cordoned off, quarantined, you might say, in overcrowded areas that became incubators for crime and everything else. The majority of people might have been good law-abiding citizens but there was no protection for them. A lot of what we’re looking at in the cities today, the social geography of almost every city in the north and west, was in some ways a reaction to the Great Migration. You hate to put it in those terms but that is what we’re looking at. That is the socioeconomic piece of it.

But then look at culture: music. Motown wouldn’t have existed at all because Berry Gordy’s parents migrated from Georgia to Detroit. Where did he recruit his people from? He couldn’t afford to go around the country. He recruited the people from his neighborhood and they were all children of the great migration. Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, the "Motown sound," Aretha Franklin – all that is the result of the Great Migration. Jazz – Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, John Coltane, all of them were children of the Great Migration.

Sports: The great sports figures of the mid- to late-20th century were children of the Great Migration. There’s Bill Russell one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He would never have had the chance to become that had his parents stayed in Monroe, La., and had not migrated to Oakland, Calif. – a huge, long migration made out of sheer desperation. In Louisiana Russell would never have had the opportunity to lead an NCAA college basketball team to a championship and he never would have gotten the attention of the Boston Celtics. Wilt Chamberlain, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Owens – these names are now part of history. They were all children of the Great Migration.

Did most of the migrants that you talked to find what they were looking for or were they disappointed?

Given that their lives were so constrained and restricted and that in many ways violence was an every day feature of life, in some ways just leaving was its own achievement. That’s not to confuse success with leaving. It’s just to say that if you’re looking at what they wanted, what they were looking for was to get out. When they got out, they had achieved their aim. [But] there was tremendous heartache that once they arrived in these new places that held so much hope for them that there were so many disappointments.

It was not what they had hoped for in their most optimistic moments. But it was still better than what they had left. Most of them would say that there were many mistakes that they had made in life but leaving was not one of them.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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