The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011.
Summary: The story of the great migration of blacks from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970, told through the lives of three of those migrants and their families.
One of the most significant migrations in American history never passed through Ellis Island, or across any of our national borders. Yet it was a migration of six million people and had huge social implications for the United States. It was the migration that took place from 1915 until around 1970 during which six million blacks left the Jim Crow South to migrate to the Northern and Western cities in the U.S. Many of these migrations followed the rail lines from where blacks lived in the south to various destination cities along those lines in the north. Often, other family, kin, or friends had preceded them.
Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of this migration through the lives of three persons (although she interviewed hundreds of others). Ida Mae Gladney is a plantation worker from Chickasaw Country, Mississippi, who along with her husband and children leave, ending up in Chicago after a cousin, Joe Lee is beaten up and falsely accused of theft. George Swanson Starling is a young man with aspirations of a college education from Eustis, Florida. Discouraged after a couple of years of school, he marries Inez, and resorts to picking the orange groves, and begins organizing for better wages for the pickers. When he receives word that the owners are preparing to lynch him, he heads north to New York City. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was the son of a high school principal, who trained as a medical doctor and was a surgeon in World War 2. Coming home to Monroe, Louisiana, he is not granted admitting privileges at local hospitals and determines to head to California, undergoing a harrowing car trip across Texas and an American southwest inhospitable to blacks, setting up a hugely successful medical practice in Los Angeles with Ray Charles being one of his most famous patients.
Wilkerson skillfully weaves historical material about the realities of separate facilities, Jim Crow laws, the ever present danger of lynching for any black who was too “uppity”, and a system that robbed them of wages due them, holding them in economic slavery. She describes their efforts to gain a toehold in the northern and western cities. George Starling works as a railroad porter, returning to the south from which he’d fled and helping other migrants he served on the trains. Ida Mae’s husband works in a soup canning factory, she eventually secures work in a hospital. Foster starts out giving insurance exams and collecting urine samples, making $10 an exam. In telling this story she describes the subtle forms of discrimination they encounter instead of the overt racism of the South. Often they are deployed as cheap labor and strike breakers, which exacerbate tensions with white workers. Most tellingly, they are restricted to certain areas of the cities to which they migrated, prevented by restrictive covenants from moving into white neighborhoods. When they succeed as population pressures force them outward, there are often mass exoduses of whites from those neighborhoods, destabilizing the community. It was a story that played out in every northern city with Chicago’s black south side and white north side, and Cleveland’s black east side, and white west side being just two examples.
She describes how the migration changed both a South facing the loss of a workforce on which it depended and the North and West accommodating a changed situation. And we see the impacts of the cities they settled in on them and their children. While on the whole, the migrants were more likely to be married and stay married, worked harder and were on welfare much less, they, and especially their children were not insusceptible to problems already prevalent in the north with drugs and street crime. Yet many were notable successes (such as Robert Foster) and the first black mayors in many northern cities came from the South.
Perhaps one of the things I most appreciated in this work was that Wilkerson seemed to genuinely respect each of the three individuals she features in this work, despite their imperfections. She enters their lives and allows them to tell their story on their own terms. She is present, even holding George Starling’s hand and squeezing it as he sinks into the coma that ends in his death. But it is a presence that draws out and tells the story of the migration without getting in the way.
I was a child and teen in a northern city during the latter part of the period of this migration. The growing presence of blacks in our city, the pressures this placed on housing and the transitions of neighborhoods were topics of family conversation, not always pleasant. This book helps me understand the dynamic behind those conversations, but also helps me step out of my white sub-culture as I listen to the stories of people longing for freedom and safety from the invidious culture of Jim Crow, people longing for the chance to work hard at a fair wage to pursue a better life for their children. So many of us are also the children of immigrants who wanted the same things. It makes me wonder whether the hearing and telling of these family stories, both unique, and yet not so different may be one of the paths toward the healing of the wounds of race in our nation. Isabel Wilkerson has given us a great chance to begin if we will listen to the stories of Robert, George, and Ida Mae.
Special Note: A group of colleagues and I have been reading this book. Look for a post with our responses in the near future. I will also post a link here when that post is up.