In 1903, James K. Vardaman said during his gubernatorial campaign in Mississippi: “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched.” He won that election and went on to the U.S. Senate.
That’s one tile in the extraordinary mosaic Isabel Wilkerson has crafted in “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist combines oral history, research and empathy to portray the origins and impact of the exodus of some six million blacks from the South in the years 1915-1970.
The impetus at home was obvious, from what Wilkerson calls the “thousand hurts and killed wishes” of Jim Crow segregation, oppression and poverty, to the thousands of horrific murders concealed in this grim summary: “Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929.”
The target cities in the North and West also proffered inducements, including less fear and violence, better jobs and higher pay. As the years went by, another powerful allure came from returning kin flaunting cars, cash and nice clothes.
Wilkerson uses new census data and research to correct long-held perceptions that migrants fell short of northern blacks in terms of family stability, education and ambition. Aligning the black diaspora with European counterparts, she writes, “The general laws of migration hold that the greater the obstacles and the farther the distance traveled, the more ambitious the migrants.”
There’s no denying the deep cultural cast the movement produced: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, to name a few. Another telling list notes that the first black mayors in each of the seven main receiving cities were southern-born themselves or the sons of migrants.
For every individual who hit the road north, the decision brought wrenching change. Wilkerson’s richest offering is the extended personal histories provided by three migrants, chosen well from the more than 1,200 people she interviewed.
Ida Mae Gladney left Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in October 1937 when she and her husband gave up the hard cotton fields after a friend’s horrific beating. Chicago “‘looked like Heaven’” when she arrived, Gladney says. It would soon look otherwise.
Jim Crow was gone but prejudice remained. Jobs were scarce and living conditions, the author writes, meant “the least-paid people were forced to pay the highest rents for the most dilapidated housing owned by absentee landlords trying to wring the most money out of a place nobody cared about.”
George Starling fled to New York from Eustis, Florida, in April 1945. He had made enemies of citrus growers by getting pickers to strike for higher pay. Despite two years of college, he settled into a menial job as a coach attendant on an East Coast railroad line. Spending some four decades on the New York-Florida run, he became a keen observer of the many who boarded his trains to join the Great Migration.
Robert Foster got in his Buick Roadmaster in April 1953 and left Monroe, Louisiana, driving to Los Angeles to set up a medical practice. He would prosper as a doctor, have a song written about him by a patient named Ray Charles and become a regular at the blackjack tables of Las Vegas.
These affecting biographies weave in and out of Wilkerson’s broader study, melding with and illuminating that history of the movement north. It’s a risky approach because there’s a danger of losing a reader as the book jumps from one of the trio to another or to sections where the author steps back to view the chronicle through her own eyes. The wealth of detail can overwhelm (especially when two of the narratives for many pages speak of three different Georges).
Wilkerson deftly brings herself, the daughter of migrants, into the narrative. She recalls her mother stopping to get the Pontiac washed on a trip back south to make a good impression. She is often a presence in the room with her three subjects, observing, reflecting and never intrusive.
It’s good that she was there to glue the shards of memory together, because “many people who left the south never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things, tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself.”
“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” is published by Random House (622 pages, $30). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)