Reading Isabel Wilkerson is like hearing the stories of my parents’ friends and their parents, the handed-down (and often sanitized) tales of their exodus from the South. The exits occurred for various reasons: the desire to escape the near-starvation of tenant farmer existences; the need to leave because their own prospects were so restricted, and they wanted more for their children; the middle of the night departures because a son had not been deferential enough to an outraged white townsman; the vaporization of an entire family overnight, because their pretty eldest daughter had attracted the lingering glance of a white man she would not be allowed to refuse, with dire consequences to her entire family. They’re all reflected in The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson’s sweeping history of the Great Migration.
As Wilkerson notes, America’s greatest domestic movement began around 1917 and ended in 1975, an epoch during which millions of black American citizens fled Southern towns and cities, with their elaborate and complicated tapestries of Jim Crow laws, for the relative freedoms of the north. Ironically, the early black migrants were converging on the interior Ellis Islands of the North and Midwest (New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, etc.), just as oppressed Europeans were converging on the same cities. Both were huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, with one critical difference: black migrants were already citizens. Theoretically, they possessed the freedoms their European brethren were seeking. Despite that, they were routinely pushed to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder where ABC — Anybody But Colored — was too often the rule.
Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times, has taken what many would consider an indigestible chunk of history — long and sometimes famously written about by earlier historians and sociologists — and given us an extraordinarily palatable narrative. Much of it is seen through the eyes of three people: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who left Mississippi for Chicago and exchanged a grinding servitude to become the matriarch of a large family; George Swanson Starling, who departed the Florida orange groves for Harlem and a life as a Pullman porter; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who escaped Monroe, La., and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he became a prominent surgeon.
How the three got to their respective Northern meccas, what they gave up to remain there and what they got in return is the most American of stories.
The Great Migration affected almost every black person with American roots: No matter where we were born and raised, almost all of us had our beginnings somewhere in the South. Before World War I, 90 percent of the country’s blacks lived in the South.
This fact seems quaint to black children born in integrated circumstances after the major struggles of the civil rights movement had been decided, but people my age and older remember well the rituals Wilkerson describes when migrants returned to their hometowns to visit: The routes were carefully plotted so overnight stays could be made with relatives or close family friends, because hotels below the Mason-Dixon Line (and sometimes above) refused black visitors. Coolers were packed with lunches — sandwiches, cold fried chicken, delicate deviled eggs and buttery pound cake, accompanied by thermoses of iced tea and hot coffee (for the drivers) — which were eaten on the move as the travelers passed restaurant after roadside restaurant. No pecan rolls from Stuckey’s. No ice cream from Howard Johnson’s. (And no explanation of why for the children, who were protected from these insults by their elders: It was years before I realized the Virgina and North Carolina Howard Johnsons were bypassed not because they were dirty, but because they were segregated.)
Just as the election of a black president hasn’t cured America’s racial tensions, moving North didn’t automatically guarantee a completely free life for Wilkerson’s subjects. Robert Foster, for instance, drove nonstop from Louisiana for four days in an effort to reach his dream city, Los Angeles. There he imagined he’d be free to practice surgery, not restricted to the ramshackle colored hospital of his Louisiana youth. The feverish drive wasn’t because he was in a rush to get there — he couldn’t find overnight accommodations as he traveled. Apparently, there was still a lot of South in the Southwest.
George Starling recounted what routinely happened when he and other Pullman porters stopped for a beer after a long day serving others: Their drafts were drawn, their money accepted, but after the empties were returned, the bartender would smash them under the counter, so no white patron would encounter — even washed — a glass black lips had touched. “[They’d] do it right in front of us,” Starling told Wilkerson, the memory still fresh decades later. “That’s the way they let us know they didn’t want us in there.”
Wilkerson’s personal histories both reflect and deftly illustrate an important part of American history that has only been discussed in clinical ways, sometimes quite famously. St. Clair Drake’s Black Metropolis, a study of life in Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods, is considered a definitive account of the transformation Southern migrants wrought on the Second City. The Warmth of Other Suns builds upon such purely academic works to make the migrant experience both accessible and emotionally compelling.
People who grew up hearing tales of the Great Migration from parents, aunts, neighbors and cousins will read Wilkerson’s book and say, “That’s right! That’s how it was!” And people largely unacquainted with the types of experiences Mrs. Gladney, Mr. Swanson and the flamboyantly successful Dr. Foster encountered over their long lives will end this exhaustively researched book with a deeper sense of a part of American history they’d understood only superficially until now — valuable knowledge as this country continues to navigate the tricky shoals of race.
Excerpt: 'The Warmth of Other Suns'
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration By Isabel Wilkerson Hardcover, 640 pages Random House List Price: $30
Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Late October 1937 Ida Mae Brandon Gladney
The night clouds were closing in on the salt licks east of the oxbow lakes along the folds in the earth beyond the Yalobusha River. The cotton was at last cleared from the field. Ida Mae tried now to get the children ready and to gather the clothes and quilts and somehow keep her mind off the churning within her. She had sold off the turkeys and doled out in secret the old stools, the wash pots, the tin tub, the bed pallets. Her husband was settling with Mr. Edd over the worth of a year’s labor, and she did not know what would come of it. None of them had been on a train before — not unless you counted the clattering local from Bacon Switch to Okolona, where, “by the time you sit down, you there,” as Ida Mae put it. None of them had been out of Mississippi. Or Chickasaw County, for that matter.
There was no explaining to little James and Velma the stuffed bags and chaos and all that was at stake or why they had to put on their shoes and not cry and bring undue attention from anyone who might happen to see them leaving. Things had to look normal, like any other time they might ride into town, which was rare enough to begin with.
Velma was six. She sat with her ankles crossed and three braids in her hair and did what she was told. James was too little to understand. He was three. He was upset at the commotion. Hold still now, James. Lemme put your shoes on, Ida Mae told him. James wriggled and kicked. He did not like shoes. He ran free in the field. What were these things? He did not like them on his feet. So Ida Mae let him go barefoot.
Miss Theenie stood watching. One by one, her children had left her and gone up north. Sam and Cleve to Ohio. Josie to Syracuse. Irene to Milwaukee. Now the man Miss Theenie had tried to keep Ida Mae from marrying in the first place was taking her away, too. Miss Theenie had no choice but to accept it and let Ida Mae and the grandchildren go for good. Miss Theenie drew them close to her, as she always did whenever anyone was leaving. She had them bow their heads. She whispered a prayer that her daughter and her daughter’s family be protected on the long journey ahead in the Jim Crow car.
“May the Lord be the first in the car,” she prayed, “and the last out.”
When the time had come, Ida Mae and little James and Velma and all that they could carry were loaded into a brother-in-law’s truck, and the three of them went to meet Ida Mae’s husband at the train depot in Okolona for the night ride out of the bottomland.
Wildwood, Florida, April 14, 1945 George Swanson Starling
A man named Roscoe Colton gave Lil George Starling a ride in his pickup truck to the train station in Wildwood through the fruit-bearing scrubland of central Florida. And Schoolboy, as the toothless orange pickers mockingly called him, boarded the Silver Meteor pointing north.
A railing divided the stairs onto the train, one side of the railing for white passengers, the other for colored, so the soles of their shoes would not touch the same stair. He boarded on the colored side of the railing, a final reminder from the place of his birth of the absurdity of the world he was leaving.
He was getting out alive. So he didn’t let it bother him. “I got on the car where they told me to get on,” he said years later.
He hadn’t had time to bid farewell to everyone he wanted to. He stopped to say good-bye to Rachel Jackson, who owned a little café up on what they called the Avenue and the few others he could safely get to in the little time he had. He figured everybody in Egypt town, the colored section of Eustis, probably knew he was leaving before he had climbed onto the train, small as the town was and as much as people talked.
It was a clear afternoon in the middle of April. He folded his tall frame into the hard surface of the seat, his knees knocking against the seat back in front of him. He was packed into the Jim Crow car, where the railroad stored the luggage, when the train pulled away at last. He was on the run, and he wouldn’t rest easy until he was out of range of Lake County, beyond the reach of the grove owners whose invisible laws he had broken.
The train rumbled past the forest of citrus trees that he had climbed since he was a boy and that he had tried to wrestle some dignity out of and, for a time, had. They could have their trees. He wasn’t going to lose his life over them. He had come close enough as it was.
He had lived up to his family’s accidental surname. Starling. Distant cousin to the mockingbird. He had spoken up about what he had seen in the world he was born into, like the starling that sang Mozart’s own music back to him or the starling out of Shakespeare that tormented the king by speaking the name of Mortimer. Only, George was paying the price for tormenting the ruling class that owned the citrus groves. There was no place in the Jim Crow South for a colored starling like him.
He didn’t know what he would do once he got to New York or what his life would be. He didn’t know how long it would take before he could send for Inez. His wife was mad right now, but she’d get over it once he got her there. At least that’s what he told himself. He turned his face to the North and sat with his back to Florida.
Leaving as he did, he figured he would never set foot in Eustis again for as long as he lived. And as he settled in for the twenty-three-hour train ride up the coast of the Atlantic, he had no desire to have anything to do with the town he grew up in, the state of Florida, or the South as a whole, for that matter.
Excerpted from The Warmth of Other Suns; The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson Copyright 2010 by Isabel Wilkerson. Excerpted by permission of Random House.