The Story Behind America's Great Migration

Host Michel Martin talks with Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story America's Great Migration.” Wilkerson’s book explores the great migration of Blacks from the Jim Crow South to Northern locales in the US.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now we're going to tell you about one of the largest mass migrations in this country's history. It's bigger than the Gold Rush. It was bigger than the Dust Bowl migration. I was close to one of the vast waves of immigration that have done so much to shape this country, but these people were already here.

It became known as the Great Migration, the movement of more than six million people of African descent from the South to the North in a span of some 60 years. Why did they leave? Well, maybe Langston Hughes described it best.

LANGSTON HUGHES: I am fed up with Jim Crow laws, people who are cruel and afraid, who lynch and run, who are scared of me, and me of them. So I pick up my life and take it away on a one-way ticket - gone up North, gone out West. Gone.

MARTIN: That's Langston Hughes, reading from his poem "One Way Ticket," published in 1947. But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson may have gone him one better. She's expanded mightily on Langston Hughes' offering and the offerings of just about anybody who's studied and written on this remarkable movement of African-Americans from the rural South to places like Chicago, Harlem, Milwaukee, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle.

MARTIN: at around 1900 or so, 90 percent of all black Americans lived in the South. At the end of the Great Migration, around the mid-1970s, 47 percent were living outside of the South. And that means if you are black and living, or having family living in the North or the West, it's almost certainly because of the Great Migration.

MARTIN: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration." And she's here with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Epic is certainly the word. And it has to be said that this was a journey for you, also. I mean, officially, you know, your people are saying that you interviewed 1,200 people over an 18-month period, but it's actually been much longer than that.

WILKERSON: It's been 15 years. It's a 15-year journey of searching for people who would represent the three major migration streams of this Great Migration, getting to interview all these people, which is almost like a casting call. It was almost as if I were holding auditions for people who would ultimately be the three main characters in the book, and then getting to know them, returning South with them, and then ultimately writing about them.

MARTIN: And why did you want to tell this story?

WILKERSON: Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C. as a child of people who had migrated from the South. My mother migrated from Georgia, and my father from southern Virginia. They met in Washington, got married. I wouldn't even be here if there - had not been for the Great Migration, which is actually the story of so many people. How many people do we know who's great grandparent might have come in from Italy, and they married a great-grandmother from Ireland, and here we go? I mean, that's how America was populated, in some ways. So I wanted to tell it for that reason.

But I felt a tremendous urgency in telling this story, and that was because the Migration began in 1915, around World War I. It ended in 1970. You're talking about three or four generations who actually were participants in this, and they were getting up in years.

MARTIN: What did you think was missing in our understanding of this movement? What gap did you want to fill?

WILKERSON: We needed to hear more of the stories of what was it that made them go from one particular place to another particular place, which is how many of us got to where we are. I also felt that there needed to be the connecting of the dots to show that this is not migration just to one city, Chicago - which has gotten a lot of attention - but actually was a migration to all points North, Midwest and West, and that in some ways, it was not just a migration, it was actually a defection from the Jim Crow South.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, this is a term that became controversial because of Hurricane Katrina, when there was another mass movement - more than 100,000 people left that city and moved elsewhere - and it became very controversial to call these people refugees because many people found that term insulting. But you make the case that, in many ways, these people were refugees. They were fleeing persecution. And they had many of the classic sort of attributes and motivations of refugees, if you talk a little bit more about that before we get to some of the specific stories that I want to tell.

WILKERSON: I like the idea of the focusing on the idea of political asylum, so to speak, seeking safety from a system that was a caste system in the South which dictated their every move. I mean, some of the things that the South made and codified is astounding to me. For example, in Birmingham it was against the law for a black person and a white person to play checkers together. If you can imagine someone making that kind of a distinction about something so minor, imagine that every single aspect of their lives, having to step off the sidewalk when a white person might pass by, the fact that when they were driving it was against the customs of Jim Crow for a black person to pass someone who was white, no matter how slow they were going. And in many courthouses in the South, there was a black Bible and a white Bible to swear to tell the truth on.

MARTIN: Well, that leads us really to the three individuals that you focused on. One left Mississippi for Chicago, that was Ida Mae Brandon Gladney. One left Florida for Harlem, that George Swanson Starling. And one left Monroe, Louisiana for Los Angeles and that was Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who we should mention was Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.

And they are three different from three different states who left at three times for three different places. One of the things I think that many of the reviewers have rightly focused on is just the level of detail that you get into about these people's lives. And it - I have to tell you, very difficult at points to read, to experience their lives through their telling.

Let's just talk a little bit about Ida Mae, for example.

WILKERSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Talks about a white farmer who would get liquored up, and for fun would rampage through their community shooting off his gun, and there was nothing they could do about it.

WILKERSON: Nothing they could do.

MARTIN: And there was another incident you talk about where she would carry her father his dinner in the field where he was working and the sons of the...

WILKERSON: The blacksmith.

MARTIN: ...the blacksmith - why don't you tell that...

WILKERSON: Yeah. She would run errands for her father, so she was taking one of the, a piece, a tool to the blacksmith to be sharpened by him. And when she got there everything was fine, she dropped it off. She was about five or six years old. And the blacksmith's sons decided that they had nothing to do and they decided to have some fun. So they grabbed her and they took her over to a well and dangled her over the mouth of the well. And she would say many years later, had they dropped her, nothing would've happened. She said they would've never told, and even if they had, there would've been no consequences.

MARTIN: So just the random humiliations that people experienced, and you heard these stories over and over again. Why did George Starling leave?

WILKERSON: He left because he had a little education. He had the chance to go to school for a couple of years and then he had to drop out - the money had run and he had to return home where citrus picking was a primary source of income. And while he was out there, he started to realize how they'd been mistreated and taken advantage of. They were doing hazardous work where they'd have to climb into 40-foot trees - that's, you know, three or four stories high on a limb and people would fall and break a limb. And he decided to organize the pickers to get better pay.

MARTIN: To get 10 cents more.

WILKERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Ten cents more.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILKERSON: Thank you for making the distinction. Very little. And, of course, these whole boxes were going for three or four dollars on the open market. So he was very aware of how much they were being taken advantage of. And in doing so, he got on the bad side of the grove owners, who were not accustomed to African-Americans standing up for themselves. This was the mid- 1940s, long before the Civil Rights Movement and all the things that we now take for granted. And he ended up having to flee for his life because someone had overheard the grove owners talking about what they were going to do to him.

MARTIN: And when you say flee for his life, you mean that day.

WILKERSON: Within days.

MARTIN: Within days.

WILKERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Because they felt that if they didn't, they would be killed.

WILKERSON: They would be - at any given moment until he left, he could've been abducted and nothing would be done of it.

MARTIN: Tell us about Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.

WILKERSON: Yes. Dr. Foster.

MARTIN: Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Tell us, why did he leave?

WILKERSON: An unforgettable character. He left because he'd been a surgeon in the Army. When he got back home to Monroe, Louisiana, it turned out that he could not work in the hospital in his own home town. So he decided that he was going to set out on this surprisingly, unexpectedly perilous journey across the country and he would then send for his family later. But he had a really difficult time making it to California.

MARTIN: Once again, If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. She's the former Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times. She is talking about her new book, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration." It tells the story of millions of people of African descent who moved from the South (unintelligible) the North over a six decade period, starting around World War I.

The other point that you make in the book, which is fascinating, is how hard it was for people to leave. I mean we think now, okay, well, it's hard to leave because it's hard to sell your house or it's hard to leave because you're not sure what job you'll get. But you write in the book that people would literally, that there was actually organized efforts to keep blacks from leaving, despite the horrific treatment that they were receiving. You talk about, what, train tickets being torn up at the station. Tell us another story.

WILKERSON: Well, whenever they saw large groups of black people standing on railroad platforms, which were segregated also, by the way, they would begin making mass arrests. And it could be under any charge, primarily vagrancy or a debt that was purported to be owed to the planter that they might've been working for. They could do it for whatever reason. Ultimately, of course, they were doing it because they were losing the cheap labor, which was the very basis of the economy of the South and so they were doing whatever it took in order to keep them there. In some ways they revived the old laws that had kept slaves from being able to leave before.

And then last effort might've been to, if there were many black people on the train already or - I'm sorry - if they were many black people already on the platform ready to leave, they would just wave the train on through so it wouldn't stop where they were. So there were a lot of efforts to keep control over the supply.

On the demand side, they then set about all of these rules that, again, had been used during slavery to keep Northerners from coming in and recruiting, because that's essentially how the migration began.

MARTIN: Was there ever any effort to intervene legally into these activities? I mean the idea of the free flow of labor is a central principle of a capitalist society. So was there ever any effort intervene in this and just tell these people you have no right to tell these people where they can go or not go?

WILKERSON: Well, you're absolutely right. In fact, a lot of information about what happened during that era comes from official government documents. The Labor Department actually did a huge study about what was going on, but not for the reasons that you might think. They actually did the study in part because they wanted to see how could they maintain the economy of the South. Because it was in everyone's best interest that the economy remain strong. Essentially people looked away, because it was serving the purposes of the economy at the time.

MARTIN: And one of things that I found also remarkable in your - or perhaps it isn't from a standpoint of human nature, is the obliviousness of the kind of white public officials and just regular individuals during this period who were just oblivious and in some ways shocked that all these black people were leaving.

Could you tell one story about that? Like, for example, when Ida Mae's husband was settling up, they were sharecroppers and he was settling up, getting ready to leave, and of course this was a moment of great tension - talk to me a little bit, if you would, about the exchange that Ida Mae's husband had with the farmer.

WILKERSON: The planter.

MARTIN: The planter.

WILKERSON: The planter. It was a very common thing that the tension between them - that the farmer would never know whether he would get anything for his entire year's labor. And even if he had books that he kept, he couldn't have made use of them because whatever the planter said was what he was going to be paid or not; generally they weren't paid anything. And so what he did was when he told him that he was getting ready to leave, the planter said, well, why would you leave? There was this fiction that they had accepted that actually all was well. All was well because any dissent was shut down, and the ultimate, of course, being the lynchings that would be intermittent reminders of just who was in control, that they actually began to believe the idea that the people wanted to do this kind of work.

MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, about Dr. Foster's story, about how he actually left and what that journey was. You actually tried to replicate it.

WILKERSON: I tried to replicate it. He ended up not accurately identifying the boundaries of Jim Crow. It was a shock to him how far Jim Crow extended beyond what one would consider the end of it, which would be Texas. And so he had to make this long perilous drive and he did not realize that he was not going to be able to stop for many, many, many states in the West until he got to California.

MARTIN: By stop, you literally mean stop - that he could not find a place that would accept him.

WILKERSON: He could not find a place where he could rest for the night. It was disheartening and he began to even question whether he was doing the right thing, but he had gone too far to come back. I tried to replicate that by renting a Buick, just like he did, and I had my parents with me, who were by then retired and always up for an adventure. They had migrated themselves. And I told them in the beginning, I must do the entire drive because this is what Dr. Foster did, and I want to experience what he did. You know, the hands begin to swell and ache and your eyes get heavy with the desire for sleep and you begin to veer a little bit on the road. You're driving around hairpin turns, and we only made it as far as Yuma, Arizona, still a long way from California, where my parents said, for all of our sakes, we've got to stop. And we did. And because it was no longer 1953, we found a place and it shows you just how far we've come as a country.

MARTIN: What was your biggest surprise in chronicling this journey?

WILKERSON: There were so many assumptions made about these people. It was assumed that they came up to the North and did not want to work. It was assumed that they came up and had all these babies, that they were not married, and it turned out the exact opposite was true. A sociologist, who is now at Harvard, Stanley Lieberson, he did a study of immigrants and the southerners who were coming out to the North. And he looked at the birth rates for the women in all these different groups and they all had come from similar sort of agrarian lifestyles, so to speak, and all of them were in these northern cities.

The assumption would be that black women would be at the top of the list. They would've had the most number of children per 1,000 women. It turned out they were at the absolute rock bottom. They had the lowest birthrate of all of those women that this man studied. In many cases, there were other groups that had twice the birthrate as the black women did, and that just struck me...

MARTIN: And why do you think that matters?

WILKERSON: I think it matters because it's one of the big misconceptions, it's a conventional wisdom that actually has no basis in fact. And it helps you see them differently and what they did so differently. I mean they left because of many different circumstances, but the overarching one was the Jim Crow caste system they were part of. And when they got to the North, they made the ultimate sacrifice, which was to keep their families because they couldn't afford that. They didn't have this backup. They couldn't possibly go back home and say, well, we didn't make it. The people back home would be the first ones to say, well, we knew you weren't going to make it up in the North. And so they had to, to do that. And how ironic is it that the exact opposite is what we assume now.

MARTIN: Well, we're going to have to have you back to talk about the second part of the story, which is what happened when these - the people who you focused on made their way to the North. So we're going to have to have you back to tell that part of the story, Isabel. But before we let you go for today, I wonder what difference you think it will make if people have a broader and deeper picture of who these people are and why they moved and what they found when they moved.

WILKERSON: Well, one of the goals was to try to get everyone to be able to imagine themselves doing the kinds of things that they did, and to try to picture what would you do if you were in that circumstance. And beyond that, my goal was to restore the migration to its proper place in history. And then finally it would be that all of us recognize that we have so much more in common than we've been led to believe - so much more in common. All of us have someone in our background who wanted something better and acted on it. And that's why we're here.

MARTIN: Isabel Wilkerson is the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story America's Great Migration." She was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first African-American to win for individual reporting. She's now professor of journalism at Boston University and she's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you so much for joining us.

WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: To be continued.

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