It is a migration unmatched in American history. In the middle of the 20th century, more than 6 million African Americans left behind everything they knew in the South and headed to the North, Midwest and West Coast. In their search for work, education and opportunity, they changed the culture of the nation.
That "Great Migration" is the subject of a new book by Isabel Wilkerson, former Chicago bureau chief for the New York Times. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson tells the stories of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster. All began their lives under the Jim Crow laws of the South and made a decision to search for a better life in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
Running From Injustice
Ida Mae Gladney left Mississippi for Chicago in 1937. The wife of a sharecropper was not happy picking cotton, Wilkerson says. But the main reason the Gladneys left was because a cousin was beaten nearly to death over a theft that he had not committed.
"Her husband went home to her and said, 'This is the last crop that we're making,' and they left for the north," Wilkerson tells NPR's Guy Raz.
When Ida Mae and her husband George got to Chicago, they found it tough to get settled. They didn't have the skills to find work in the city. George ended up hauling ice up four and five flights of stairs in the cold-water flats of Chicago, and Ida Mae did odd domestic jobs before she finally found work as a hospital aide.
"It took them decades really to get situated before they were able to afford to buy a home on the south side of Chicago," Wilkerson says.
Agitating Amid The Citrus Trees
The story of George Swanson Starling, another character in Wilkerson’s book, is quite different. Starling came from "the featureless way station of citrus groves and one-star motels" between Georgia and Orlando, Fla., Wilkerson says. It was a place of "cocksure Southern sheriffs, overworked pickers, root doctors, pool hustlers, bootleggers, jackleg preachers."
Although he was an outstanding student, Starling had to leave school to find work. He got a job in Florida as a citrus picker, but got into trouble when he spoke out about how he and his co-workers were being mistreated. He began agitating for higher wages and better conditions.
"And in doing so he ran up against that caste system in which it was not considered appropriate for people of his caste to do that," Wilkerson says. "And the grove owners became angry and he had to leave Florida basically for his life."
hide captionIsabel Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize as the Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times.
Joe Henson/Random House
Isabel Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize as the Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times.
Joe Henson/Random House
Trouble Even After The Journey
When newcomers such as Starling and Gladney arrived in the North, it wasn't always to a warm welcome.
"It's often said that immigrants, once they arrive, are the first ones to want to close the door on any new arrivals," Wilkerson says.
The African Americans already in those Northern cities sometimes resented the arrival of the newcomers — not unlike the plight facing immigrants today.
It took time to find their place in the major cities of the North and West, but the Southerners who stayed ended up combining elements of heir old culture – the music and folkways – with the new opportunities in the North. And they brought up a generation of talented men and women Wilkerson refers to as "the children of The Great Migration."
Among them are Toni Morrison, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Prince, Tupac Shakur, Miles Davis, Oprah Winfrey, the playwright August Wilson and many others.
"All of them, their work was informed by and infused by the Great Migration, which was in many ways their own stories," Wilkerson says.
Today, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren these migrants make up the majority of African Americans in the North and West. But many of them don’t know about their connection to the South, Wilkerson says.
That’s partially because when their parents or grandparents moved, they didn’t intend to look back. Like immigrants who choose not to teach children their native language, some didn't tell the stories of the South to their children out of embarrassment – they wanted to move on.
It's only recently, the author says, that the stories of the Great Migration are being recorded — despite the fact that it was larger than the Gold Rush or the Dust Bowl migrations.
"It actually spanned three generations of reporters who would not have been able to cover the whole thing and really truly grasp it as it was occurring," Wilkerson says.
"It's much easier to look back on it and say why wasn't it done?"
Excerpt: 'The Warmth of Other Suns'
by Isabel Wilkerson
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.