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The Great Migration: Journey That Reshaped America

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The Great Migration: Journey That Reshaped America

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The Great Migration: Journey That Reshaped America

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Before World War I, 90 percent of all African-Americans lived below the Mason-Dixon Line. But in the middle of the last century, the biggest internal migration in U.S. history took place. It was leaderless, and many people didn't even know they were a part of it.

Reporter Isabel Wilkerson spent almost two decades tracing the lives of people who lived America's Great Migration, a period of 50 years where nearly six million African-Americans left the South for northern cities. Her new book follows three families through the migration. It's called "The Warmth of Other Suns."

Ms. ISABEL WILKERSON (Author, "The Warmth of Other Suns"): There were three great waves of this migration, three great streams, and one of them went straight up the East Coast from Georgia, the Carolinas, to Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. That was the stream that my family personally was a part of. And then there was also the middle stream from Mississippi and Alabama to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, the Midwest, and then the third stream, which is from Louisiana and Texas to California.

RAZ: One of the families you write about is the Gladney family. You interviewed Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who died a few years ago. She left Mississippi for Chicago in 1937. First of all, why did the family leave?

Ms. WILKERSON: Well, it's interesting that she was not happy as a sharecropper's wife. She was a sharecropper's wife in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, not good at picking cotton. In fact, she was quite terrible at picking cotton.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WILKERSON: But the reason that they left was because a cousin of theirs was beaten nearly to death over a theft that he had not committed. Her husband, after seeing what had happened to his cousin, went home to her and said, this is the last crop we're making, and they left for the North - first Milwaukee and then Chicago.

RAZ: You also tell the story of George Swanson Starling. He's this brilliant student who couldn't afford an education, so he ended up working on an orchard in Florida and then he made his way up to New York in 1945. Why did he go?

Ms. WILKERSON: He left because he had clearly the education to be able to understand the mathematics of the work that they were doing. In other words, they were only being paid 10 or 12 cents a box for...

RAZ: These are obviously African-American...

Ms. WILKERSON: Absolutely African-American citrus pickers at that time, which is the work he was doing after he had to leave school because the money had run out and there was no place he could go. And so he began to realize that what they were picking actually was going for so much more on the open markets.

And he began to organize the pickers and say we should ask for five cents more per box. We are endangering our lives. We're having to climb up into these 30 and 40-foot trees. Sometimes people would fall out of the tree, break a limb and it did not pay well. And so he began agitating for higher wages and fairer conditions and the grove owners became angry.

And he had to leave Florida basically for his life, and he went to New York.

RAZ: And what happened to him in New York?

Ms. WILKERSON: When he got to New York, he was able to find work, oddly enough, in a job that would take him right back South. He ended up working as a railroad porter, in which he began to be able to see the Great Migration unfold before him.

RAZ: You write about the tension between African-Americans who were already living in the North before the Great Migration began and then the new arrivals coming from the South. What was that tension like?

Ms. WILKERSON: That tension, to me, is a very human reaction that also reminds me of how similar this was to an immigrant experience. It's often said that immigrants, once they arrive, are the first ones to want to close the door on any new arrivals, and that was the same thing here.

Partly because the people who were already there, the small group of people who had eked out a position as a tiny minority in these big cities, they really resented the arrival of these new people who they thought might pose a threat to the position and the status that they already had.

RAZ: You described how many African-Americans from the South couldn't understand the northern accents of the rail conductors on the trains on which they were traveling, which may explain how the city of Newark, New Jersey came to have a significant African-American community.

Ms. WILKERSON: It's quite interesting that there are two Pennsylvania stations, one right before the other. And after riding for 23 hours from the deepest part of the South, they were quite anxious to get to their destination, which for many of them clearly was New York. And so when Penn Station was announced and Newark sounded so close to New York, they got off the train prematurely.

RAZ: And stayed.

Ms. WILKERSON: And stayed.

RAZ: What are some of the changes that happened in the North as a result of the Great Migration?

Ms. WILKERSON: The greatest legacy is probably the children of the Great Migration, meaning the reason why many of these people left. There are so many people who had opportunities to get education and to pursue careers that they might not otherwise have been able to do.

Much of the literature of the 20th century grew out of the Great Migration. Toni Morrison, for example, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, of course, who was practically the bard, the poet of the Great Migration - all of them, their work was informed by and fused by the Great Migration, which was in many ways their own stories.

In sports, there are many aspects of sports we couldn't even imagine. People like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe. Many of even current people -Kobe Bryant and others - all have migration as part of their family history.

And then probably the aspect that we probably take for granted more than anything is music. Music, as we know it in America, might not be what it is had it not been for the Great Migration. Motown, for example, simply would not have existed. Diana Ross's mother had come from Alabama; the Jackson family, their mother come from Alabama; the Supremes' Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, they were also from the South. John Coltrane migrated from North Carolina to Philadelphia at the age of 17 where he got his first alto sax. It's hard to fathom what jazz would be had he not gotten a hold of that first alto sax.

RAZ: This story has been called - and you've called it in the book - one of the most underreported of the 20th century. I mean, we know about the Dust Bowl migration, the Gold Rush. The Great Migration has been written about, but not the entire sort of sweeping 55-year history of it really until now. Why do you think that is?

Ms. WILKERSON: I think because it went on for so long that it was hard to capture in one particular moment. It actually spanned three generations of reporters, you might say, who would not have been able to cover the whole thing and really grasp it as it was occurring. It's much easier now to look back on it and say why wasn't it done.

RAZ: In the book, you mention how so many older folks you interviewed, obviously most of them are older folks, they still had this kind of visceral and complicated relationship to the South. I guess the easiest way to describe it would be a kind of love-hate relationship. Do you think that the South is still or will still be a fundamentally important part of the identity of African-Americans in the future?

Ms. WILKERSON: I absolutely do, because the vast majority of African-Americans in the North, Midwest and West are descended from people who were part of the Great Migration. Whenever anyone needs to go or wants to do genealogy or understand where their family came from, they must go back to the South. There is not really much of an option.

But for me, I would hope that it would encourage people of all ethnicities to go to the oldest people in their families to better understand where they came from because, really, we all have so much more in common than we've been led to believe. And I see such a connection between the immigrant heart of the people who were part of this Great Migration and that of so many other Americans that populated this country where people left the only place they'd ever known for a place that they have never in hopes that life would be better. These people were no different.

RAZ: That's author Isabel Wilkerson. Her new book is called "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."

Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much.

Ms. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

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