Eight of us (including two new members!) gathered on Thursday evening to discuss Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which is a documentary of the 60-plus-year migration of southern blacks to the north and west of the country, escaping discriminatory oppression for what they hoped would be greater freedom and a better life.
One of the most interesting points to come out of our discussion was the fact that few of us had any idea this migration was happening, despite the fact that it extended well into the early 1970s. As Angelo noted, “people who lived in the cities probably knew this was happening, but those of us who lived in the hinterlands did not.” And perhaps not just the hinterlands, but also those places that were not either in the south or in the destination towns. John, who grew up in Montana, also did not know of this migration, even when he was in college. He became a little more aware of it in the Navy, but there was a forced integration on an aircraft carrier. As he told us, there was no room for “this is your space and this is mine; you got along, or you went to the brig.” Even Ted, who was born in Detroit but moved to the suburbs when he was 9 years old, remembers hearing from his parents and grandparents about the city’s changing demography, but never thought to wonder where the people were coming from who were moving into those neighborhoods. “I didn’t know it as a migration, just a change in the neighborhood,” he said.
This is an interesting revelation because it points to the preponderance of history being told from a white person’s perspective. Even when John compared this migration to that of the early “pioneers,” we realized that those stories of the settling of the West failed to mention the impacts to Native American tribes and cultures. History also does not emphasize the presence or role of blacks outside of slavery. As Adrian mentioned, black Americans are known to have been among the pioneers who settled Wisconsin towns such as Parks Falls, Shawano, and Merrill. Similarly, Irv said, a black family was a prominent neighbor of the Swedish Settlement south of Grand View.
Blacks leaving the south were pioneers, too, in the very basic sense of the word. They were pulling up their familial roots and leaving a place they knew for a place that held all sorts of uncertainty and fear, but also hope and a certain amount of “glitter,” especially in the case of places like Los Angeles that at least one of the book’s protagonists knew from what he had seen in the movies. It may be because of this one-sided view of history that Wilkerson’s book is such an eye-opener. She, in fact, states that what historians call the Great Migration is “perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century.”
The numbers alone are awe-inspiring. Over a period of more than 60 years (roughly 1915–1970), six million black southerners left the Jim Crow south to begin new lives in cities and towns of the northern and western United Cites, cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York. “At one point,” writes Wilkerson, “10,000 [people] were arriving every month in Chicago.” The migration caused what must be the largest demographic shift in American history. Prior to the migration, only 10% of all black Americans lived outside the southern states. By the time the migration ended in the 1970s, that proportion had grown to 47%.
By the time it was over, no northern or western city would be the same. In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.
Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people to tell this story, but she alternates the larger historical account with the personal experiences of three main characters, one woman and two men, each of whom left the south in different decades. The woman, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, left Mississippi for Chicago in the 1930s. George Swanson Starling fled an increasingly dangerous life in Florida in the 1940s, taking up residence in New York. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was a surgeon who drove out of Louisiana in the 1950s with a plan of opening his own medical practice in Los Angeles. Wilkerson occasionally injects personal anecdotes from her own past, as she is the daughter of parents who made the trip north in search of a better life.
Each of the protagonists found what they were looking for, but the struggles they faced to do it are tales of courage and fortitude. The leaving itself was a delicate affair, as white southerners employed a variety of tactics to keep blacks from heading north (they were losing their cheap labor; who would pick the cotton or the oranges?). Many men left first, going north to find work and place to live, then sending for their wives and children. Amazingly, even when they were out of the south, migrants faced a more subtle form of racism (what once historian has termed “James Crow”) embedded in the communities where they hoped to live. It was perhaps less violent, but no less overt. It was a back-handed sort of racism. Few employers would hire them. Certain neighborhoods were off limits. Those who were able to cross into those neighborhoods may have had to move in under cover of darkness. Once settled, they sometimes found themselves at the heart of another migration, only this time it was all the whites who left the neighborhood. Some found the north to be too big, too loud, or just too intimidating, and they returned home to what was familiar. What sort of pride-swallowing courage would that have required?
Our group began reading this book just before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered what has become known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. That milestone gave this book a poignancy that I may have missed otherwise. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it gave the book more context. This migration was happening before and after Dr. King’s time. It was a precursor to the civil rights movement as well as an expression of and a product of it.
All agreed that The Warmth of Other Suns could be difficult to read because of the stories about how blacks were treated, both in the south and in the north. They are, in some ways, stories we knew about in a general sense, but they are never easy to revisit. Racism in any form is disgusting, but when it becomes violent and lethal, it is especially repulsive. How can people think and act in such a way? Never the less, we all found the book to be a compelling one. Ron said he couldn’t put it down once he started. The average score for both Interest and Readability was 4.5 out of 5, and most said they would read something by Isabel Wilkerson again. (One person abstained from expressing an opinion, and another said––tongue in cheek––he would probably weigh the book first.)
Though the Great Migration is what some might consider history, we could view the contemporary debate about immigration reform as a modern manifestation of a similar problem. Today’s migrants may not be escaping the sort of violent oppression that blacks faced in the south, but the oppression brought on by poverty is no less debilitating, and those who come the United States are doing so in search of a better life for themselves and for their families. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said the philosopher and writer, George Santayana. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is one of those books that no one should ignore.