The Warmth of Other Suns, a National Book Award Winner, is a riveting study of the “Great Migration,” i.e., the movement of millions of Black Americans from the South to urban centers in the North and West during the period from 1915 to 1970. Isabel Wilkerson interviewed some 1200 participants in this migration in addition to scouring news sources, government studies, literature and more to provide this detailed and profoundly moving portrait of the generations of Black Americans who transformed not only their own lives but the course of the nation through their exodus from the South. Along the way Wilkerson smashes the stereotypes and misconceptions long held about these southern transplants and introduces readers to three individuals whose timing/reasons/destinations differed but whose stories share important similarities.
The Great Migration began around the time of the First World War, and at the time, it was believed that once the war ended, so would the migration. This, however, turned out not to be the case, and the numbers of Blacks leaving the South continued to grow over the decades. While the economic lure of the North and West played some part in this phenomenon, so did a number of other factors, not least of which was the repressive and violent nature of the South vis a vis Black people. Despite federal laws, Blacks were largely unable to vote, get an education commensurate with white students, or attain economic & social mobility while in the South. Even contemplating leaving was dangerous. Many people were still essentially tied to the land through share cropping, and landowners kept their workers in debt, forcing them to stay at backbreaking labor for next to no pay. The choice to leave for the North or West was not an easy one and required much planning and a leap of faith. Often those who left followed family members or members of their community to whatever city they had settled. This explains why cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Chicago and LA might have large concentrations of Black migrants from particular regions of the South. In those cities, it was not unusual for “clubs” to arise so that folks from the same hometowns could get together and socialize. One of the important takeaways of Wilkerson’s research is that, contrary to stereotypes, Southern Blacks who moved North had stable families, found jobs and worked hard, and quickly achieved levels of success equal to Blacks already living there. They did not resort to dissolute ways and crime; rather, they built communities for themselves and their children even though they faced discrimination and limited job opportunities in their new home cities. Wilkerson also notes that while many left the South gladly, they also maintained their ties to the “Old Country,” visiting at holidays and for important family events. Doing so not only attracted more migrants North and West, but also reinforced the Southern culture that the migrants had grown up with and brought with them to Chicago, Detroit, and so on.
While providing the general facts and statistics about the Great Migration, Wilkerson also tells detailed stories of some of the people who left the South in the hope of a better, safer, more equal life. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney was married with children and in her 20s when her husband decided they needed to leave share cropping in Mississippi because of the danger and violence that whites inflicted upon Blacks. They left for Chicago in the 1930s, and while life was not easy, Ida Mae thought it better than what they would have had in the South. The Depression took its toll on all Americans, but Black women had an especially hard time finding work. They were at the very bottom rung of the ladder where opportunity was concerned, but the Gladneys persisted, raised their children and eventually bought a home for several generations of Gladneys in Chicago. They story of all the white neighbors moving away when they moved in is sickening but a common one. George Swanson Starling grew up in Eustis Florida, picking oranges and attending school. He was able to attend college for a short while and desperately wanted to return to school, but circumstances did not allow for this. George ended up organizing Black field workers during WWII when labor was scarce. He and his friends had some success in demanding and getting higher wages, but this made them targets of white hate in Florida. George had to flee for his life and wound up in New York in the 1940s. He was eventually able to send for his wife and he spent his life working for the railway, on the line that ran from New York to the South. He saw the Great Migration every day and tried to help those moving North. George’s family story in New York is often a sad one, but he never regretted leaving Florida and never wanted to return as some did when they got older. Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster of Monroe Louisiana moved to LA in the 1950s hoping to establish a successful practice. Dr. Foster was the son of educated parents who worked as a teacher and principal at the Black high school that Dr. Foster and his siblings had attended. Dr. Foster’s older brothers had attended college and one was a successful doctor in Louisiana. Dr. Foster married the daughter of the president of Atlanta University, and compared to other Black people, he had great opportunity in the South if he wanted it. But Dr. Foster detested the South and its restrictions. For him, LA seemed the epitome of wealth, glamor and freedom, and due to his hard work, he was able to build up a successful surgical practice there, catering to fellow transplants and even Ray Charles, who became a friend. While Dr. Foster’s story may seem to be the one of great success, his is also full of sadness. He never forgot a slight and seems to have made material success and his image more important than some of his relationships. His wife died young and his daughters, all successful and grown, were not close to him.
Wilkerson herself is the daughter of parents who migrated North, and a study of her generation would be quite interesting. What kind of lives have they built? Have they stayed North/West or is there a desire to move back to the “Old Country”? Wilkerson points out that the story of the Great Migration is very similar to the immigrant stories that we learn about the American melting pot, but Blacks in America are, of course, not immigrants.They’ve been here for centuries, longer than many other Americans. This is a brilliant study of an under-researched phenomenon that has had an impact on all of us. It also happens to be a great read. Wilkerson is an outstanding writer and researcher. Her interviews with those who moved for opportunity and freedom are eye-opening. I thought I knew about Jim Crow and discrimination in the US, but there is information here that is shocking and horrifying, and we need to know it. It’s US history.