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Great Migration: The African-American Exodus North

In the 1920s, Harlem's African-American population exploded — with nearly 200,000 African Americans inhabiting a neighborhood where there had been virtually no blacks 15 years earlier. Above, a Harlem street in 1942. (Getty Images)

Between 1915 and 1970, more than 6 million African-Americans moved out of the South to cities across the Northeast, Midwest and West.

This relocation -- called the Great Migration -- resulted in massive demographic shifts across the United States. Between 1910 and 1930, cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland saw their African-American populations grow by about 40 percent, and the number of African-Americans employed in industrial jobs nearly doubled.

"[The Great Migration] had such an effect on almost every aspect of our lives -- from the music that we listen to to the politics of our country to the ways the cities even look and feel, even today," says Isabel Wilkerson. "The suburbanization and the ghettos that were created as a result of the limits of where [African-Americans] could live in the North [still exist today.] And ... the South was forced to change, in part because they were losing such a large part of their workforce through the Great Migration."

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson
Hardcover, 640 pages
Random House
List price: $30

Read An Excerpt

Wilkerson, whose parents were part of the Great Migration, details the mass exodus of African-Americans in her new book, The Warmth of Other Suns. The book weaves together three narratives of ordinary people -- a sharecropper's wife, a surgeon and a farm worker -- making their way from the South to an uncertain future up North.

During her research for the book, Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people who made the migration from the South to Northern and Western cities. Interestingly, many of the people who Wilkerson encountered -- who moved during the time period of 1915 to 1970 -- had no idea that they were even part of the Great Migration.

"Sometimes they would even say, 'Well, I migrated from Texas to Los Angeles in 1947, would that mean that I was part of it?' And that would mean they were right smack in the middle of it. But they didn't see themselves as that, partly because these decisions were individual personal decisions," she explains. "And in some ways, to me, that's one of the inspiring and powerful things about the Great Migration itself. There was no leader, there was no one person who set the date who said, 'On this date, people will leave the South.' They left on their own accord for as many reasons as there are people who left. They made a choice that they were not going to live under the system into which they were born anymore and in some ways, it was the first step that the nation's servant class ever took without asking."

Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for her coverage as the Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. She is a professor in the College of Communications at Boston University and has received the George S. Polk Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists.


Interview Highlights

On the Jim Crow laws in the South

"There were colored and white waiting rooms everywhere, from doctors offices to the bus stations. ... But there were actually colored windows at the post office in Pensacola, Fla. And there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. There were separate windows were white people and black people would go to get their license plates in Mississippi. And there were even separate tellers to make your deposits at the First National Bank in Atlanta. It was illegal for black people and white people to play checkers together in Birmingham. And there were even black and white Bibles to swear to tell the truth on in many parts of the South."

On resistance from Northern African-American communities to the Great Migration

"At the beginning of the 20th century, before the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half of them were living outside the South in the great cities of the North and West. So when this migration began, you had a really small number of people who were living in the North and they were surviving as porters or domestics or preachers -- some had risen to levels of professional jobs -- but they were, in some ways, protected because they were so small. They did not pose any threat. There was a kind of alchemy or acceptance of that small minority of people in these cities. So when you had this great wave and flood of people coming in from the South, many of them untutored and unaware of the ways of the big cities, it was in some ways threatening to those who were already there because they feared the positions that they had worked so hard to achieve -- that was tenuous at best in these big cities -- and that's why there was a great deal of resistance."

On her parents' migration experience

"My parents absolutely did not think of themselves as part of the Great Migration. They knew they were part of a great wave. No one really talked about it in those terms or gave it a name. I grew up surrounded by people who were from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia -- all around me. My parents' friends were all from there. They socialized with people from there. They were quite ambitious and competitive among themselves, bragging about that they were going to put their child through Catholic school because that was going to give them a better chance at succeeding. My parents sent me to a school across town, an integrated school, where I had the chance to meet and grow up with people who were from other parts of the world. ... I remember feeling that I would never have anything to contribute on St. Patrick's Day. I couldn't tell the stories that they might have been telling about their forebears and I felt left out, and only when I got older, and began reporting from different cities outside of Washington ... there were people who migrated from parts of the South to Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and San Francisco. And I began to put these pieces together and it began to hit me that this was so much like the immigration experience of so many others."

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Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the decades between Reconstruction and the enforcement of civil rights laws, nearly every black family in the American South had a decision to make, writes my guest, Isabel Wilkerson. The decision was to stay in the South's segregated caste system or make the pilgrimage north or west, in the hope of escaping racism and having more access to jobs, housing and other opportunities. From 1915 to 1975, nearly six million African-Americans left the South, during what has become known as the Great Migration.

In the new book "The Warmth of Other Suns," Wilkerson follows the stories of three people who made the journey and describes the larger historical event they were part of and how it transformed America.

Wilkerson is a former New York Times bureau chief and in 1994 became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. She considers herself a child of the Great Migration. Her parents journeyed from Georgia and Southern Virginia to Washington, D.C.

Isabel Wilkerson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to tell the story of the Great Migration?

Ms. ISABEL WILKERSON (Author, "The Warmth of Other Suns"): I wanted to tell the story because I felt it was this huge gap in American history, that it had such an effect on almost every aspect of our lives, from the music that we listen to the politics of our country, to the ways the cities even look and feel even today. The suburbanization and the ghettos that existed that were created as a result of the limits of where they could live in the North, and also the effects on the South, because the South was forced to change in part because they were losing such a large part of their workforce through the Great Migration. So I felt that it had so many effects on our country and yet it was a forgotten chapter of history. And I wanted to elevate it in some ways to its rightful place in history.

GROSS: So, to tell the story you focus on three people. But you spoke to over a thousand people, right? Do I have that right?

Ms. WILKERSON: Yes, that's correct.

GROSS: So what are some of the places you went to to find older African-Americans who had left the South for the North during the period of the Great Migration?

Ms. WILKERSON: Well, I went to every place that I could think of that senior citizens who were still healthy might be. And that meant I went to senior centers. I went to senior day picnics. I went to various clubs that actually existed and still exist in many of these northern cities that were built or created by the people. Once they got to these big cities they actually clustered together and created clubs from back home representing their home towns, Lake Charles Louisiana Club in Los Angeles, the Greenwood Mississippi Club in Chicago; there are churches in New York where almost everyone is from South Carolina. So I went everywhere that I could think of that I could find people who had left - seniors in these cities that I focused on.

GROSS: And when you found people and you talked to them did they usually think of themselves as part of this great movement, the Great Migration?

Ms. WILKERSON: Not at all. Not at all. I would go to them and I would make an announcement at these senior centers that I would go to, and I would say to them that if you migrated from this particular state during this particular time period, then you were part of the Great Migration. And they would say really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILKERSON: Sometimes they would even say well, I migrated from Texas to Los Angeles in 1947. Would that mean I was part of it? And that meant that they were right smack in the middle of it. But they didn't see themselves as that partly because these decisions were individual personal decisions. And in some ways, to me, that's one of the inspiring and powerful things about the Great Migration itself: it had no leader. There was no one person who set the date and said on this day or on this particular day every year people will leave the South. They left on their own, of their own accord for reasons that - there are as many reasons as there are people who left. And they made a choice that they were not going to live under the system under which - into which they were born anymore. And in some ways, it was the first step that the nation's servant class ever took without asking.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the conditions in South during the period of the Great Migration before the Civil Rights Act. Let's talk about some of the conditions that African-Americans faced, some of the laws that they felt they needed to get away from. Can you talk about some of the Jim Crow laws? I mean we know about, you know, segregation in buses and restaurants. What are some of the other things that were going on that made life so difficult?

Ms. WILKERSON: Anything that could be conceived of that would separate black people from white people was devised and codified by someone in some state in the South. There were colored and white waiting rooms everywhere, from doctor's offices to the bus stations, as people may already know. But there were actually colored windows at the post office in, for example, Pensacola, Florida. And there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. And there were separate windows where white people and black people would go to get their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi. And there were even separate tellers to make your deposits at the First National Bank in Atlanta.

It was illegal for black people and white people to play checkers together in Birmingham. And there were even black and white Bibles to swear to tell the truth on in many parts of the South. And there's a great story of one case in North Carolina where the judge actually stopped the court proceedings because they couldn't find the right Bible for the black person who had just taken the stand.

GROSS: So even though conditions were pretty unlivable for African-Americans in the South in public life, when African-Americans started migrating north, the South was losing a lot of cheap labor and they didn't want to lose cheap labor, so suddenly there were new laws to try to prevent African-Americans from leaving. What were some of those laws and some of the things that weren't laws but that happened anyways to try to prevent black people from moving from the South to the North?

Ms. WILKERSON: Well, one of the things that they did was that they reenacted many of the codes that had been used to keep slaves from leaving during the time of slavery. So they reenacted some of those laws. They also created new laws to prevent Northerners from coming south and recruiting black labor to go north. And they exacted these exorbitant fines and license fees that would've made it all but impossible for anyone to afford to come in and recruit blacks to move.

In one case, Macon, Georgia, for example, created a law in which anyone who wanted to recruit black labor had to pay a $25,000 licensing fee, and this would've been during World War I. It would have been exorbitant now. It would've been astronomical at that time. And for anyone caught breaking that law, they would have to pay an additional fine and face one year's hard labor. So there were many, many ways that they worked really hard to prevent this labor from leaving.

Beyond the actual laws that prevented people from recruiting blacks from leaving the South, they also took to reinstating the peonage laws, in which they could essentially arrest anyone if they were caught trying to buy a train ticket, if they were caught waiting on the platform, and they even boarded trains and would arrest people if they were caught trying to leave. Sometimes in some places they would actually stop the train - keep the train from stopping at a particular station because they saw that there were so many black people there waiting to board and so therefore those people wouldn't get to leave.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Isabel Wilkerson. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who used to be the Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times. Her new book is called "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."

Isabel, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about the Great Migration.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her new book is called "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."

In your book, you follow the lives of three different people who emigrated from the South to the North during the Great Migration. And they had reasons why they left. And two of them in particular had like precipitating events that made them think, we got to get out now. So, would tell us the story of why Ida Mae Gladney and her husband realized it's time to get out?

Ms. WILKERSON: Yes. Ida Mae Gladney was a sharecropper's wife in the hill country of Mississippi, who was terrible at picking cotton and was not much help in the field. And she and her husband left Mississippi for Milwaukee and then for Chicago after a cousin was beaten nearly to death for a theft he had not committed.

He was accused of having stolen turkeys which belonged to the planter for whom they all worked as sharecroppers. And he was - they suspected him of stealing these turkeys - such a small thing it seemed - and they actually, in the course of searching for him, came to Ida Mae's house at a time when her husband was not home and they frightened her greatly. She had to stand up to them, didn't know what was really going on or what they were looking for and they did not really tell her what it was they were seeking. They said it really was none of her concern. But who they were looking for was her husband's cousin, who had been accused of stealing these turkeys.

And when they finally found him, these men, the posse, they beat him to within an inch of his life and then he was just taken to jail. And it was there that Ida Mae's husband had to go and retrieve his cousin. And when he returned from having cleaned the wounds of his cousin, he came back and he told his wife, this is the last crop we're making. And then they set out to prepare to leave without telling anyone.

GROSS: Now, another person who you write about - and this was in 1937.

Ms. WILKERSON: Correct.

GROSS: Another person you write about is George Starling, who worked as a citrus picker in Florida, and he left in 1945 for New York.

Ms. WILKERSON: Correct.

GROSS: What was the precipitating event behind him leaving?

Ms. WILKERSON: He had been a college student and so he had some education and only returned to picking fruit because the money had run out for college. Because he'd had some education, he was quite aware of how the workers were being cheated and how - the unfair working conditions under which they had to toil. And so he began to try to organize the people for better pay.

They were being paid 12 cents for a box of oranges or grapefruit and they had to put themselves at great peril in order just to pick them because they had to sometimes splice ladders together in order to get into 30-foot-high trees. And sometimes people would fall and they would break a limb. It was extremely dangerous, and very poorly paying job for these people.

So he began to argue for better wages. And in doing so, he got on the bad side of the growers, of the grove owners who were not accustomed to people - black people, the workers, the pickers, questioning anything. And so, this was a really treacherous period of time to be standing up to the grove owners, and he did that. And as a result, there was a lynching planned for him. And a friend who overheard a conversation about this warned him, and he left town and headed to New York.

GROSS: And the third person you write about, Dr. Robert Foster, left Monroe, Louisiana, in 1953. Why did he leave?

Ms. WILKERSON: He left because he was a surgeon. He had worked - served his country in the Army. He was a captain and had performed surgery in Austria during the Korean War. But when he returned home, he found that he could not perform surgery or even work in the hospital in his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. And so he set out from Louisiana to California in order to make a way for himself and for his family in a new land.

GROSS: When millions of African-Americans started moving from the South to the North, a lot of white people in the North were not happy about that and a lot of African-Americans in the North weren't happy about that either. Why were some African-Americans not happy about this migration?

Ms. WILKERSON: That's a great question. One reason that they were not happy -it was because, of course, they were a tiny minority. At the beginning of the 20th century, before the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half of them were living outside of the South in the great cities of the North and West. And so when this migration began, you had a really small number of people who were living in the North and they were surviving as porters or as domestics, as preachers, some had risen to positions of professional jobs, but they were in some ways protected because they were so small, they did not pose any kind of threat. There was a kind of alchemy - a perfect alchemy or acceptance of that small minority of people in these cities.

And so, when you had this great wave and flood of people coming in from the South, many of them untutored and unaware of the ways of the big cities, it was in some ways threatening to those who were already there because they feared for the positions that they had worked so hard to achieve and that were tenuous at best in these big cities. So that's why there was a great deal of resistance. In fact, maybe the greatest resistance had to - came from those who were most affected by their arrival.

GROSS: Now did the three people who you focus on in your book face resistance from whites or African-Americans when they moved to the North or the West?

Ms. WILKERSON: They faced resistance from all of those segments. I think of Robert Foster first because he had a really difficult time establishing a practice there or finding work even though he was a physician. He actually went door to door to many of the black physicians in Los Angeles upon arrival and met with no success. It was - he had a very difficult go of it trying to make his way there. He met with much rejection from physicians who did not know him, did not want to give him referrals, did not really trust or have any interest in anyone who had just arrived from the South. There were so many stereotypes and assumptions made about them and he had a really difficult go of it.

GROSS: Anyone else have a lot of resistance that they faced?

Ms. WILKERSON: Ida Mae Gladney had a difficult time just finding work. I think her - she and her family - she and her husband actually, had probably the hardest time getting situated and finding work because they had the least skills of the three people that I've written about. They were both of the land and her husband, for example, first found work hauling ice up the, you know, three and four flights of stairs in the cold water flats on the South Side of Chicago. That was one of his first jobs before he finally found work on the soup line at Campbell Soup Company, a new - at the time was a new complex, it was state of the art and he found, you know, factory work there.

But she had an incredibly difficult time. It was actually more difficult for black women to find work than it was for black men because they could find work. Strong backs were valued in every place from the slaughterhouses to the foundries of steel mills. And so there was more work to be had for the men. It was more difficult for the women.

One of the things that I discovered was that there actually was such desperation on the part of black women to find work that there were what they called slave markets that would be set up in all of these cities where the black women would just show up and hoped to be picked by a white housewife who might need a little help in her home. And they would just - they would come very early in the morning and they would sit on crates waiting to be chosen, hoping to be picked, which also meant that that kept the wages down. They were so desperate that they might take almost anything just to be able to get a little money for the day. So these were day laborers, day workers.

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her new book is called "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, my guest is Isabel Wilkerson, and her new book is called "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."

There's just one more story I want you to tell about the people who you interviewed. And this is a story about the doctor who - one of the people in your book, Robert Foster. And he went back down south to Louisiana where he was from, the place that he left because of segregation. He went back there to bury his father. And you describe how he ate at a formerly white diner that he couldn't have got into when he lived there. And he goes into the diner and it's so ordinary. It's such an underwhelming experience after all those years of being denied entrance and dreaming of being inside. And you say, how could it be that people were fighting to the death over something that was so very ordinary. What did you think about when you were writing that part?

Ms. WILKERSON: As I was writing about it, I was thinking about the mundane nature of all the laws that were created. The smallest thing that could be conceived of, someone thought about it and wrote about it and said we cannot have this happen. Something as small as black people and white people could not walk up the same staircase at a workplace in South Carolina, for example.

I was thinking about the great degree to which people were protecting something that really in some ways had so little value on some level, was so mundane. And I also thought about my mother. I mean my mother migrated from Georgia -Rome, Georgia, to Washington, D.C., where she then met my father, who was a Tuskegee Airman who was from Southern Virginia. They migrated to Washington and I wouldn't even exist if it were not for that migration. And I brought her back to Georgia, both my parents, actually.

And one day I decided I was going to treat her by taking her to the Fox Theater where we would go and see a play. She'd never been able to go into the Fox Theater in the front door when she was growing up. They'd have to go through the side steps. And so we went through the front door, and the Fox Theater is beautiful. But she'd been to many, many other theaters in the time since she had left. And she said to me, this is really nice but is this what they were keeping us from? And it occurred to me that what was being protected was not so much a thing but the caste system and the superiority - the superior place that was so necessary in order to maintain the labor force as they needed it to be.

And so it was quite sad to me. And I think actually for Dr. Foster, it was a kind of cleansing moment because he didn't return after that as far as I know. And I think he had made peace with it, had made peace with the fact that he had not really been kept from that much after all, that it was all a creation, a false system which had been created to keep people separate but was really not worth all that after all.

GROSS: Now, you've lived in Washington where you grew up. You've lived in Chicago where you were The New York Times bureau chief. You're in Atlanta now. You moved there in 2001, while you were writing your book on the Great Migration. Why did you move to the South?

Ms. WILKERSON: Well, I moved for circumstances that had nothing to do with the book. Life circumstances brought me here. And yet, I needed to be here in ways I had not intended. I'm actually grateful that circumstances led me here because I needed to be in the South in order to see exactly what they had left.

The reporting that I did for the book, the early part of the reporting, meant that I was spending most of my time in the North talking to people who had left, many of them having an exile perspective in which they had this love-hate relationship with the place that they had left. They could only see, in some ways, the negative things that they'd experienced and they had lost touch in some ways, some of them, not all of them. Ida Mae Gladney always seemed to have a very balanced view of both North and South. But I'd gotten this exile's mentality and I needed to understand what it was like where they left.

And so coming to Atlanta allowed me to be able to see the enormity of their loss. The fact that they had to leave a beautiful, beautiful land with trees and with flowers that bloom. There are actually roses - I thought they were roses when I first got here, they were blooming in January. I asked what they were and I was told that they were camellias. The beautiful scents of daphnes that bloom in the winter. It's a magical place that they left. And on top of that, they were also leaving family members that they might never be able to just sit and, you know, have a coffee with or sit and chat with in the same way ever again, so they were losing a lot.

And by being here and actually reconnecting in some ways with my own Southern past - I've been described as a Southerner once removed; there are all different descriptions I guess for people like me - I had a better sense of what it meant for these people to leave in this Great Migration and then it formed my writing in so many ways.

GROSS: Well, I'd like to end by asking you to read the epigraph that opens your book. It's a passage from Richard Wright, and it's the passage that gives your book its title, "The Warmth of Other Suns." Can you just tell us why you chose this passage?

Ms. WILKERSON: I chose this passage because it speaks to the immigrant heart and the yearning of anyone who has a dream and is figuring out a way to try to fulfill that dream. And I think it applies to anyone who has ever left one place that they - where they're from for another place not knowing what kind of future they might be embarking upon and so it reads...

"I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown. I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom."

GROSS: Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the new book "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."

You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

(Credits) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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