thumbnail of Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Isabel Wilkerson: Epic Story of Americas Great Migration
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
And so tonight I'm pleased to welcome journalist Isabel Wilkerson who is with us to discuss the Warmth of Other Suns The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Using profiles of three different black Americans Ms Wilkerson illustrates a 55 year long journey known as the great migration of The Warmth of Other Suns The New Yorker writes that it is a deeply affecting finely crafted and heroic book. Well Kristen has taken one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar and told it to the lives of three people. No one has ever heard of. This is a narrative nonfiction lyrical and tragic and fatalist Wilkinson urges finally is an argument all its compassion. Hush and listen. And from the York Times it is a narrative epic rigorous enough to impress all but the crankiest of scholars yet so immensely readable as still an author a future place on Oprah's couch. A regular a regular lecturer a prolific writer an acclaimed journalist Isabel Wilkerson became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994 while working as a Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times.
She has received a George S. Polk Award a Guggenheim fellowship and a journalist of the year award from the National Association of Black Journalists. Ms Wilkerson is now a local busto and a professor in the College of Communications at Boston University. We're absolutely thrilled to have her with you this evening sweet Please join me in welcoming Isabel webs. Thank you. Wow this is a bit overwhelming. I have been in a cave. I've been in hibernation for 15 years so long that if it were a human being it would be in high school and dating which is scary. So I'm just so honored to be here. I have spent all of this time trying to understand a phenomenon that in fact I grew up with and attempting to turn this into something that could become palpable and real and that could carry individuals who might know nothing about this process onto a journey with the people that
I've written about. The Great Migration was perhaps the greatest and the biggest under-reported story of the 20th century. That is huge. It's really huge. And it was missed for many other reasons many reasons that make a lot of sense that we can get into that a little bit later if you like to hear my thoughts on why it was missed. But I want to spend time on what actually is what I spent my time doing. So let me define it for you. The Great Migration was the mass relocation of six million African-Americans from the south to the north from 1915 to 1970. And it was in some ways what I call the overground railroad because a lot of people had to leave under cover of darkness at the last minute not being able to tell people what they were doing. One of the main reasons I wanted to write this book is because I spent a lot of time as was described writing about the cities for the New York Times Chicago bureau chief and as national correspondent in
Detroit and in Chicago. And during that time I spent a lot of many many hours and many stories about the miseries of the cities and about the difficult lives of people who were in the cities and the middle class of all races and backgrounds who were having a difficult time as we are now under the current economic situation. And so I thought that I'd want to step back a little bit and see what are the things that we all have in common as Americans. And one of the things that we have in common as Americans is that. Every every human being on this continent including the Native Americans are here because someone came long ago. It depends upon how recent our the Immigration is that had occurred. But someone took this great leap of faith into the unknown. They left the only place I'd ever known for a place they'd never seen in hopes that life might be better. And that is exactly what these 6 million people did within the borders of our own country which is astounding that they
had to come so far in order to be able to find the rights and privileges that they were born to but were which were not recognized in the south. So I want to you know one of the things that happen in the course of this report of the research for this book is that I had to figure out how was I going to tell the story. Where do you begin with something this massive. And I turned back to the oldest thing in human communication which is telling stories. It's as old as fire and it's the safest in some ways the most the most direct way to begin to tell a story. So what I did was I set out to try to find three people through whom I could tell the story of the Great Migration. They had to be very special people for one thing they had to be very patient because they were it was they were going to be in for a long ride much longer than their migration itself because it took so long. I needed to find three people who were going to represent the three major streams of this migration.
One thing about the Great Migration is we often think of it well if you think of it at all. And that's one reason I want to do it as I want to to restore it to its rightful place in history. I mean I want to make sure I say that it should be taught and it should be on the tip of all of our tongues when we speak about the 20th century because it went on for so long. But I needed to find three people who would represent the three primary streams of this Great Migration this Great Migration was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls who just ended up anywhere. It was like any other immigration experience of any other group of people who have ever landed on the shores of this country. In other words if you go to Minnesota you run into a lot of people from Norway and Sweden. If you go to the Lower East Side of Manhattan historically you would find many people from from Italy as here in the north end of Boston. And so I I recognized it discovered that this was just as predictable as it might have been for any other group of people who come to this country. So the three streams were
on the East Coast from Florida the Carolinas Georgia and Virginia to Washington D.C. Philadelphia New York and Boston. The last stop unless they were going to completely leave the country which some did of course during slavery. And that was the migration that my own personal family was a part of. The second stream was from Mississippi and Arkansas and parts of Louisiana and also parts of Alabama and Tennessee to Detroit Chicago. Cleveland the Midwest and then the final stream in the stream that's been written about the least in which it was my pleasure to be able to explore was the migration from Louisiana and Texas to California and the West Coast the whole. And so those were the three things I was looking for when it came to geography. Then there was the issue of Time the migration went on for 55 years. Essentially it was the 20th century
redistribution of the South in the north when the migration began there were 90 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the south. By the time that it was over nearly half were lit reliving outside of the South in this great arc from Boston New York Philadelphia Cleveland Detroit and on to Chicago and then over to the to the west coast. They were everywhere. By the by the end of the migration which was in 1970. So I needed three people through whom to tell the story. How did I find these three people. That's one of the things that took so much time. I ended up going everywhere that I could think of that a senior citizen might be. Who is still healthy and able to talk and might be willing to talk with me. So I went to senior centers I went to Catholic mass vapid churches quilting clubs a RPN meetings on the South Side of Chicago. I went to churches where in New York
everybody is from South Carolina believe it or not. I went I went to Creole festivals and dances there Juneteenth clubs you can ask me about Juneteenth later if you like. I actually even had a booth at the Juneteenth parade in Los Angeles which is you know not anything that they teach you in journalism school but that's what I do. And I would go to those places and I would I would go into one of the senior center I was told that a good time to go would be when they were having. Before dinner at the Senior Center was a big big deal and I could get a really good crowd there but I would often run into unusual circumstances when I would run in when I would go into these places. One of my visits to Los Angeles was always a big deal because you had to fly out there and make advance preparations for going. And anyway I showed up at this one senior center in Los Angeles. And I get there and it's crowded to like here and the people
listening and I'm on the program to speak and the person right in front of me was someone from the L.A. County Extension Service for seeing signs for aging. And he said I am passing out these these pamphlets for you to protect yourself because we're getting reports that there are unscrupulous people coming to seniors and and presenting themselves as legitimate people but they're asking all kinds of questions to ask you questions about where you're from. What did you do for a living how you got to Los Angeles. They want to know about your housing situation if you have children what your children are doing they want to know all of this information about you and we're finding that they're going in there they're robbing they're stealing from the seniors and taking advantage of before you know what they have your Social Security number and they have cleaned you out. And then it was my turn. So I
had to go up and make my presentation. And I told them that I was a writer who was doing a book about the Great Migration and if you were born if you were came to Los Angeles between these years if you would please talk with me and asked pretty much everything that this man said that you're not supposed to tell people is kind of like what I need to know. And they all lined up to talk to me anyway. Thank goodness. So I didn't have any trouble with that. But it shows you some of the pitfalls of entering this world where you have to depend upon and you're hoping to run into people. And learned this to hear the stories of people who might otherwise not you wouldn't have access to. OK so I went to all these senior centers and I narrowed it down to 30 people any of which these these these 30 people could have been what been perfectly fine. And I know some of the people were had had hobo that actually caught the train. They hopped on a train and had to
actually you know almost like out of a movie climb from car to car to make sure that they were evading the. They call them railroad bulls. The men who would this is out of a Western or something. But they're real. The railroad bulls who were there to keep people from running the trains in that way. They'd have to jump off a ravine this is in the book as an as a matter of fact but these people did not make it in the as one of the three. There were there was a one woman who had left Chicago left Mississippi for sick Aagot for the most. Ordinary and also sweetly devious reason that you can imagine. She had married the wrong man and Mississippi and felt she had and wanted to follow a man that she actually did believe she was in love with who had gone off to Chicago. She ended up with him. It did not work out and she
ended up being married four times her name is very very long. It's like Ruby welts Mase MacGowan Smith and there's another name I can't think of but in any case she was quite fascinating too. And she didn't make it with a lot of people who might have made it but I ended up with these three. And the first one is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney. And she was a sharecropper's wife who was terrible at picking cotton. Just awful. She would just fall on a sack in 100 degree heat and not be able keep up with her husband it was far down the row. And you don't think of people being good or bad at Cotton you just think of them as picking it. And actually there was a there was a sort of skill to it. And I spent a lot of time reading about what it took to pick cotton for one thing cotton is very light if you think about Q-tips or does cotton balls and they needed to pick 100 pounds a day. That means 100 pounds of nothingness because what is a cotton ball weigh. And they had to drag the sack behind them throughout the heat and she was just not very good at it it's it was a mind
numbing work. It was like picking a hundred pounds of feathers. If you can imagine how much work was involved in that and then you'd have to stop that day when you could no longer see and start up again and do the exact same thing. She was terrible at it and she didn't like it. She and her husband ended up leaving Mississippi under difficult circumstances as was the case for some people. It turned out that one of the cousins of her husband was beaten within an inch of his life over a theft that he had not committed. In other words he was accused of a theft of something so mundane a turkey for example is owned by the planter for whom they all worked and he was beaten for that beaten almost to death. Her husband I may's husband went to jail to retrieve him that's where he was taken not to any hospital and they would have been taken to the hospital anyway. He got him and found him in such horrific circumstances that he went
went home to his wife and he said this is the last crop we're making. And so they left. They didn't leave instantly they had to divert divest themselves of what little they own and prepare to leave. They told no one that they were leaving only her mother and they prepared to. They got off the man's land and then they left. The second person was George Starling who was a college student who had to drop out of college because the money ran out and there were no schools that would permit black people in Florida where he was from in the county where he was living or anywhere nearby. There were there was only Florida A&M which permitted them and it was hours and hours away. So he had to drop out of school they could no longer support him going off to college that far. And so he returned to the work that was the work of the people in the place where he lived which was picking oranges and grapefruit at great peril. They often had to go into 30 and 40 foot trees that's how big the citrus trees would get in Florida
and they would have to splice together the ladders in order to go up in the limbs of the tree position themselves in the crook of the limb of the tree many times people fall out of the tree break a limb. Very dangerous they were being paid 10 and 12 cents a box for boxes of fruit that would then sell for three or four dollars on the open market and he was gone. He was smart enough to be able to read the paper this was never not hidden actually was. They were quite proud of how much money they were making in Florida for this. And he began to agitate for higher wages meaning a nickel more a box. The growers were not accustomed to being confronted in that way. And one day George got. Someone came up to him and warned him that he'd heard overheard the grove owners talking about what they were going to do to him. They were planning a lynching of him because he was causing too much trouble in those days. Unions were not permitted in the
South anyway and particularly not the kind of thing he was talking about. Also during that era there was a lot of. There were a lot of arrests of black men in particular for vagrancy if they were not seen working. So here he was actually is telling people to to not work. And at a time when they were actually arresting people they were and I mean not working on a Saturday. There was one of his crew members was actually arrested on a Saturday because he wasn't working. So he ended up leaving after being given that news that he went to New York and then finally the person whom the reviewers seem to really like is Dr Robert Foster he was a surgeon. He had been in the army. He had done surgery in the army for his country during the Korean War but when he got home to Monroe Louisiana he was not permitted to perform service surgery in his own hometown of Monroe Louisiana. And so he decided he would take this treacherous trip
unbeknownst to him was way more treacherous than he had anticipated and he ended up going to California. Now his migration is one just I'm going to. Tell you a little bit about some of the reporting that went into this. I ended up wanting to recreate his journey I want to recreate all their journeys but his was the most treacherous What happened was he was not able to complete he was not able to stop for a good stretch of the journey. And so I said to myself well I'm going to try it. I'm going to try it and see if I can do that he had given this precise direction and description of where he stopped and worry when he said this thing. I've gone over three thousand times trying to figure out why this happened and what happened. And so he gave me precise descriptions of exactly where he went and with that I got I had rented a Buick which is what he had driven. He had a Buick Roadmaster 951. I had the newest one that they had available he was quite proud of his Buick. And
he set out on a journey with my parents who were also part of the migration. They had been and we made it as far as Yuma Arizona and my parents said I was beginning the blues you know. I wanted to experience this I wanted to experience what happens when you have to drive this far without being able to stop I want to. The swollen fingers that are gripping the wheel I wanted to feel the heaviness of your eyelids as they're about to fighting sleep in one into one in the clothes and go to sleep so badly that they actually a. I wanted to see what it was like to be driving in the darkness a long hair pinned to curves in the desert and not be able to see your way clear because you're still a long way from California. You know in the West the states are big much bigger than here. You know for five or six states on in the east could fit in one of those states Texas is a country unto itself. So when we got to Yuma Arizona and I was beginning to veer off the road and cross into another lane my
parents said we're stopping for our sake we're stopping you're stopping us all my father could do to keep himself from STD from taking the wheel from me and I said Nope I've got to do it I've got to do it he did it himself. He didn't have anyone to relieve him he had no one else in the car with him. He was Vimes self. He didn't have all the things that we're accustomed to no cell phones no CDs nothing at the almost unimaginable. And the cars weren't made as well. There were lots of cars it would fall the fall would would overheat on the way. It was a treacherous treacherous time if you think about it just driving alone in the middle of nowhere. It's a big big country. In any case I was unable to recreate it to the letter what he had done and I felt sad that I wasn't and it actually made it all the more poignant what he ended up doing. He had to make it on his own. And it's just to me it's a powerful part of the book. I want to I want to. And with my general talk I want to hear what your questions might be. There's so many ways I could talk about this. I think the main thing I want people to take away from this
book is the idea that we have so much more in common than we've been led to believe. One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century I believe in one of the greatest tragedies that comes through in the idea of what these people were seeking they were seeking what anyone else who ever left the only place they ever knew for a place they never seen would want and that was basically to be free. And one of the greatest tragedies is that once they arrived in these cities after all that they had been through in the Jim Crow South everything. And I can give you a little bit of detail too about what it was like I have some of the rules and laws that someone sat down to write. But in the case after all of that they had been through then got to the big cities and found that they had competition that they had not anticipated and people who found them threatening because they were accustomed to basically working for almost nothing. Many of the people had been working for nothings press if they'd been sharecropping very rarely would they clear anything so they were accustomed to lots of
hard back breaking work for little pay. That meant that wherever they went they would potentially depress the wages of wherever they went and people who were in the northern cities knew that. And so there was a great effort to to stop it. After each wave people thought OK it's done well we're won it's over with. It wasn't over the people no one told the people so they kept coming. World War 2 it's done. The people kept coming no one told them it was over with 50s it's over it's done. Nope ISTEP still kept coming until 1970 and that's just the reasons for why they were leaving finally ended in the south. The South began to change and then they were no longer needing to come here as often and even now the children are often returning back. But the the but the point of this is that the people who are converging on these big cities in the North Chicago and Boston and Cleveland and Detroit Los Angeles there were waves of immigrants coming from all over the world. At the same time they were arriving
and they were all of this they were all really the same people many of them were people of the land people who had also left. Oppression and persecution back where they were from and wanting something better maybe not even for themselves because they were going to they had already lived part of their life. Whatever education however poor it was they already had it. But maybe it would be better for their children and so they were all coming wanting the same thing coming for very similar reasons. The exact same people with the exception of the one thing that made them different which was the color of their skin and then the often northern industry use that against used it to create a wedge allowing some into a union and using others the ones from the south often as union busters they would use they would hire them. They would be desperate to be up here and and it created this great wedge. What did we lose as a country because these people did not get the opportunity to get to really know one another that they were riven apart from one another and it's really one of the great tragedies I think. Which is
again the reason why I wanted to do it I want to people to realize how very much we have in common as people. And I hope that we've grown a lot from that era In fact I know that we have. And I give you one example of why. My my migration migration experience is that from Georgia. My mother was originally from Georgia and she migrated to Washington D.C. toward the end of World War 2 and years later in the 50s my father actually migrated from southern Virginia to Washington. So had they not migrated I wouldn't be here and you would have as well because I wouldn't exist which is kind of a very American story too I mean how many people exist here because some great grandmother from Poland actually married somebody from a great grandfather from Ireland and here you have you know decades later generations later here you are I mean how many Americans would not exist had there not been someone in our backgrounds who did this very thing. This is much closer in my own background but
literally i wouldn't exist because they never would have met. And so that's part of my migration experience but in the course of working on this book and interviewing all these people to a hundred people. My mother was one of the most difficult people to interview. She would not talk she never talked about it when I was growing up. She only took me home to Georgia once when I was six years old. And she just didn't talk about it once she left. She left some people change their names. My mother added an to her name like this suddenly she's a whole new person. She had him he was Ruby are you be why the made her more cosmopolitan and sophisticated I guess he was in Washington in any case. She eventually began to talk after I came back with all these stories from other people you know suddenly she was feeling a little left out. There's nothing like a little competition to get people talking. So she's told me the story of my grandfather whom I never met. My grandfather had gone to college she had gone to Morehouse but he found that in the era in which he was coming into
the into his own in the 20s there were no jobs for him with the ology degree what with what could you do with that really. He was in a small town in Georgia where there would not have been churches to support the lifestyle of what you might expect of a college degree to do so he ended up getting a job to take care of his family operating an elevator and the insurance company in Georgia. But what he really wanted to do was to be a writer. And he wrote reams and reams and reams of what we believed to have been a memoir which no one at the time paid attention to I think my mother probably drew crayons or something on it I mean they just didn't take it very seriously. And he then gave his two daughters a typewriter a Corona typewriter that he hoped they would be able to learn to use one day so that they would be maybe become want to write. My mother had no interest in writing and so they just picked on it and just played with it. But in any case he wanted to be a writer but he could not walk in the front door of the room News Tribune in those days not possible in the 30s.
And years later decades later the granddaughter that he would never meet would never know would even exist would then go on to write for The New York Times he could never in his wildest dreams of imagine that the typewriter went unused for all those generations all those decades. And then finally someone without even knowing it existed I didn't find out about it until much later when my mother finally told me and she gave it to me that he had actually wanted to do this all along. So that shows you how far we have come as a country and even in my own family. So I'd like to do and with the epigraph from the book which is from Richard Wright from which the title comes. I discovered this while reading at one point I was reading a book a day speak about being at a bookstore it's all I can do is just to drop drop everything and go looking in the shelves because I just love bookstores and I read read a book a day and one of them was the autobiography of Richard Wright
and it was the annotated version which meant that it had been. It had been repeated. It had been reprinted as he originally wished it to be and that meant that this this part was actually in the footnote on page four ninety six and I got to read the footnotes and I've discovered this. It actually represents what any of us who might ever have a dream that might take us far away even in our own little circle just wherever it might take us. It's an inspiration for anyone who needs to make this great decision. And so what he said was this 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 thank you and I'd love to take your question. Thank you.
It went on for 55 years really maybe 60 years. I mean no one knows the exact date of the first person and no one knows the exact date of the last person but it went on for essentially three generations. That meant three generations of reporters or journalists who might have otherwise covered it. And it's and of course as I said when it began people thought it would be over people thought that it was going to be a world war one migration. These people were recruited. They didn't just start coming. This is in some ways you know history has a long arm. It doesn't happen instantly. Human beings move slowly through huge ages and arrows. And this is in some ways this great migrations in some ways a continuation of the Emancipation Proclamation which was not lived up to at the time. We know that there was reconstruction. It lasted for too short a period of time for the people who were looking for some relief from what they were experiencing it lasted for about 10 years when the north essentially pulled out. And then things got so much worse for the people who were there because that is when Jim Crow was reinstate was
instituted for the first time. Slowly the visor was tightening on the people who had grown just so accustomed in that short period of time to the freedoms that were just so short lived. And so by the time this migration occurred it only occurred it could only occur because things opened up in the north. It did not occur because the people suddenly decided that they were going to go north. And so when the North came calling during World War One the South didn't care for that too much and they instituted all kinds of efforts to keep them from leaving. They would actually there would be police who would board the trains when they saw that there were many of their basically cheap labor onboard easily recognizable because they were black. They would close down the ticket counters so that people couldn't buy tickets they would arrest people from the railroad platforms and then ultimately that's how they dealt with the supply and the deal with the demand. They ended up requiring exorbitant unbelievable amounts of money for northerners who wanted to recruit black labor in the south
in Macon Georgia. It was a cost $25000 to get a license to be a recruiter of black labor in the south. Now twenty five thousand dollars to do anything is exorbitant now. It would have been astronomical in 1917 and so it had a great dampening effect. It would seem to have had a great dampening effect on that effort but once the things were opening up and word spread people began to find other ways to get out they would buy tickets in the next town over where they wouldn't be recognized. They would leave in the middle of the night they did all the people men dressed as women and vice versa in order to get out. And so they did whatever they whatever it took once they recognized that there was an opportunity in the north. And so.
Harvard Book Store
WGBH Forum Network
Isabel Wilkerson: Epic Story of Americas Great Migration
Contributing Organization
WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/15-vd6nz8107t).
Pulitzer Prize--winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson discusses her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. Having interviewed more than a thousand people and gained access to new data and official records, she recounts how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.Wilkerson captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work.
Culture & Identity; History
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Distributor: WGBH
Speaker2: Wilkerson, Isabel
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: b994a885cbb03c84823236ee387bfa4471dafefe (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
Format: video/quicktime
Duration: 00:00:00
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Isabel Wilkerson: Epic Story of Americas Great Migration,” 2010-09-14, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2024,
MLA: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Isabel Wilkerson: Epic Story of Americas Great Migration.” 2010-09-14. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 26, 2024. <>.
APA: Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Isabel Wilkerson: Epic Story of Americas Great Migration. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from