Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Isabel Wilkerson: Epic Story of Americas Great Migration
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. Wilkerson 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 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 this evening sweetie please join me in welcoming Isabel Wilkerson. 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. 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 immigration is that had occurred. But someone took this great leap of faith into the unknown. They left the only place that 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 have 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 Baptist churches quilting clubs ARPU 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 forseen says 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 I want to know all of this information about you refine it 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 30 people could have been women perfectly fine. And I. 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 riding 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 stack 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 are just caught involved and they need 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 was 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's 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 into 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 telling people to to not work. And at a time when they were actually arresting people they were not 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 his 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've 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 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 five or six states on the 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 was all my father could do to keep himself from STD from taking the wheel from me and I said No 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 it's 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 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 is 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 that 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 it. 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 any case after all of that they have been through and 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 worse 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. World War 1 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 fifties 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 there 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 use it 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 wanted 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'll 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
background 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 just 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 a to her name like this suddenly she's a whole new person. She had him he was Ruby r u b y the e made her more cosmopolitan and sophisticated I guess she 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 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 is 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 footnotes 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 it cost $25000 to get a license to be a recruiter of black labor in the south. Now $25000 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 it was a World War One migration that people wrote about a lot and then people thought it was going to be over. And so they wrote about it then and then they moved on to the effects of the people who were there at that time. So the story changed once there was a critical mass of people all hemmed in together because the story then became how people are living one on top of one
another in a in a closed in roped off essentially ghettos in the north. And that became a news story. So the migration itself the continuing waves of people coming and coming and following and great uncles and nephews and neighbors they just didn't get told because now there was a different story. So all these all these generations very few people sat down with the individuals who did this. And there was a great urgency I felt to get to these people before it was too late because they were getting up in age in fact. To me one of the lessons of the book personally is to never give up. I mean clearly this took me 15 years and when I started I don't know why people do this to you. People tell you well you'll never be able to do this you'll never be able to. So one person said you'll never be able to find anybody from World War One. I said what would start in World War once I'll be looking for people from World War one we'll never find anybody from World War I want to look at Will they must be of course that don't say that to a journalist because I was bound and determined to find one and I did. He actually
didn't make it in. He was 96 at the time that I found him in 1996 and I actually got him a birthday card there are actually birthday cards for the say Happy 100. They've talked about optimism that Hallmark would make a card they would say Happy 100 birthday. And he was a World War 1 vet. So what I'm saying is to answer your question is that it went on for so long that the story changed the people covering it changed. For example Carl Sandburg was one of the one of the first reporters we think of him as you know as this as our one of our most famous poets. But he actually was a reporter in Chicago and he was he wrote about the migration in the early years 1918 in Chicago. And so of course by the time the migration got to 1970 many of the people who would have originally been writing about in the beginning were gone retired at best and really literally gone from from our midst at worst and so that was one reason why it wasn't covered. That's a really good question because it gets to the
timing. The migration demographically statistically ended in 170 which would have been just before the you know the auto industry had it had its beginning the beginning of a decline there. The answer to mans of the question is that there was six million people approximately who left the South and that means that there are six million reasons they all had their own different reasons and that's one of the reasons. One of the goals of the book is to show that there were many different reasons in other words there were the there was the overarching condition of life in the south. So let's talk a little bit about what was over what were the overarching conditions of life in the south. What is that what was it like to be in that situation black and white. It actually hurt both sides that is that people don't often realize that for example it was illegal in Birmingham it is illegal in Birmingham for black people for a black person and a white person to play checkers together. That is just me who sits down and thinks of something it's somebody saw a black person in a white person playing checkers together and said Oh no no no we can't have this. And I actually
wrote that down as a law in Birmingham. There were black taxicabs there were caps for blacks and there are plenty cabs for whites. There were ambulances for whites and ambulances if they were available for blacks. There were black hearses and white hearses for those who didn't survive whatever happened to them that put them in the ambulance to begin with. There were black. There were there was a black. Boot window at the bank at a bank in Atlanta. There were black elevators and white elevator. The black elevators where the freight elevator is in Atlanta for example there were black telephone booths and white telephone booth. Now we have no telephone booth. But then there were ones for whites and ones for blacks. There's no reference in the book at all to water fountains because we know about that already. I set out to find every example that I could of just how arcane and insane some of these laws were. For example in South Carolina it was illegal in certain workplaces for blacks and whites to go up the same staircase.
How do you how do you even manage or you try to think what are the logistics of that. You have one staircase. So what do you do. How do you how do you manage that. Some of this is hard to fathom how you even make something like this work. And then finally well there's so many so many examples but one that is probably the most. Out of keeping with the whole idea of what was to be going on at the moment was that there were actually black and white Bibles in court rooms. There was a black Bible and a white bible. None of this would know what this was not some of the people were ashamed of or trying to hide. This was actually I discovered this in one of the North Carolina newspapers in the way that I became aware of it was there was a problem in one courtroom during a trial once because they could not find the black Bible. So the court proceedings had to stop. The bailiff had to go and find the black Bible because the black a black person to take the stand. And you know so that's how
I found out that that was considered standard and the judge basically said well look if we're going to you know this is the law if we're going to do it we might as well recognize a law because we are not in a court of law. So that was what they were leaving those that was the circumstance under which they were they were living under it was essentially a caste system that made it difficult for anyone black or white to get to know one another and one of the things that my mother told me was that her mother would take in laundry to make extra money. And these would generally be well to do white women in Rome Georgia who would come and deliver her laundry in one of the women in particular whenever she would come by she and my grandmother would just have such a ball they'd be laughing they'd be chatting. They were they were my mother so they would have been the best of friends in another time and place but they knew that they could only take it so far and it would never leave my my grandmother's living room. Once the woman left they would not be able to acknowledge one another outside of that.
What a loss that is whole generations of people who didn't get a chance to know other people who they might have been the best of friends with. And that's a reason why I say it was a loss both for black people and white people in the in that caste system because a caste system means everybody if you think of a caste literally everyone is in a rigid place and they must hold fast that place or else risk. Ostracism on the case for the whites and death at worst for Kate the case of blacks it was a frightening kind of rigidity under which they lived. And so it was that system that they all were having to negotiate and ultimately were leaving. But the precipitating event that might make one person leave or another might be different for them all as I described with the three of them there's something different that happened for each one. So would've been six million different precipitating events that would say for an individual this is it I'm leaving. He couldn't stop because it turned out that Jim Crow as he understood Jim Crow as we understand it which means segregated facilities extended far
farther than he had anticipated. It actually extended into parts of the West. For example in Las Vegas the casinos were were segregated. They were not blacks were not permitted to go into the casinos even to lose their money just like maybe that was a good thing on one level but the thing is that they were not permitted the choice of going into a casino. Well until the late 50s and there was a reference that in the book because the good doctor actually had a gambling habit. And if I can find it I'd like to read you the opening to him as he's. He was quite a character. If I don't find it I will tell you this. When I met him the very first time I met him. He sat down and he was a very formal man in a now informal time so he just would have a just a a fit just watching people walk down the street with pants falling down and he just had a fit he actually fired all of us
somehow lacking because we would not we be underdressed for him. He was quite something. So when I met him he showed me to his his living room which was all sure but he like out of a Doris Day film. And he was of that era and he brought out lemon pound cake and ice cream. I had just had lunch and was not the least bit interested or hungry but he was not the type of person that you say no to so I accepted it and he watched with each forkful and I ate it and then he proceeded I proceeded to ask him some you know about himself and he said I love to talk and I am my favorite subject. So I knew I had my man and California with him. So I hope that that may have answered your question or did I not get to answer your question. Oh yes getting back to. There are all kinds of perils that they face running out of gas radiator overheating none of those things happen to
him he had what he called a chariot which was his Buick and he was proud proud of it. But he found that he was not permitted to stop for the night. Throughout the long journey he could not find a room they would not allow on Thursday. So there are always businesses that spring up as a result of even oppression and so one of the things that was very popular at the time was that because there was so few places that they could stay they really literally could not plan on staying anywhere they generally would stay with friends but if they were in a place or travelling a long distance where they might not know anyone they first had to make sure that they had plenty of ice in case something happened the radiator. They made sure that they had all the food that they could possibly need because they would not be assured of being able to stop and get food. They had the Bible with them and they often read one of the Psalms that was important to protect pilgrims along a long journey and
they often had with them what's called the Green Book which are which obviously are no longer necessary and they're quite collectible actually found on e-bay and I was quite proud of myself to find it. But they the green books would be little pamphlets that would have the lists of hotels. With big quotation marks because the hotels would often be just someone's room. I mean it would just be someone had a row house in St. Louis or they had an apartment a flat somewhere in Nashville and people could stay there for the night they made them so they made their room available for travelers who needed a place to stay and the accommodations were atrocious as you might imagine because there was no competition. And so traveling was hazardous onse for so many people in so many ways and the Green Book was the only way they might be able to assure themselves of having a lease someplace. It did not assure them of cleanliness. It didn't assure them that the sheets had been to I mean nothing and there was no guarantee except they would be able
to at least rest their eyes for the night. And he wasn't able to do that. For one thing when you're in the desert once you reach a certain point there literally is no place even now there's no place to stop for any of you have taken the drive. Once you get into parts of Arizona New Mexico it's just there are signs that say you know 80 miles to the next gas station it's a frightening thing. And he had never taken this drive before and he was not a good driver and all of us friends and even I made it cause he was a terrible driver but somehow I mean he lived to tell the story. So because what happens is this book covers the stuff starts with them from the beginning you know the beginning of their journey going back to childhood the decision I was really fascinated with how they made the decision why did they choose this particular place. What was there for them what was the thought process how does any immigrant make a decision to do something so drastic as to leave the only place they've ever known for a place they've never seen so yes I did have to do talk with them and do research on what was the reception that they got where they arrived
and they were not welcome. You know the companies and business is one of them but that does not mean that the people who are already there want them for many different reasons. For some people for working whites they felt this is going to this is going to lower all of our wages because now we have all these people who will take almost anything to get a job. Remember they were highly motivated. These migrants these original migrants because they could not fail failure was not an option. Because what would happen if they failed they would have to go back home and there'd be people clucking and to say See I knew they were going to make it. I knew they would get up there and they were going to be able to make it and I knew they'd come back here. You know saying that they you know they just couldn't survive and they couldn't make it and we have to take them back in again so failure was not an option they had to survive out of pride if nothing else. So there were people who were who felt threatened in terms of the act what was going to happen to their station.
And there were people who you know is there was there was violence there was violence in the north there was violence in the south I mean there were there were no cross burnings in the north but there would be there would be fires would be set to their homes bombs would be there many houses were bombed in the north fire guns would be fired into the into the homes or all kinds of things that happened to people. When they ventured beyond the boundaries of the places that they were supposed to be living or are limited to. But one of the most surprising sources of resistance was actually from blacks who were already in these cities who were situate in the reason for that was because they had such a tenuous hold on their own position as it was to have all these people coming up from the south. Often the place that they themselves had left coming in and threatening in huge numbers because again because they were not immigrants not they were acting like immigrants but they were not immigrants. How could you stop a flow of people who were not really having to cross a border if they could manage to get
out of Georgia managed to get out of Mississippi and get to Chicago or Detroit or to Philadelphia then they were all right. I mean they were there and they were and there would be more people coming no one had an idea of what was this going to be how many people be coming. There was no way to stop this thing. And so the people who felt most threatened were those who had already found a way to coexist in a tiny minority that and found ways to have their love their beauty parlors or barber shops over there. They were domestics they were janitors whatever they were but they made a little life for themselves. And it's often said that when immigrants arrive in a place they're the first ones that want to shut the door and the cake and that was the case here but there was a lovely statement by one woman who was asked you know how do you feel about these people coming up in Maine. As it turns out they were. They needed to be sort of seasoned and told how to you know not to hang there or what they're washed outside into you know not you know not wear you know head scarves outside to comport themselves in a certain way as far as if they
were coming directly from the field. And so a woman who had been there for a while she haven't been in Oakland for a while. And so when I asked her how do you feel about these people coming up and you know with their country ways and all and you're still City fied and sophisticated. And she said well maybe it won't be for them maybe they won't learn. Maybe they won't really be able to truly benefit in the same way and understand what this is all about and how they should carry themselves but their children will and their children's children will. And so that was kind of a hopeful wonderful statement from her. It wasn't all negative. I you know I tried to look at things that had not been written about as much. And so one of the things that I know of course there's a ref reference. I mean you can't talk about the migration without talking about the effect on music overall. But one of the things that was most striking to me was the effect on music beyond just Chicago. The effect on music. As we know it it's hard to imagine what would we be listening to. Had there been a great migration and I'll give you an example. For one thing
Motown would simply not have existed. It would not have existed we would not have Motown you know why. Because Berry Gordy the founder of Motown his parents were from Georgia and they migrated to Detroit where he was born. And then when he got to be a grown a young man he looked around himself and he saw the talent that was around him and that talent these were all children of the Great Migration Diana Ross was that her mother was from Alabama she migrated and she was born in Detroit. Aretha Franklin it was not actually. She was of that ilk but not actually formally with Motown. Her family had come up from the south. The Jackson Five entire Jackson family came from the parents came from Alabama. It's hard to fathom what music would be. I mean and beyond Motown. So many other people Prince for example his his father was from Louisiana. I mean just astounding. And jazz. There was no way to know what would have happened would jazz even exist. The three main pillars of jazz Miles Davis
his parents migrated from from Arkansas to Illinois where he had the opportunity to do something other than whatever would have been the limited opportunity in the cotton growing. You know area of Arkansas the loneliest monk his parents his parents brought him to New York when he was five years old they left North Carolina for Harlem when he was five. So he had the opportunity to to go to northern schools and to get exposed to music that would have been an incredible luxury in the south who would have had the time to do that if you were out picking tobacco and John Coltrane John Coltrane migrated when he was 17 years old from North Carolina not far from where at the loneliest monk had been from they did not know each other in the south. And he went to Philadelphia and in Philadelphia he got his first alto sax. What would music be if we did if that had not happened. It's stunning to think what would have happened.
If they had not migrated I'll say for those of you can't hear what she said was that I. I said I was reading a book a day as I was to be about cotton production and it might be about Jim Crow laws that became obsessed with those but I also had to read about lynchings and that made me not very popular dinner parties we would say What did you do today. They didn't really want to know what I've been through. Well it was isolating I was in a cave for a very long time. But I think that what I did was you know a lot of people ask you know what is the say that you know there are parts of it that are you know painful. There are parts of it that are polluting and inspiring and those difficult parts. How did you get through them. And I think that I got through them because I thought about people needed to know. And the goal was to make it come alive for people so that they could picture themselves in those small towns looking at this wide open field of cotton that needed to be picked. And I almost wanted to cry of having to drive through the desert. In that way of hearing about a lynching
in a town not far away were actually in one place in Texas the the. Because they weren't able to actually get to the man and kill him. They then burned down the courthouse. I mean it's just insane to hear about this happening. I want to make it come alive so there was this quest for understanding so that what I was discovering was actually going to be to the good ultimately because it was going to be helping this era come alive so that it would be something that people could you know read about and learn about and grow from all of us because we were now aware of what maybe we were not aware of before. So that's what got me through it thinking about that. And I actually have been asked if one is better than the other and I'd like to say categorically no I don't want to touch that. And I don't believe that there's a reason for people who stay there actually are terms for that the people who leave there is a term called the migrant advantage which you might say all of our forebears must have had because otherwise we
wouldn't be here. And some people might take it even further and say that that's what makes a country great or whatever but the thing there is something different about people who believe everything but one thing people who believe everything have often generally have more resources more a more resourceful ness I should say. They tend to have more grit. They tend to be less patient with the status quo. They tend to be more adventuresome more willing to take risk the greater risk takers and they ultimately are people who are willing to jump off a cliff and not know for sure where it's going to where they're going to land. The people who stay tend to be those who are more attached to the land more maybe perhaps more sentimental not able to turn their back on all that they've known. Not one is better than the other but they both serve a purpose in this case. There are people who stayed who said we need to stay here so you have a place to come back to when you want to see home again. And that's a lovely thing I mean people are often discovering and I know friends are going back to Scotland and they're looking for forebears they're going back to
Italy and that's a lovely thing and they'll find people who are there and they'll find a difference. There is this pure distilled original culture that remains Wherever we're from. And then what happened and our culture with the Great Migration for example is it that pure distilled Southern black culture came in contact with the metabolism and vibrancy of the norther the northern cities and created whole new art forms. Toni Morrison for example is one of the children of the migration and of course the music that we've talked about so there is something different about those people but I think that we need both in order to be whole and that's what I take from all of this. So thank you very much. Thank you.
- Harvard Book Store
- WGBH Forum Network
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- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- 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
Speaker2: Wilkerson, Isabel
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: 8252f151c6955b7417dc528c522764cb970e20fa (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
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- 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. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-w08w950x5w>.
- 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 http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-w08w950x5w