By Stephanie R. Jones
JA Contributing Writer
When Isabel Wilkerson speaks about the South during the Jim Crow Era, she doesn’t spend time talking about segregated bathrooms and water fountains. That’s taught in schools every February and “any second-grader can tell you about it in March,” she says.
Wilkerson’s topic is a less talked about part of African American history – the Great Migration, which occurred during early and middle parts of the 20th Century when Black people, by the millions, fled the oppressions of the South for cities in the American North, East, and West. It’s a story not as familiar to many as that of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.
Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns” that chronicles the history of the migration, was the speaker for the 2022 Medgar Wiley Evers Lecture Series Sept. 9 at Galloway United Methodist Church. The event was hosted by the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute, the Mississippi Museum of Art, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
“The Warmth of Other Suns,” published in 2010, was a New York Times bestseller for nonfiction. It was lauded by book reviewers across the country and abroad for its expansive, comprehensive accounting of the movement and garnered the author numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Wilkerson the National Humanities Medal “for championing the stories of an unsung history.”
While the book is about the migration, Wilkerson said it is not what she thought it would be when she began the project 15 years before its publication. “People said that they left. What more is there to say?” There was a lot for Wilkerson to say and she wanted the story of the migration to become a part of mainstream conversation.
“No migration is just a migration,” she told the audience. “This book is about freedom and how far people were willing to go to achieve it. This was a migration that occurred within the borders of our own country.” The migrants were native born and had been here for many generations and yet they had to do what migrants to this country have often had to do. “It’s the only time in our country’s history that American citizens had to flee the land of their birth just to be recognized as the citizens they had always been,” she stated.
Between 1915 and 1970, six million people looking for a better way of life for themselves and for their children “defected” to the North to escape what Wilkerson describes as a caste system ruled by arcane Jim Crow laws.
Her nonfiction book is written in literary style, using the narratives of three main characters to tell the stories of many who made their way beyond the constraints of the South. Opening her talk, she said she wished Ida Mae Brandon Gladney could have been there. Gladney was one of the three protagonists in “The Warmth of Other Suns” having fled Chickasaw County, MS for Chicago in 1937. The other two were George Swanson Starling, who left Eustis, FL, (near Orlando) for New York City in 1931 and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who left Monroe, LA, for California in 1933.
Her writing style is an extension of her work as a journalist. Wilkerson was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1994 for a story she wrote about a little boy’s responsibilities in his family while working for the New York Times in its Chicago bureau. She was the second Black person ever to win a Pulitzer. In 2020, she published a second nonfiction history book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” which frames America as a country existing under a caste system, like those in countries such as India and Germany under Nazi rule where there are upper classes of people and lower classes with rules controlling the behavior of each. She is currently a journalism professor at Boston University.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” takes its title from a passage by native Mississippian author Richard Wright, who wrote about his own decision to leave his Natchez home in the 1920s for points north.
The decision to stay in the South or go was one with no right or wrong answer for many in the South, Wilkerson points out. “I asked myself what I would have done,” she said. “Each decision is individually based on circumstances; yet, I would say every African American in the Jim Crow South had to have at least considered it because of the way the caste system was in place.”
The migration was born in part because of a need for cheap labor in northern states with the start of World War I, which limited migrants from European countries coming to America. The North wanted the labor – but not the people, Wilkerson explained, leading to different forms of keeping Blacks and whites separate, such as redlining and restrictive neighborhood covenants.
Whatever the reason for its beginning, the migration changed the face of not only the South but the entire country. “The migration was the first time in history that the lowest caste people had a chance to signal that they had options and were willing to take them,” said Wilkerson. “Putting it in perspective, this was the first time the lowest caste had a chance to choose what they would do with their God-given talents and where they would pursue them.”
They could be businessmen, doctors, lawyers, authors, entertainers, award-winning sportsmen, and society benefited from their choices. Their presence changed the demographics of regions of the country. And because they now had the right to vote, they had an impact on governance and leadership in the county.
Migrants left the land of their ancestors and their families behind not knowing if they would ever see them again and with no idea what lay ahead. What they left for generations to come is the power of the individual decision, the power of a leaderless revolution, Wilkerson said.
Something she found surprising during her interviews with approximately 1,200 people while working on the book was that none saw themselves as a part of a movement. They viewed themselves as making an individual decision under circumstances they happened to be born into, where their work and worth were devalued. Yet, they did something she said President Lincoln couldn’t do, what the Emancipation Proclamation couldn’t do.
“They freed themselves and freed the South of a feudal order that needed to go. … Where we are right now came at such great sacrifice that it calls upon us to do all we can do to make it mean something,” she concluded.
Stephanie R. Jones can be reached at (601) 454-0372.