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Book review: “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” By Isabel Wilkerson

The North wasn’t the Promised Land. Or was it?

The North didn’t have Jim Crow laws written into the books to keep African-Americans down.

But it did have James Crow, a term for the attitudes of white Northerners and their unions and government officials and institutions limiting the extent to which a black person could be free. In Chicago, for instance, an African-American could vote, but, throughout most of the 20th century, he’d better not try to move into the Bridgeport neighborhood.

And then there were the race riots in Northern cities, sparked during much of U.S. history by lower-class immigrant whites against blacks.

“These violent clashes bore the futility of Greek tragedy,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in “The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”

Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other.

Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by the earlier, more sophisticated arrivals. They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin, and many of them arrived into these anonymous receiving stations at around the same time, one set against the other and unable to see the commonality of their mutual plight.

Jesse Owens, who was nine when he and his family moved from Alabama to Cleveland, electrified the world by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler refused to shake his hand. In his autobiography, Owens writes:

I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler. But I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either. I came back to my native country, and I could not ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. Now, what’s the difference?

Well, was there much difference?

“The best move of my life”

His father Henry thought so. Wilkerson writes:

His son had had the chance to go to good schools, run on real tracks, and be coached at Ohio State University, rather than spend his life picking cotton. “My son’s victories in Germany,” Henry Owens said, “force me to realize that I made the best move of my life by moving out of the South.”

And, it appears, so thought the more than ten million black Southerners who took part in the Great Migration. For all the imperfections of life in the North, it was better than life in the South.

From 1915 to 1975, the massive social movement “swept a good portion of all the black people alive in the United State at the time into a river that carried them to all points north and west,” Wilkerson writes.

To tell that story, she focuses on three of those people — George Swanson Starling, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.

The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West.

One stream, the one George Starling [embarked] upon, carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia up the eastern seaboard toward Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and their satellites.

A second current, Ida Mae’s, traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh.

A third and later stream carried people like Pershing from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black southerners traveling father than many modern-day immigrants.

Immigrant citizens

This was an immigration. It paralleled the waves of foreigners who flooded into America from Europe, Asia and other corners of the world. But, as Wilkerson stresses, these immigrants were U.S. citizens.

Imprisoned in slave-like conditions in the South, they pulled up stakes (often surreptitiously) and headed for what they hoped would be a better life. Wilkerson writes:

They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them…They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.

They left.

There were many reasons to go. Prominent among them was the sudden violence that African-Americans routinely had to fear with no recourse to appeal. On average, between 1889 and 1929 — a period of 40 years — someone was hanged or burned alive every four days. Every four days.

For pilfering 75 cents or for leaving a job. For being boastful or flirtatious or uppity. For stealing a hog or for “trying to act like a white person.”

Seemingly any action by a Southern black in the company of whites could endanger his or her life.

Training subservience

And this reality spilled over to the way black parents raised their children. When a child acted up, Wilkerson writes:

There would be no appeals, the punishment swift and physical. The arbitrary nature of grown people’s wrath gave colored children practice for life in the caste system, which is why parents, forced to train their children in the ways of subservience, treated their children as the white people running things treated them. It was preparation for the lower-caste role children were expected to have mastered by puberty.

So, as much as their roots in the soil of Alabama, Mississippi and the other states of the South held them, the restrictions and oppressive threats of their lives were enough to push many African-Americans to head North or West.

And when they decided to go, they didn’t want anyone standing in their way, particularly among their own people.

Any leader who dared argue against leaving might arouse suspicion that he was a tool of the white people running things. Any such leader was, therefore, likely to be ignored, or worse.

One Sunday, a colored minister in Tampa, Florida, advised from the pulpit that his flock stay in the South. He was “stabbed the next day for doing so.”

Countering conventional wisdom

In the North, the transplanted Southerners found better pay and fewer overt limitations on their lives, but they were often crowded into ghettos, blocked from looking at housing in many areas of their new cities.

With the coming of open housing legislation in the 1960s, blacks began moving into formerly all-white communities. Often, the result was “white flight,” fed by a fear of lower property values because of the presence of African-Americans.

However, as Wilkerson shows,

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the decline in property values and neighborhood prestige was a by-product of the fear and tension [preceding any black movement into a community] itself, sociologists found. The decline often began, they noted, in barely perceptible ways, before the first colored buyer moved in….

There emerged a perfect storm of nervous owners, falling prices, vacancies unfillable with white tenants or buyers, and a market of colored buyers who may not have been able to afford the neighborhood at first but now could with prices within their reach.

The arrival of colored home buyers was often the final verdict on a neighborhood’s falling property value rather than the cause of it.
Also countering conventional wisdom, even among established Northern blacks, are the findings Wilkerson gathers which show that the Southerners who came North were an asset rather than a drag on their new communities.

[They] were more likely to be married and remain married, less likely to bear children out of wedlock, and less likely to head single-parent households than the black northerners they encountered at their destinations. They were more likely to be employed, and, due to their willingness to work longer hours or more than one job, they actually earned more as a group than their northern counterparts, despite being relegated to the lowliest positions.

Such misconceptions shouldn’t surprise us. They are often held about any immigrant group. The newly arrived people seem so needy and so out of it. Yet, history has shown that those who have the gumption to leave difficult situations and risk life in a new place tend to be stronger personalities.

Regarding the Great Migration, Wilkerson writes:

There appeared to be an overarching phenomenon that sociologists call a “migrant advantage.” It is some internal resolve that perhaps exists in any immigrant compelled to leave one place for another. It made them “especially goal-oriented, leading them to persist in their work and not be easily discouraged,” [Larry H. Long and Kristin A Hansen] of the Census Bureau wrote in a 1975 report.

“Ain’t afraid to breathe”

Moving into the North gave the black immigrants that chance to pursue their goals, whatever they were, relatively unfettered.

Indeed, after World War I, when the Chicago Commission on Race Relations asked the former Southerners about their experience in the North, the response was generally positive:
Feel free to do anything I please.
• Always liked Chicago, even the name before I came.
• Earn more money; the strain is not so great wondering from day to day how to make a little money do.
• Freedom allowed in every way.
• Growing accustomed to being treated like people.
• Wish all the colored folks would come up here where you ain’t afraid to breathe.

Although many reasons have been suggested for why African-Americans traded the South for the North and West, Wilkerson writes:

In the end, it could be said that the common denominator for leaving was the desire to be free, like the Declaration of Independence said, free to try out for most any job they pleased, play checkers with whomever they chose, sit where they wished on the streetcar, watch their children walk across a stage for the degree most of them didn’t have the chance to get.

They left to pursue some version of happiness, whether they achieved it or not.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Kathleen Naughton
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Great reveiw ! I really enjoyed and appreciated this book. I truly respect the strength and perseverence of each of the black Southeners that migrated. Isabel Wilkerson’s book is powerful and very interesting. Thanks for the reveiw.

    • Post Author
      Patrick T. Reardon
      Posted July 14, 2012 at 7:11 pm

      Thanks. You want to join our book club discussion of the book Tuesday night?

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