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In 1996, Isabel Wilkerson stood in front of a group of half-interested Chicago Transit Authority retirees—all elderly, most black, and many, she guessed, originally from Mississippi. Her pitch went something like this:

I’m working on a book about the Great Migration of black Americans to the North and West, and looking for people who moved up from the South to escape Jim Crow, to follow a factory job, to chase a better life for their families. They must have stories and be willing to tell them.

A decade and a half later, Wilkerson recalls the bottom-up search for history that led her to conversations with more than 1,200 African Americans who made the journey from the South. That day in Chicago, she remembers, a woman stepped forward and told her that she just had to meet her mother.

Isabel Wilkerson interviewed  more than 1,200 African Americans for The Warmth of Other Suns. The lives of three of them, (clockwise from top) Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster, carry her book. Isabel Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 African Americans for The Warmth of Other Suns. The lives of three of them, (clockwise from top) Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster, carry her book.

Wilkerson’s usual unwavering gaze softens, and she smiles. “That’s how I found Ida Mae,” she says.

“Mother Gladney,” as Ida Mae Gladney was known to the extended family inhabiting her bustling three-flat home, was born into the near-slavery of sharecropping in rural Mississippi in 1913. Traveling with her two young children, she made her way first to Milwaukee, and eventually to Chicago. There, over almost seven decades, Gladney witnessed her South Side neighborhood become corroded by white flight, drugs, and gangs.

Ida Mae was one of six million black Southerners who migrated to cities in the North and West between World War I and the end of the civil rights era, and she is one of three whose lives carry Wilkerson’s new book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, published in September by Random House. A sweeping documentation of a mostly overlooked mass movement, Suns examines the motivations and dreams—and under the South’s Jim Crow laws, the fear and oppression—that compelled so many African Americans to leave the towns and farms where their families had lived since slavery.

“Wilkerson has taken on 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 through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of,” Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in a recent New Yorker.

The book is also Wilkerson’s journey: the story of a daughter of migrants seeking to understand her forebears’ need for fulfillment, for a chance, in the words of 20th-century African American writer Richard Wright, to “respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”

For half of her adult life, Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and a College of Communication professor of journalism, has been working to bring the story of America’s black migrants to life—and to embed that history in America’s cultural consciousness. She first learned the story in bits and pieces: finding photos of her mother as a young woman in Washington, D.C., just moved from Georgia and basking in her newfound freedom; listening to her father, who left Virginia for the capital, tell tales of his time as a Tuskegee Airman.

To write the book, Wilkerson had to dig deep. She spent years collecting oral histories and doing original and archival research, tying together historical, demographic, and economic studies of the Great Migration with a survey of its vast cultural impact on African American art, literature, and identity.

She moved to Atlanta, where she still maintains a home, to immerse herself in the South, which she had never known as a child.

By the time it was published, The Warmth of Other Suns had outlived its three subjects, as well as most of the elderly black migrants Wilkerson interviewed in search of her main characters. It also outlasted two high-profile editors at Random House and—most heartbreaking for Wilkerson—her father, a strong supporter of his daughter’s project, who died in 2002. Wilkerson’s work began in the long shadow of the 1992 Los Angeles race riots and the O. J. Simpson trial and ended during the tenure of a black president. Yet none of it seemed to shift Wilkerson’s laser-like focus on the story she wanted to tell or on the movement that arguably shaped her life.

“She’s like a heat-seeking missile,” says Lou Ureneck, a COM professor and former chair of journalism, who helped lure Wilkerson, then a professor of journalism at Emory University, to Boston University in 2009. “She’s a woman with a mission.”

Weaving Many Threads

In a profession increasingly inhospitable to thoughtful, comprehensive work, Wilkerson has refused to give her stories less than their due. She joined the New York Times in 1985, a year out of college at Howard University, and quickly rose to national correspondent and then bureau chief in Chicago, covering a vast swath of the country, spanning the plains of the Dakotas, the streets of Chicago, and the Rust Belt towns in Indiana and Ohio. At the Times, Wilkerson could convince editors to give her a week to capture the perfect anecdote for a single story.

A Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1994—the first individual reporting award to a black journalist—provided the final shove in the direction of the Great Migration.

Wilkerson noticed, in her early newspaper gigs in Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit and then at the Times Chicago bureau, that veterans of the Great Migration were everywhere. Her observations—for example, the large number of black Chicagoans she interviewed who were born in Mississippi—fed her desire to learn more.

“I knew that it was a national phenomenon, because as a national correspondent I had approached it at every turn,” she says.

She would later learn, in researching The Warmth of Other Suns, that demographers, sociologists, and economists had long studied the diaspora of black Southerners—and its consequences, including cheap labor shortages in the South and white flight in Northern cities—as a logistical “problem.” But “journalists only came in when there was a bombing” of a black home or church, Wilkerson says. Telling the whole story of the migration required weaving many threads into a much larger whole.

A Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1994—the first individual reporting award to a black journalist—provided the final shove in the direction of the Great Migration. The idea for the book “had been marinating in me for a long time,” she says.

A Kind of Sibling Rivalry

In 1996, between speaking gigs, university appointments, and sporadic writing for the Times, Wilkerson began working on the book in earnest. Her early research persuaded her that migrants traveled in three main streams: from the Southern coastal states to the Northeast, from the Deep South states such as Tennessee and Alabama to the Midwest industrial cities like Chicago and Detroit, and later, from Louisiana and Texas to the West Coast.

Once she had her subjects, she spent two years jetting from city to city to talk to them. She developed a delicate balancing act, trying to give each of the three equal attention.

Wilkerson decided she needed someone from each of those three tributaries. Beyond looking for people with sharp memories, no reservations, and “a narrative that connected,” she had no requirements for her subjects.

“I think the truth is more likely to bubble forth if you allow it to bubble forth organically,” she says.

The next 18 months were a whirlwind of plane hops between Chicago, New York, and California, scouting trips she made whenever she had the money. (A Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1998 would later help fund her research on the migration’s history.) She found her way to any place elderly migrants might congregate: high school reunions, senior centers, quilting clubs, AARP meetings, black churches. She discovered a vast network of state clubs—Mississippi clubs in Chicago, Louisiana clubs in Los Angeles—that had kept black migrant communities together for decades. Ultimately, she “auditioned” roughly 1,200 people.

“As in any relationship, you’re looking for that feeling of connection,” she says of her hunt for the perfect three. “That sense of trust, chemistry—affection, even.”

She felt the first spark at a church in Harlem, with a deacon named George Starling, a former fruit picker from Lake County, Fla., a notoriously dangerous place for African Americans in the Jim Crow era. A lifelong rabblerouser, Starling had hopped a train north in his 20s under dire circumstances: he had successfully, if informally, unionized a group of black orange pickers, and white grove owners were plotting to kill him. Ironically, Starling spent the rest of his life working for the railroad, ferrying many migrants like himself up and down the Eastern seaboard.

Gladney, in Chicago, was number two. But finding a California migrant proved harder. Wilkerson made many trips there looking for the right subject before she was invited to meet a retired doctor from the Monroe, La., Club of Los Angeles.

Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, she soon learned, had been called “Pershing” throughout his black middle-class childhood in Louisiana, then “Robert” when he moved to Los Angeles hoping to adopt the city’s glamour, and finally “Bob” after many years as a successful surgeon. Wilkerson refers to him, with admiration, as “Dr. Foster.”

“He was the most elusive,” she says of the brilliant, flashy gambling addict who never stopped trying to prove himself to his relatives back home.

The process of choosing “was like being set up on a blind date,” she says. Once she had her subjects, she spent two years jetting from city to city to talk to them. She developed a delicate balancing act, trying to give each of the three equal attention.

The dance spawned a kind of sibling rivalry. “When I would sit down with one of them, they wouldn’t want to hear about the others,” she says with a laugh.

Voting with their Feet

Wilkerson came to view her subjects more as immigrants than migrants, the term that stuck after Southern blacks moved north for factory jobs during World War I. She saw it in how they adjusted (or didn’t) to the cultures of their new cities, in how, by sheer determination, they worked harder, sought more education, and raised more stable families than their native-born black counterparts in the North and West—evidence that countered traditional wisdom on Southern blacks, who were assumed to have brought drugs and crime to America’s cities. But mostly, she says, she saw it in their journeys: like Ellis Islanders or even modern refugees, some African Americans traveled great distances in extraordinarily dangerous or inhospitable conditions to escape the South.

Wilkerson, who spent more than 15 years researching the migration story, hopes that readers will take away much more than her subjects’ experiences.

“The only way for people in this country to stop taking the migration for granted is to see how dramatic it was,” Wilkerson says. “There was no backup plan. This was the biggest decision of their lives, and it had to work.”

For example, when Foster made the solo journey from Monroe to San Diego in 1953—nearly 2,000 miles—he found out that he would have to do it without stopping. He had planned to stay at a hotel once he was past Texas and free of Jim Crow, but in western New Mexico, he discovered that segregation stretched further than he had anticipated. Each hotel he visited refused him a room, so he just kept driving.

Years later, when Foster was gravely ill, Wilkerson would re-create his journey: driving the two-lane roads, struggling to stay awake through dark stretches of empty desert, her cramped fingers clutching the steering wheel. She had hoped to take Foster, but instead brought her parents, whom she wouldn’t allow to drive. “I didn’t want to provide myself a luxury he didn’t have,” she says.

But by the time they made it to Yuma, Ariz., Wilkerson was exhausted, and her parents were worried for her safety. They stopped.

“I felt horrible,” she says. “It makes it all the more sad to me, what he had to experience.” She pauses, considering Foster’s journey, which was longer than that of many immigrants from other countries. The black migrants “had an intense need and desire for a kind of fulfillment that is hard for us to imagine now,” Wilkerson says. Without even realizing it, the participants in the Great Migration set the stage for “the ultimate conflict” over race in America, the civil rights movement. “The people who migrated voted with their feet.”

In 1993, Wilkerson reported on the massive flooding of the Mississippi River that ravaged the rural Midwest for months, a natural disaster story whose human toll she captured with the skill and empathy that won a Pulitzer. The experience brought home a truth the Great Migration exemplifies: some movements are all the more powerful for their ability to sneak up on you.

“It’s like the difference between a slow-crawling flood and an earthquake,” she says. “That water can do just as much damage.”

Foster was the first of Wilkerson’s three subjects to die, just 18 months after she met him. When Starling died in 1998, she attended his funerals in New York and Florida—it’s not uncommon, she says, for migrants torn between two worlds in life to request two funerals—and walked with the family. In 2004, she rushed to Chicago to be with Gladney at the end. “They became family to me,” she says.

Wilkerson, who spent more than 15 years researching the migration story, hopes that readers will take away much more than her subjects’ experiences.

“I would love for people to go to the oldest member of their family and talk with them about how they got here,” she says. “Everybody came from somewhere else.” fin


The Great Migration

The people Isabel Wilkerson writes about in The Warmth of Other Suns represent the Great Migration's three major streams—
from the South to cities in the Northeast, the Midwestern Rust Belt, and the West Coast. Click on a destination above to read about the journey.

Ida Mae Gladney's Story

George Starling's Story

Robert Foster's Story

Ida Mae Gladney...

is born among the poorest of the poor in Chickasaw County, Miss. She marries a sharecropper, putting herself at the mercy of the unyielding fields and the "fear and dependence—and hatred of that dependence" that characterized the relationship between blacks and whites in the rural South. In 1937, she and her family move to Milwaukee and then to Chicago. Gladney buys a three-flat home in Chicago's South Side, and, over seven decades, watches as her neighborhood dangerously declines. She never loses her Southern sensibility.

Robert Foster...

is raised by middle-class schoolteachers in Monroe, La. Trained in medicine at America's top black universities and married into an important Atlanta family, he is torn between his place in upper-class black society and his dreams of the money and respect he can't earn in the South. In 1953, Foster packs up his Buick and drives to San Diego. He builds a successful surgery practice in Los Angeles. But he remains "a long-standing, still bitter, and somewhat obsessive expatriate," who feels he must constantly prove that he was right to leave the South.

George Starling...

grows up in Eustis, Fla., "the featureless way station of citrus groves and one-star motels between the Georgia border and Orlando." He hops a northbound train to New York in 1945, on the run from white grove owners who don't like his make-shift union organizing in the fields, and lands a job handling bags on the very trains that ferry black migrants up and down the East Coast. Starling leads a quiet life in Harlem but never recovers from the failed promise of his intelligence. A hard man, he can recall "every laughable contrivance of Jim Crow, every grievance and kind turn" that befell him in the South.

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On 14 January 2013 at 5:40 PM, Sandra Wallace Trudeau wrote:

Although I'm a granddaughter of immigrants, I'm a white woman. And although leaning liberal all my life, I've been woefully ignorant of this internal migration. I thank you Ms. Wilkerson for educating me.

On 5 September 2011 at 12:31 PM, Felicia wrote:

This book sounds interesting, but it's not available on Amazon?

On 13 June 2011 at 5:40 PM, CB ('73) wrote:

Wilkerson has produced an intelligent, well-researched, extraordinarily well-written epic work that should be required reading in every high school and college across America, because it's not just black history, but a huge slice of untold AMERICAN history. I couldn't put the book down and couldn't get enough of the lives of Robert, Ida and George. Parts were painfully difficult to read and very hurtful. Ironically I had just completed a genealogical study of my family and found out that we were in Ida's back yard. My family moved from Chickasaw to Texas and finally to Los Angeles.So everything in the book resonated with me. My book club read and discussed the book--passionately--and we all vowed to use the book as the platform for discussion in our own networks and families. Oprah should have spotlighted this on her show and selected it as one of her best picks and a "Favorite Thing" instead of Jayzee's book (hello?!) . It's still not too late for her to spotlight Wilker! son on her OWN network. This story needs to be told to the masses and NOW!

On 2 January 2011 at 11:00 PM, Shell (SON) wrote:

It was hard to read,but I couldn't put it down.I really had a hard time with the things that happened to the very young. I know what I went through, being a liberal white woman in a completely unequal and oppressed society. I was called a "nigger lover" for most of my young life, because I wanted everything to be equal.Fear was instilled early on and yet my life was easy compared to the people portrayed here.I have always said, I don't see how human beings can treat other human beings like they were less than human beings. I saw animals treated better. It was very hard to see Mothers have to tell their children they couldn't have the same privileges or access to things that the white children had. Thank you for letting everyone see the real South, like it was, through the eyes of people who have been there.

On 13 October 2010 at 12:32 PM, Janis Mann (SED'79) wrote:

Very inspiring, would love to hear her speak. Must get the book!

On 12 November 2010 at 2:05 PM, Marion Moffitt (COM) wrote:

A wondererful read. As a former resident of the midwest (E. St. Louis, IL) and having resided in Los Angeles, Japan, Germany and Nigeria, I was elated at your insight and patience to follow Black history. My late son, STEPHEN BURKS is a BU alumni (Fine Arts). Additionally, my granddaughter (17 yr old) plans to attend BU. She has been bitten with the thespian bug. She enjoyed your book and we watched you on GA public TV here in ATL. Please keep up your good works and let us read and learn more!!

On 4 November 2010 at 11:12 AM, GEORGE OLSON (SMG'57,'59) wrote:


On 28 October 2010 at 12:04 PM, SusanProf (COM) wrote:

I am almost finished with the book. It is a fascinating, revealing portrait. Many of my students have family who immigrated from the south, so I am going to encourage them to read about their heritage. Would love to hear the author and to hear from the children of the Ida, George, and Robert. This history is more dramatic than any work of fiction available on this subject. I can see it as a feature film. Beautifully written.

On 21 October 2010 at 10:24 PM, Danielle I. Foster-Smith wrote:

I am so deeply moved by the fact that this book has been written as I am a relative of the late Dr. Foster. I admired him, and was inspired by his accomplishments. Thank you, Ms. Wilkerson. I look forward to reading the book in its entirety.

On 15 October 2010 at 1:29 PM, Malissa Williams (CFA'69) wrote:

I do not go to school in Boston, but I read the book, and it is the best! I could not put it down. This was my parent's generation and grandparent's generation, and although they did not leave Texas, I have Uncles and cousins who did. It was if I was talking to them personally. I read this on kindle, but plan to buy the book for myself, and then other copies to give as Christmas gifts to my three children. This shouldl be an Oprah book club book..

On 13 October 2010 at 5:22 PM, Mrs. Kabula Djenaba Abubakari (CFA'69) wrote:

By 2010's end I will have a family tree presented to our 4 children (husband's paternal family=14 siblings from Prattville, Alabama; husband's maternal family=16 siblings also from Prattville, Alabama; my paternal family=11 siblings from Opelousas, LA.; my maternal family=8 siblings from Newark, N.J. via Virginia). I've been doing work on this all year long and hearing and finding "the stories" keeps me steady on my journey/ mission. I well understand your passion for writing your book! Now, my children can continue the story from a firm foundation! :-) Continue to write! I'll compare notes when I get your book! Thank you!

On 13 October 2010 at 12:32 PM, Janis Mann (SED'79) wrote:

Very inspiring, would love to hear her speak. Must get the book!

On 12 October 2010 at 11:07 AM, Pat Adams wrote:

Ms. Wilkerson's book is wonderful; I am reading it now. It would be more accurate to show Mr. Foster as migrating from Monroe, La. to Los Angeles, rather than San Diego, since he didn't stay in San Diego; he only passed through there. I haven't actually read the whole account of Mr. Foster's life yet, but you indicated that he set up a successful surgery practice in Los Angeles, so I am assuming that he remained there. This would be consistent with showing Ms. Gladney moving from Mississippi to Chicago. She actually moved to Milwaukee first, but a few months later her family moved to Chicago where they settled for many years.

On 7 October 2010 at 7:47 PM, Jade (MED'15) wrote:

Thank you for taking an interest in our people. I am a native of Chicago, and although I am pursuing a career of orthopaedic surgery, I have an invested hobby of learning about the Black history. I appreciate you bringing this subject to light in the uni-cultural society of Boston.

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