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Telling America’s Untold Story

Pulitzer winner chronicles the Great Migration of African Americans

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Watch a video of Isabel Wilkerson talking about her book and her family.

In 1995, 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, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a New York Times reporter and is now a College of Communication professor of journalism and director of narrative journalism, 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.

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 acclaimed new book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, published this month by Random House.

Writing in the New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lepore says, “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 from Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times: “a mesmerizing book that warrants comparison to The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann’s study of the Great Migration’s early phase, and Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’ great, close-range look at racial strife in Boston.”

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.

The book is also Wilkerson’s own 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.”

Wilkerson 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. What she saw, in her early newspaper gigs in Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit and then at the Times Chicago bureau, was 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.

Down to work
In 1995, 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.

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 rabble-rouser, 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 had 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 at 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.

“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 literally 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 to her 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.”

Katie Koch can be reached at katieleekoch@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter at @katieleekoch. Alan Wong can be reached at alanwong@bu.edu.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of Bostonia.

1 Comments

One Comment on Telling America’s Untold Story

  • Anonymous on 09.28.2010 at 12:04 pm

    Telling America's Untold Story

    Beautifully captured interview, and nicely written article.
    Thanks for presenting this in such a clear, captivating way.
    N.M.

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