“This is our story,” a friend declared in a recent email to me and others. By “our history” she meant the history of African Americans living in northern cities throughout the US whose parents or grandparents had migrated from the South (which is to say the overwhelming majority of us).
Her declaration was about Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, the period from 1915 to 1970 when “some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America.”
Wilkerson, a former reporter with The New York Times and the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, calls the Great Migration “perhaps the most underreported story of the twentieth century.”
“Over time, this mass relocation would come to dwarf in size the scope the California Gold Rush of the 1850s with its one hundred thousand participants and the Dust Bowl migration of some three hundred thousand people from Oklahoma and Arkansas to California in the 1930s. But more remarkably, it was the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in this country for far longer than they have been free.”
Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people across the nation, then settled on telling in detail the stories of three individuals. Their stories are stand-ins for millions of black families, including my own.
What is remarkable, aside from the enormous courage and determination it took for these emigrants to leave the South and move into uncertain futures in uncertain territories, is also how these emigrants changed America in substantial ways because they weren’t always greeted with hospitality.
For me, reading Wilkerson’s book recalled James W. Loewen’s Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, a troubling history of the many towns and suburbs across the US that did not welcome the emigrants, transforming people who had been rural folks into city dwellers and even then forced into very restriced sectors, what came to be called ghettos.
More recently, T.J. English’s The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge (reviewed in the December 1 issue of Booklist) analyzes how racism and discrimination of blacks from the South and the Caribbean impacted every aspect of sociology, politics and culture in the Big Apple. Before beginning a masterful examination of crime and punishment in New York from 1963 to 1973, English expounds that “… one event that would reshape the city in surprising ways occurred hundreds of miles away, in a dusty hamlet outside the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi.” He is referring to changes in southern agriculture that would compel millions to head north to New York and other cities.
The beauty of Wilkerson’s book is that she forcefully debunks the conventional wisdom that the ignorant masses from the South came north and ruined America’s cities with their pathologies. “From the moment the emigrants set foot in the North and West, they were blamed for troubles in the cities they fled to. They were said to have brought family dysfunction with them, to more likely be out-of-work, unwed parents, and on welfare, then the people already there.” She goes on to highlight scholarship that takes a closer look at the Great Emigrants and grants them their due as just as hard-working as other emigrants and immigrants who’d picked up their lives and transported themselves somewhere they thought offered better opportunities, a long overdue recognition.