Author Examines Generations-Long Black ‘Defection from the Jim Crow South’

September 23, 2010 at 6:58 PM EDT
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In her new book "The Warmth of Other Suns," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor Isabel Wilkerson digs into the "The Great Migration" that took place from 1915 to 1970, when 6 million African-Americans left the South to go north and west in search of a better life. Jeffrey Brown speaks with the author.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: the great migration.

From 1915 to 1970, some six million African-Americans fled the South for points north and west, in search of a better life. That exodus changed the country in myriad ways that are very much still with us and is the focus of a new book, “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and now a professor at Boston University.

I talked with her earlier this week. Welcome to you.

ISABEL WILKERSON, author, “The Warmth of Other Suns”: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you refer to this migration as — quote — “perhaps the biggest under-reported story of the 20th century.”

What was missed? What made this an important story that you wanted to tell?

ISABEL WILKERSON: The voices of the people who had migrated was probably the biggest part that was missing in this great story.

It’s a classic American story of longing and determination of people who wanted something better for themselves and for their children. And this was essentially a defection from the South, from the Jim Crow South, that occurred within the borders of our own country, not unlike the people who left the — left Europe in steerage across the Atlantic, wanting something better for their own children.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those voices that you — you went to find those voices, right, before many of them are gone.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Yes. I worked with great urgency on this, because a lot of the people — it began in 1915, ended in 1970. You’re talking about multiple generations of people who were participants in this. And there was a sense that time was running out. So, I had to go out and get that — get the stories from them before it was too late.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you interviewed some 1,200 or more people who had lived through the experience.

ISABEL WILKERSON: I stopped counting after that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You stopped counting.


JEFFREY BROWN: Then you chose three to — to represent the total experience. Why that approach? Why did you do that?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, I needed three people to represent the three different streams of the migration. One was up the East Coast from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, up to Washington, to New York, to Philadelphia.

Then I needed one who would represent the Midwest migration from Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and then, finally, that third stream from Louisiana and Texas to California.

So, I needed three people to represent each of those streams. I also needed to have three people who would represent the three different decades of the migration. So, it would be three different people, three different decades, three different starting points, and three different destinations to represent the breadth and the scope of this great migration.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you talk to people, what struck you about — I mean, you start out by talking about the reasons that people left the Jim Crow South. And I was struck by the — the dailiness of the way people were affected by the laws, written and unwritten, around them.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Yes, the facts of their life were that, almost everything that they did, there was a reminder of a caste system that kept each race firmly in place in their conscribed differences.

And so what you had was places where — for example, it was against the law to — for blacks and whites to play checkers together in Birmingham. Someone actually sat down and wrote that as a law. There were — there was even a black Bible and a white Bible in many courtrooms in the South to swear to tell the truth on.

JEFFREY BROWN: A black Bible and a white Bible.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, it wasn’t just at a legal and global level; it was just really in their daily lives.

ISABEL WILKERSON: In their daily lives, there were reminders.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Now, there are far — there are incredible stories here. One, I want to ask you about is, because it struck me so much, this sort of unforgettable story of the man driving to California. That’s Robert Foster.


JEFFREY BROWN: His drive from Louisiana to California. He’s a doctor. He was seeking a way to practice and to be — have a respectable life. He got out of the Jim Crow South driving.

ISABEL WILKERSON: As he thought. He thought he had.

JEFFREY BROWN: As he thought. But he still couldn’t get a motel to give him a room on his way.

ISABEL WILKERSON: So, he unexpectedly had to drive through multiple states of the West just to get to California without rest, without sleep, without any place to gather himself.

And, in doing so, he had to make this — this — he had this realization that perhaps he had made a mistake. He wondered if he had made a mistake. And he wondered about all the people who might have migrated or emigrated from anywhere else, wondering if they were doing the right thing.

I attempted to replicate that migration. I actually rented a Buick, as he had, and drove across from — the country from Louisiana to California. And I could only make it to Yuma, Arizona, before having to stop.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean to see what it would be like to not be able to stop, to not — to feel like you couldn’t stop anywhere?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Yes, I wanted to feel what happens to the body, what happens to the fingers that have been gripping the wheel for so long, your eyes getting, so heavy that they begin to ache? I wanted to experience that.

I had my parents with me, who also were a part of this great migration. In fact, the vast majority of African-Americans you meet in the North and the West are descended from people from the great migration. They owe their own — their very existence, essentially, to people who had migrated from the North to the South.

So I — so I had my parents with me. And, at a certain point, when we were — I was ready to veer from the road and almost falling asleep at the wheel, they said, for all of our sakes, let’s stop. And it was no longer 1953, so we were able to stop and find a place…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, this goes to what I want to ask you about, because it’s so — a very interesting thing here is how you chose to write this. There are personal aspects to this. And, occasionally, you will refer to something with your own parents or your own family.

There are elements of oral history. There are elements of traditional history writing. And, of course, there’s the reportage that you have done. But you have mixed them all together. What — what — why? What do you feel like you were doing in telling this?

ISABEL WILKERSON: What I wanted to do was tell the comprehensive story of what it was like to be living in the South at the time that this migration began, which would give us an indication of why they might have left.

There are six million different reasons why they left, for — there are different precipitating events that would have caused an individual to leave. That was one thing. And then the other thing was, I wanted to be able to have people picture themselves in it, picture themselves in those circumstances, and to try to think, what might I have done, and also think back to their own ancestors.

What might the ancestors in our own lives, our own forbearers — someone in all of our lives did this, regardless of our background and ethnicity. So, I wanted to put people inside of that life and that heart, the immigrant heart.

And, in doing so, I needed to have lots of information. And I needed to listen to lots and lots of stories, narrow it down to these three protagonists who the reader can follow. And that’s why I made that decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the characters, Ida Mae Gladney, she tells you that her first glimpse of Chicago — quote — “looked like heaven.”


JEFFREY BROWN: But, as you — as she and so many others tell you, it wasn’t a promised land of happiness and opportunity in many cases.

Just before we finish here, what did you find? What struck you about what they found? And what issues are still with us now?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, the — what struck me about what they found is that they found that, actually, a lot of the same assumptions about them that had occurred and that been existing in the South followed them where they went. So, they had many, many barriers to moving up.

They also had heartbreak, where they were — had difficulty breaking into certain fields because they were not permitted into unions. There are so many different ways that they were still held back. But I think that the overall assessment of this migration has to be looked at it from — from the perspective of, what was it they were seeking?

They ultimately were seeking to be able to be free, to be able to have better education for their children. And that’s one thing they could assure themselves of by just leaving, because they left a system that was segregated. They could only go to the eighth grade, some of them.

By just going to the north, their children were going to get a better education. What their children made of it is another story, but at least they had the opportunity. And, also, their — their goals were modest. They weren’t looking to run corporations or to own mansions. They were looking to be able to have a home of their own, a place to raise their children, a job with fair wages.

Their goals were modest. And, in that respect, the migration and leaving was its own purpose.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

Isabel Wilkerson, thanks for talking to us.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.