Between 1915 and 1970, 6 million African Americans left their homes in the American South for better opportunities in Northern states. Author Isabel Wilkerson, whose parents were part of this "great migration," tracked down African-Americans who moved northward and talked to them about the experience.
Wilkerson says the families who embarked on the "great migration" left seeking simple things - homes where they could raise their families, equal treatment under the law and decently paying jobs. Wilkerson writes that although African-Americans left the Jim Crow South to escape segregationist laws, they encountered challenges along their migration paths as well. One man had to drive from Louisiana to California without stopping because no hotels would allow African-Americans to stay there.
Wilkerson chose three people to tell the stories of the three primary migration routes African-Americans took: up the East Coast from Georgia; to the Midwest from Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas; and to California from Louisiana and Texas. African-Americans traveling along all of those routes found that life was still difficult in the North, and they continued to experience discrimination and barriers to success despite the absence of Jim Crow laws.
"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." - Author Isabel Wilkerson
"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 Europe in steerage across the Atlantic, wanting something better for their own children." - Author Isabel Wilkerson
1. What were Jim Crow laws?
2. What does it mean to migrate?
3. What states are considered part of the American South?
1. Has anyone in your family's history migrated from one place to another? Where did they come from and where did they go? What difficulties did they experience along the way?
2. What are some examples of specific Jim Crow laws that Wilkerson gave in the video? Can you think of other examples that you've learned about?
3. What challenges do you think those who migrated to the North faced after they got there?
4. Wilkerson says the story of the "great migration" is "perhaps the biggest under-reported story of the 20th century." Can you think of other stories that were important to the country's history but haven't been discussed much?