Journalist Isabel Wilkerson

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discusses the legacy of the Great Migration of African Americans, which she writes about in her book The Warmth of Other Suns.

When she was The New York Times Chicago bureau chief, Isabel Wilkerson became the first Black woman to win a journalism Pulitzer and the first Black American to win for individual reporting. Known for her unique storytelling style, she's written extensively on social policy issues and taught at several institutions, including Boston University. Wilkerson got hooked on journalism in high school and attended Howard, in her DC hometown, because it had the best newspaper of the colleges she was considering. The Warmth of Other Suns is her first book.


Tavis: Isabel Wilkerson is a professor of journalism at Boston University who became the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism back in 1994. Her acclaimed new text is called “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Isabel Wilkerson, first of all, congratulations, and an honor to have you on the program.
Isabel Wilkerson: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: No, glad to have you. This is huge, and when I say “huge,” I mean “New York Times” best seller huge, cover of “The New York Times Book Review” huge. Everybody’s talking about this now, and I underline the word “now” four or five times. Everybody’s talking about it now, but only because you had the discipline and the courage and the conviction and the commitment to tell this story – a story that is at the very epicenter of what America is.
America wouldn’t be without this migration, and yet it took you to invest 15 years of your life to write this story. I’m saying this, again, not to make you blush, but because for the importance of this story to the story of America, it had not been told in this way prior to. So why has this story been sitting untold for all this time?
Wilkerson: Well, one reason is that it began during World War I and it lasted until 1970, so it went on for a really long time. It went on for basically three generations. That meant for any of the journalists who might have been covering it, the ones who started covering it in the beginning weren’t there at the end. So it was hard to grasp while it was going on.
Another thing is that during the waves of it people kept thinking it was going to end, but the people kept coming. So it was hard to grasp until really after it was over with.
Then finally, people didn’t talk about it. That’s one of the biggest losses, I think, to African American families, is that people, once they left, they turned away from the South. They didn’t look back, and they often didn’t tell their children about it. They didn’t want to talk about it. It was too painful, what they’d gone through and the caste system of the South, which was Jim Crow.
Tavis: So we’re really talking here about the migration of six million African Americans, although we were not African Americans at the time.
Wilkerson: No. (Laughs)
Tavis: Colored, Negro, whatever we were.
Wilkerson: (Laughs) Yeah, right.
Tavis: The migration of six million of us from the South to the North. What was the driver, the primary driver or drivers behind that massive migration from the South to the North?
Wilkerson: The primary driver was that for 80 years, in 1896 until after the civil rights movement, African Americans were living in a caste system that dictated their every move. They were bound by the laws of Jim Crow, which infiltrated every aspect of interaction between Blacks and Whites.
For example, it was against the law in Birmingham for a Black person and a White person to play checkers together. Someone actually sat down and wrote that down as a rule. They must have seen a Black person and a White person playing checkers, having too much fun, and said, “No, we can’t have this.”
There were Black and White ambulances. There were Black and White taxi cabs. There were even Black and White bibles. There was a Black bible and a White bible in many courthouses to swear to tell the truth on.
Tavis: Same bible, though?
Wilkerson: No, different bibles.
Tavis: I mean the same bible, one Black and one White.
Wilkerson: Correct.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m just making – okay. (Laughter) I was going to say, is there a Black bible? I missed that. I thought there was just one. They made it a Black bible.
Wilkerson: They made it a Black bible.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter) So these six million Negroes were coming from where down South and going to where up North?
Wilkerson: Well, that’s one of the things that I really wanted to get a grasp of for this book, is that it wasn’t one migration, it was multiple migrations, and there were three main ones. One was up the East Coast from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia up to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, New York.
Then there was a middle one, a middle migration stream from Mississippi, Alabama, western Georgia up to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and so that was the middle one.
Then the one that’s least known about and which I really enjoyed writing about was the one from Louisiana and Texas to California and the entire West Coast.
Tavis: What made you devote so much time and attention to this particular subject matter?
Wilkerson: Well, I’m a daughter of the great migration as, really, the majority of African Americans that you meet in the north and west are products of the great migration. It’s that massive. Many of us owe our very existence to the fact that people migrated.
In my own family’s case, my mother migrated from Georgia, from Rome, Georgia to Washington, D.C., and my father migrated from southern Virginia to Washington, D.C., where they met, married and here I am. Had it not been for the great migration I wouldn’t exist, and yet I felt that the story wasn’t really being told from the perspective of the people who had lived this.
We didn’t know why they left or how they made the decision to leave. What were their lives like before they left? How’d they get the courage to leave the only place they’d ever known for a place they’d never seen, for an uncertain future in a place that was often cold and forbidding, anonymous and not welcoming to them, and how did they make it once they got there?
Those were the kind of questions that I had, and those are the questions that really help to give us a sense of how the cities came to be and how so many African Americans ended up in these cities – Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York.
Tavis: After Katrina I was on the air here and I railed every night on this program and on “Meet the Press” and everywhere where I appeared talking about Katrina.
I railed on the media. I couldn’t stand the media picking up on this term of refugees to refer to these Black men and women in New Orleans who were, in fact, American citizens. They are not refugees. I said over and over and over again – these are American citizens.
I thought it was important to make that point so that we wouldn’t lose sight of the fact that these people are us. They are us.
Wilkerson: I actually refer to them as immigrants. I refer to them as having the same kind of immigrant heart and motivations and desires and goals and dreams for themselves as any immigrant, as any person who might have crossed the Atlantic in steerage.
So what I’m looking at is the fact that what is it that propelled them is a human story, a classic American story, and how tragic is it that they ended up having to go to far reaches of their own country in order to find the freedom that they really would have been born to.
So when I use it, I’m using that, in a way, as a provocative term to get us to think about this migration differently. They were doing what so many other groups of people are often lauded for doing. In other words, they came to these cities without really any backup at all.
They lived in neighborhoods where they were confined to. They doubled up and tripled up in homes or apartments or cold water flats. They took multiple jobs and ended up often making more money in the aggregate than the people who were there already.
In other words, they were working very hard in order to survive, which is the classic American story, a classic immigrant story, and yet they had to do that within their own country, within the borders of our own country, and yet they were not immigrants.
Tavis: Ms. Ida Mae.
Wilkerson: Ms. Ida Mae.
Tavis: Tell me about Ms. Ida Mae.
Wilkerson: She was a sharecropper’s wife who was terrible at picking cotton. (Laughter) She could kill snakes –
Tavis: Sounds like me. (Laughter) I would have been terrible at it.
Wilkerson: (Laughter) You’re right about that. She was terrible at picking cotton. She could kill snakes and wring the neck of a chicken for dinner, but she could not pick cotton, did not like picking cotton and her family ended up having to leave because a relative, a cousin, had been beaten to within an inch of his life because he had been accused of a theft that he had not committed.
The thing that they accused him of stealing turned up the next day, and so when her husband found out what had happened to his cousin he went home to his wife, Ida Mae, and he said, “This is the last crop we’re making.” So they ended up in Chicago from Mississippi, which was part of that Mississippi to Chicago migration.
Tavis: Robert Foster.
Wilkerson: He was a surgeon who had performed ably and with distinction in the army during the Korean War, but he got out of the army and found that he could not practice surgery in his own hometown of Monroe, Louisiana, and so he set out on a course that ended up being far more treacherous than he’d anticipated to get to California.
Tavis: He ended up being somebody’s doctor, who we all know.
Wilkerson: He ended up being somebody’s doctor. Yes, he ended up being Ray Charles’ doctor.
Tavis: (Laughter) Great story – Ray Charles’ doctor. Does that say something, then, Isabel, about the folk who stayed behind, those who didn’t go?
Wilkerson: I think that there’s a way of looking at them that is also beautiful, and that is that they were the keepers of the culture. They were the keepers of the culture. In fact, some of them would say, “We need to stay here so that you’ll have a place to come back to when you need to,” and I thought that was beautiful.
So together, this migration was in some ways the precursor to the civil rights movement in many respects. In one way it was because it showed that this underpaid, lower level of the caste system of the South, the underpaid workers of the South, had an option and were willing to take that option. They were willing to act on that option, which was to leave.
When this migration began, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South – 90 percent. By the time it was over, nearly half were living outside of the South. They were living in that great arc from Washington, D.C. up to Boston, then over to Cleveland and Chicago, Detroit, and then all the way over to Los Angeles. They were living anywhere but the South.
Tavis: One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the period you’re talking about happens to be, as Taylor Branch might put it, America in the King years. It certainly covers a part of the King years.
One doesn’t think of it in that way. When we think of Dr. King fighting for justice and equality and for the rights of Black folk, we think primarily of Black folk in the South, and that’s of course where Dr. King was based.
But it’s fascinating to think now, as I listen to you talk, that while King was leading this movement, Negroes were getting out of the South as fast as they could at this very time.
Wilkerson: At that very moment. In fact, he had, too. He went to Boston University and he had the exposure to the freedoms of the North. That was in the early ’50s. He also met his wife, Coretta Scott, in the North. So that even had – there was a connection there between the great migration – you could say he was part of the great migration for a time, and then he went back to fight for that ultimate moment of truth in the South as well.
Tavis: To your point now, were there folk like King who escaped the South for whatever purpose, whatever reason, for whatever period of time, and then felt called back to the South?
Wilkerson: I must say most did not. Most in that original migration left, and they left for good. Some of them even changed their name when they left, and they didn’t look back, which is why the story often was not told to the succeeding generations, and I think it needs to be told.
I think the entire country needs to be aware of the sacrifices made by the people and the ultimate impact that this had on the country.
Tavis: What’s the abiding lesson – now that you’ve blessed us with this text, what’s the abiding lesson for Black people of this migration in 2010?
Wilkerson: I would hope that it would encourage every African American family, North and South, to examine its history. This was a migration that had no leader. It was a leaderless migration. People made decisions on the basis of what was in their heart, and I think this is a story of inspiration that says that so much power is within us.
These individual people, one by one, multiplied by six million, ended up helping to change this country. That’s an inspiration for anyone of any race, but particularly for Black families.
People need to go back and talk with the oldest people in their families and find out what are the stories, before it’s too late. I felt a great urgency in working on this book because I knew that people were passing on and I didn’t have but so much time to get to them. That would be the lesson I would be seeing in it.
Tavis: She made history back in 1994 when she won that Pulitzer Prize, and now she has a book out that everybody is talking about. It’s called “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” It is, to my mind, a gift to all of us in America, written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson. Isabel, thanks for the book and an honor to have you on the show.
Wilkerson: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: It’s my pleasure. That’s our show for tonight.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm