Journalist Isabel Wilkerson

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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discusses the legacy of the Great Migration of African Americans and explains why it is so deeply embedded in American culture.

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: You tell this wonderful story through the individual stories of three people, which I’ll get to in just a second. But I’m curious here at the outset, 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: When you say, Isabel, how these cities came to be, there is a narrative, a storyline, that’s been written and told for years now about what this migration did to these various places that you’ve just listed, and it’s not been a cute story, it’s not been a sexy story, it’s not been a kind narrative about what we brought with us when we came. Let’s talk about what that storyline has been and how you challenged that in the text.
Wilkerson: Well, the story has been that the migrants brought all the ills of the cities (unintelligible) to the city. It brought out-of-wedlock births, brought drugs, crime, and everything else that you can think of that’s bad in the cities, that’s what the people brought.
That’s what the storyline has been for so long, partly because in the beginning they were looking at all the overcrowding and all of the fact that the vices were often permitted in the neighborhoods that they were forced to live, these small slivers of land that they were forced to live in, and the police looked away as all these things were going on.
But the people who were arriving were fresh from the farm or fresh from small towns, almost too frightened to do anything. They were living one on top of one another. There were even cases where people were so overcrowded you had multiple families living in one room, these kitchenette apartments.
In some places, particularly in New York, there was so much of a need for a place to live, that people had to rotate use of a bed, meaning that they ended up having to – the night shift people would come in, it was time for them to go to sleep, and they’d have to tap the shoulder of someone who was sleeping from the day shift and had to get up. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of timeshare. (Laughter)
Tavis: Indeed it does. I was fascinated when I got a chance to get into this, because 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 say it 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.
You’re absolutely right, they were not immigrants. I actually like to use the word emigrant with an “E,” meaning it was an outpouring. In many respects, ultimately, this was a defection. The people were in some ways seeking political asylum from a caste system that humiliated and degraded them and the people who were perpetrating it. Everybody loses when you have a caste system like that.
Tavis: You were obviously working on this when Katrina hit. Were you seeing parallels in your writing and what you were watching on TV?
Wilkerson: I did see parallels, because you saw people displaced from their home. What’s also a parallel is that the people did not want to leave. One of the things that I think the descendants of the migration have to realize is that they were living in an untenable situation but they had to leave mother, father, grandparents, the land that the foreparents, the forebears had built for free. They had to leave a lot, and there were many sacrifices that they had to make.
The same thing with Katrina. People didn’t want to leave New Orleans. They didn’t want to leave that are, but they were forced to. In the same way, these people made the ultimate sacrifice – to leave the only place they’d ever known. I’m humbled by the idea, the courage that they had in doing so.
Tavis: Speaking of courage, these folk had a lot of courage, and as I said earlier, you tell the story of the migration – these migrations, I should say – through three people. in no particular order, 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. 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: Mr. George Starling.
Wilkerson: George Starling. George Swanson Starling. He was a college student who had to drop out because in those days there were very few places in the state of Florida that would accept African Americans as students, and the family could not afford to continue sending him to Tallahassee for school.
So he ended up having to work as a citrus picker. Once he got there, because he’d had education, he noticed that they were being ill-treated and underpaid for the hard work that they were doing. It was dangerous work – more dangerous than we could imagine.
They had to splice together ladders in order for them to go up into these 30-foot and 40-foot trees. People would fall and break a limb and there was nothing for them, there was no worker’s compensation at that time.
They were only being paid 10 or 12 cents for a box, which would then go on the open market for $4 or whatever. So he began to agitate for higher wages and better conditions and in doing so he got on the bad side of the growers, who did not appreciate, nor did they accept the idea of unionizing or of African Americans standing up for such things. He had to leave and basically flee for his life. He left Florida for Harlem in 1945.
Tavis: Thirdly, Robert Foster.
Wilkerson: Third, Robert Foster. 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 we 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. Were these people primarily educated, were they uneducated? Tell me about who was making this migration?
Wilkerson: Well, there were clearly a range and all of them had lived under Jim Crow, which meant that their education was not going to be what it was for even the White people in the region where they were. It was very clear that it was separate and unequal, as we know, so they might have been educated, but it wasn’t the same kind of education that they would have deserved.
However, on the whole, they were better educated than the people who remained. They had a kind of impatience for the system that they were under. In fact, one of the things that you commonly would hear is that, “I need to leave because I’m going to die or either be killed if I stay here.”
In other words, they had a certain character about them, an unwillingness to accept the status quo that made them feel like they needed to leave, which is something about an immigrant mind-set, which is what I’m saying about the human desire for something better.
They tended to be more – they had more resources of determination and the often were willing to work longer hours. There was something in them, like a hunger within them, that would not permit them to stay, and they had to go. They just simply had to go.
Tavis: 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 level.
Secondly, those people, once they got to the North, offered, in some ways, leverage for the people who stayed. The people who stayed were able to have a place to go if things got tight during the civil rights movement and others. They could take more chances and more risks.
They also were more aware of the freedoms in the North they had not been aware of before. Remember, before people began to leave there was not the awareness of what even could happen in the North. What was it like in the North? It was just a mirage, it was a dream.
Now, after the migration, there was an awareness. Everybody had a cousin or a great aunt or an uncle or a neighbor who had gone up north, and that meant that they had options that they didn’t have before.
Finally, these people who left and went up to the North were often making more money than the people in the South, and so very much as with other immigrant groups – in other words, African Americans were like anyone else. When they got away from home they sent money back home to the people who were in the South, and they helped to finance the civil rights movement.
So it was this great period of time between World War I and the 1970s when the civil rights movement actually began to bear fruit that the pressure was being put on the South.
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. That meant it was a dispersal of an entire people across the country.
Tavis: To your point now, and I’m glad you went there as well, to your point about a dispersal of these Black folk all across the country, 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, 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: Since we’re talking about King here for the moment, in one of his more famous speeches, as you well know, King says, talking about the reason why he was fighting so hard for the right to vote for Black people, King argues that the Negro in the South cannot vote, and the Negro in the North, King says, has nothing for which to vote, which raises the question of how these Negroes were treated when they got up North.
Wilkerson: When they got up North, they faced tremendous resistance and hostility. They were hemmed in into roped-off inner cities that came to be known as ghettoes. Whenever they tried to escape and get into other neighborhoods, obviously there were fire-bombings and all kinds of things.
There’s an example of a case in Cicero where a middle class family tried to move in and the people – they were not permitted to move in, ultimately. When they got their things, their belongings into the second-floor apartment it turned out that the people, several thousand people, often of Eastern European descent, newly arrived themselves and not very different from the people who had arrived from the South, meaning they were all people of the land all trying to survive in the city, they actually went into this apartment and took everything out, threw it out the second-floor window.
Piano, furniture, chairs, even ripped out the faucets and toilets and radiators and threw them all out, set everything on fire, then set the entire building on fire, when then rendered the White residents homeless. This was in Cicero in the early ’50s.
So they met tremendous resistance, and part of it was because the arrival of people who were so poorly paid in the South put pressure on the North. It put pressure on the people who were scuffling and trying to survive, just having arrived from other parts of the world, and it meant that it could potentially press down the wages of people in the North.
So it was all a structural thing. It wasn’t always personal, but it played out in really ugly ways, often. So what happened was the people met resistance from the small group of African Americans who were there already, who were concerned about their own tenuous status there, and other groups that might be competing with them.
So they met so much resistance that it’s a wonder that they survived. They had to bear up under all the mythologies that we talked about. But in reality, the people who migrated were more likely to be married than the people who were in the North already. They were more likely to be raising their children in two-parent households.
All these things are only recently being discovered as sociologists and others look at the facts from the Census data. There’s a lot new that’s coming out about them.
Tavis: I started this conversation by doing what I could in two seconds to give you, I think, the props that you deserve for what you’ve done with this historic – what will be a classic and historic text. But I don’t want people to think that I was being hyperbolic, so let me just ask it as a question. Tell me, situate for me, this migration in the making, the maturing of America.
Wilkerson: It is hard to separate out the legacy of this great migration because it’s so embedded in our culture, and to me, with any mass movement of people, one of the things that you look for are what are the touch points in society that left – it’s where it left its mark.
There are certain things that we take for granted that simply would not have existed without the great migration. Motown, for example, would not have existed – it simply would not, because Berry Gordy, the founder of it, his parents had migrated from Georgia to Detroit where he founded Motown, and where did he get his talent?
He got his talent from children of the great migration – Diana Ross, the Jackson 5, all of them were children of the great migration. Jazz as we know it would not exist. Miles Davis, his parents migrated from Arkansas to Illinois, where he had the luxury of being able to practice for hours upon hours. He never would have been able to do that in the cotton country of Arkansas.
Same goes for Thelonius Monk, whose parents had brought him from North Carolina to Harlem when he was five years old, where he got the luxury, the self-indulgence, of being able to, you might argue, of being able to learn to become the great musician that he was, that he never would have been able to do in the tobacco country of North Carolina.
John Coltrane – John Coltrane migrated from North Carolina to Philadelphia at 17, where he got his first alto sax. What would music be had he not gotten that first alto sax?
Tavis: And music is just one genre.
Wilkerson: Music is just – don’t – you can’t start with literature, politics. On so many levels, it’s affected our society.
Tavis: So here’s the exit question, then: 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.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm