The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
by Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, 2010, 622 pp., $30
Travelers file through congested doorways under signs announcing distant destinations: Chicago, New York, St. Louis. Crowds of men and women with all the belongings they can carry walk beneath a line of birds aloft in a flight of their own. A black train engine shines a bright light forward through the deep blue of the night sky. A slumped figure sits alone on a rock near a tree branch from which a dark noose dangles. Three black men stand linked by bulky golden shackles and look outside through thick prison bars. Three girls in red, yellow and blue dresses reach up to write numbers on a chalkboard. Black women, men and children crowd a train station platform.
Such scenes make up The Migration of the Negro series, sixty thematically connected paintings for which artist Jacob Lawrence provided explanatory captions. Of those setting off on a journey in the first panel, he says: “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes.” Of those emulating birds, he says: “In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry.” Stressing that economics alone could not explain the exodus, Lawrence says of the rope-draped limb: “Another cause was lynching. It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this.” About the men in jail, he comments: “Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.”
There’s still more that accounts for the phenomenon Lawrence depicts than jobs in states like Illinois, Michigan and New York and rampant injustice and violence in states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. With regards to those colorfully clad pupils, he notes: “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.” For a multitude of reasons, the people continued to move. “And the migrants kept coming”, Lawrence says of those waiting for a train in the last picture in his series.
Indeed, they kept coming for another three decades after Lawrence completed The Migration of the Negro in 1941. What came to be known as the Great Migration did start with the First World War, during which more than half a million blacks left the South, a greater number than had decamped in the fifty years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Prior to the war’s outbreak, only a trickle of blacks seeped out of the South. By disrupting the supply of European immigrants to the Northern states, the conflict created openings for Southern black workers, who moved rapidly to fill them.
Yet the end of the war did not dam the stream, which did not stop flowing until the 1960s ended. In a little more than half a century, approximately six million black southerners made their way to other parts of the country, transforming themselves and their new homes profoundly in the process. Only about 10 percent of all black Americans lived outside the South in 1915, a half century after the end of the Civil War; almost half did by 1970, the endpoint of the Great Migration.
This was no mere reconfiguration of demographic patterns. The Great Migration altered the nation in fundamental ways, challenging the separate and unequal, racially delineated arrangements that characterized the South after Reconstruction and spurring the Civil Rights movement. Those who slipped the strictures of Jim Crow discovered what it was like not to have to step off sidewalks to let white pedestrians pass, not to have to use “colored” waiting rooms and bank teller windows, not to have to enter buildings by their backdoors and ride only in freight elevators, not to have every aspect of their daily existence humiliatingly codified, and not to live with the knowledge that they could be hanged without trial or provocation. They could sit wherever they chose on buses and trains. They could vote.
Furthermore, they wrote of what they found and sent money to those who remained behind, many of whom subsequently followed, carrying bits of the South with them, like the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day. The depletion of the South’s pool of cheap labor, coupled with the growing awareness among black Americans that a different, less confining way of living was possible, put pressure on the segregated South to change even before legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required it to do so. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson calls this “perhaps one of the biggest underreported stories of the twentieth century.” And it’s an unfinished story, as the reverse migration of black Americans from the North to the South in the early 21st century attests.
The Great Migration did not stem from anything so simple as economic opportunity, Wilkerson insists. It was messier than that, and gloriously so. “It wasn’t one thing”, she says of what motivated migrants. “It was everything.” Of those who continued moving even after World War I ended she writes: “Theirs is a kind of living testimony that migrations fed by the human heart do not begin and end as neatly as statisticians might like.” She doesn’t skip facts and figures, but she cares most about the hopes and longings underlying them.
If Lawrence had already covered some of the same territory, Wilkerson endeavors to give a richer, fuller version of the event he chronicled at its midpoint. Besides looking at the entire time span, she looks at participants in a different way. In many paintings, Lawrence presents featureless, anonymous figures, virtual stand-ins for anyone of African descent.1 Wilkerson, in contrast, eschews crowd scenes, preferring portraits. She animates The Warmth of Other Suns with three particular individuals’ intimate stories: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who in the late 1930s left rural Mississippi for Milwaukee before settling in Chicago; George Swanson Starling, who in the mid-1940s fled central Florida for New York City; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who in the 1950s left Monroe, Louisiana, for Los Angeles. Rather than making them functionally representative figures, Wilkerson intertwines detailed biographies of her protagonists, fleshed-out narratives of unique lives whose paths never crossed, to convey a sense of what it was like to be a part of a huge internal migration.
For all their individuality, these three people permit Wilkerson to trace some broad tendencies. Established transportation routes determined the three main routes migrants used. These bus and train lines formed “the Overground Railroad for slavery’s grandchildren”, writes Wilkerson. One track, which Ida Mae Gladney took, essentially ran alongside the Mississippi River from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee to industrial centers in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (which goes some way toward explaining why Chicago bluesmen with Delta lineage sang so many songs about locomotives). Another ferried people like George Starling from the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Virginia up the east coast to Washington, New York City and Boston. A third trail, blazed later than the others, saw black Southerners from Louisiana and Texas head to California, as Robert Foster did, and to other points west.
These migrants had a great deal in common with others coming to the United States from foreign countries. With strictly pragmatic economic migration, roamers usually go as short a way as necessary to satisfy their need for income, but Wilkerson’s migrants resembled “the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people . . . go great distances.” Robert Foster, she says, went to California because he “was going to be a citizen of the United States, like the passport said.” Yet even symbolic actions can have a practical side. Foster unknowingly picked a popular time of year to leave: right around Easter. Rather than signaling resurrection and renewal, however, leaving close to that holiday gave Southerners unaccustomed to Northern winters time to acclimate before the cold weather descended.
Overground Railroad riders were not victims of circumstance. They may have been both pushed and pulled to the North and the West, but they also exercised their wills. Like others who made long journeys, they demonstrated ambition, determination, resilience and resourcefulness. Certainly disputes arose in black households over whether it was better to stay or go, better to seek freer lives elsewhere or work toward amelioration at home. Such debates could continue, but, without question, leaving the familiar and taking a chance on the unknown required considerable fortitude. It also meant confronting emotionally wrenching dilemmas, like whether to leave behind loved ones, which migrants inevitably did, resulting in what Wilkerson calls “perhaps the greatest single act of family disruption and heartbreak among black Americans in the twentieth century.” (This is one reason why large family reunions became popular summertime events in receiving stations like Detroit.) While challenging economic times prompted descendents of some migrants to move back, enduring emotional, cultural and familial bonds certainly had something to do with it as well.
Lawrence, with his bold graphics and their blunt accompanying texts, in some respects anticipated the story Wilkerson tells. However, she not only offers a more nuanced view; she also corrects earlier versions. She debunks misconceptions about migrants and commonly accepted myths about the Great Migration. Transplants did not uniformly find welcome in the North and West from other blacks; those black-eyed peas did not always have the wished-for effect. (“The Negroes who had been North for quite some time met their fellowmen with disgust and aloofness”, Lawrence says of a black couple he shows parading in their finest clothes.) Not all of them were agricultural workers new to urban living. Robert Foster, for instance, was a surgeon barred from operating in the hospital in his hometown who opted to build a medical practice on the Pacific Coast. (He counted Ray Charles among his patients.) Even before Lawrence picked up his brushes, in the 1930s a majority of black migrants in the cities of the North and the West came from cities or towns, not plantations. Often blamed for importing poverty, illiteracy and broken families into black urban communities, the migrants actually were more likely to be employed, earned more, had more education and were more likely to be and to remain married than their Northern-born counterparts, according to Wilkerson’s analysis of census records. She attributes these facts to the former Southerners’ familiarity with hard times and hard work, willingness to work multiple jobs and long hours, and commitment to improving their lot.
Wilkerson also shows that the standard reasons given for why the Great Migration happened often don’t hold up to scrutiny. A cotton-crop decimating boll weevil infestation during the 1920s, a purported cause Lawrence memorializes in pigment and print, can only explain so much. After all, most migrants from Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and west Texas didn’t pick cotton to begin with, and many from states where it was the chief industry didn’t either. George Starling, for instance, picked citrus fruit before his hasty exit from Florida.
While lynching may have launched migrants on their northern and western trajectories, its role is less straightforward than Lawrence stated. During a forty-year period ending in 1929, someone was burned alive or hanged in the South every four days for such “crimes” as “trying to act like a white person” or insulting one, according to a source Wilkerson cites. Arguing that people were either inured to such brutality or too frightened by it to act, some historians see no causal connection between lynching and black migration from specific areas. Other scholars claim that the evidence does in fact show that such executions did prompt black Southerners to leave. Wilkerson contends that both observations have merit and that lynching most certainly did make potential victims want to relocate, even if they didn’t do so immediately. George Starling did go north when a co-worker tipped him off about an imminent lynching, but Ida Mae Gladney and her husband, after deciding to leave because a relative was beaten and jailed for something he didn’t do, first finished the cotton-picking season.
Perhaps the Great Migration’s impact can best be perceived by trying to imagine what America and the world would be like today if it hadn’t occurred. This would have meant that countless shapers of American culture and society might never have existed or might never have become who they became. If Barry Gordy’s parents hadn’t moved from rural Georgia to Detroit, where he was born, he probably never would have founded Motown and recorded the likes of Diana Ross, whose parents similarly migrated there from the South. Nat King Cole, Jimi Henrdix, Michael Jackson, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Whitney Houston might never have been heard from if their parents or grandparents hadn’t joined the Great Migration and reared them in the West or the North.
Music is hardly the only area where this thought experiment applies. Wilkerson names writers such as Toni Morrison, August Wilson, James Baldwin and Richard Wright (from whom she borrows her title); athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, Jesse Owens and basketball great Bill Russell (whose parents hailed from Dr. Foster’s hometown); and celebrated strivers including Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Cosby, Michelle Obama and Spike Lee. The earliest black men to become mayors of major U.S. cities—such as Cleveland’s Carl Stokes, Los Angeles’s Tom Bradley and Detroit’s Coleman Young—came from families that participated in the Great Migration. Surprisingly, Wilkerson does not name Jacob Lawrence himself, who might not have won recognition for his migration series and become the first African-American artist to have work in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art if his family, which came from South Carolina and Virginia, hadn’t moved north.
Of course, the Great Migration also produced sharecroppers-turned-factory workers like Ida Mae Gladney, railroad porters like George Starling and physicians like Robert Foster as well as teachers, autoworkers and store clerks. Although economic enticement in the form of a labor shortage in the North helped start the “leaderless revolution”, as Wilkerson aptly terms it, these migrants also sought emancipation from segregationist repression. Wilkerson likens their “mass act of independence” to immigrants crossing the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio Grande—with the key difference being that black Southerners sought their rights within their own country. For that reason she regards the story she tells in The Warmth of Other Suns as both distinctly American and universal.
The migrants’ quest for material advantages and political freedom was never solely about geography, and population churning persisted. Even before the conclusion of the Great Migration in 1970, some ex-Southerners considered going back, and this desire often intensified toward the end of their lives as they contemplated being buried beside their deceased elders back home. (Wilkerson touches on reverse migration only briefly.) Some had wanted to secure superior circumstances for their children and grandchildren, many of whom later decided to return to the Old Country, which had become a very different place than the one their ancestors left. While Lawrence might never have envisioned black Americans going back to the South, their doing so actually shows how profoundly the Great Migration altered the nation. The transformation of the South into a desirable destination just might work as the logical next chapter of Wilkerson’s ongoing story.
1Scholar Leslie King-Hammond discusses this aspect of Lawrence’s work in an essay included in Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, edited by Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois and published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name that toured several U.S. cities from 2001 to 2003.