Books
10:04 am
Mon February 21, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

"The Warmth of Other Suns" is a detailed study of that enormous migration. Isabel Wilkerson, who is already the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first black to win for individual reporting, has the prize for feature writing as the Chicago Bureau Chief of the "New York Times." This book might very well bring her another Pulitzer, for history. It is that good.

Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio

Americans know that over a span of sixty years, from about 1916 to about 1974, African Americans left the South in large numbers, to settle in the North, mainly in cities and in California. For most people, that is about all they know. This book explains how the movement of those 6 million souls changed American history profoundly and forever.

"The Warmth of Other Suns" is a detailed study of that enormous migration. Isabel Wilkerson, who is already the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first black to win for individual reporting, has the prize for feature writing as the Chicago Bureau Chief of the "New York Times." This book might very well bring her another Pulitzer, for history. It is that good.

Wilkerson has read widely, thoroughly, in newspapers black and white, magazines, and official documents such as The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, also known as the Moynihan Report, and The Kerner Report on the urban riots. She interviewed, over a period of years, 1,200 people, followed up with about three dozen and then focused on retelling the life stories of three individuals. Like "The Grapes of Wrath," this volume delivers the big story?conditions in the South, why blacks left, how they left, where the migrants went to, and what happened in general in their adoptive homes and specifically, as Steinbeck did with the Joads, she follows the lives of the three individual migrants right up to and including their funerals.

The three left different parts of the South for different reasons.

Perhaps the most unusual case was Robert Foster of Monroe, Louisiana. The son of educators, Foster was a Morehouse man and a surgeon with an M.D. from Meharry Medical College in Nashville. After serving as a captain in the U.S. Army in Europe, Dr. Foster returned home and was refused privileges in the hospitals of Monroe. The white physicians expected him to operate in the shacks, on people's kitchen tables. He moved to California, and although there was race prejudice there, Foster succeeded, grew rich and famous, and was physician and friend to Ray Charles and many others. The route from Texas and Louisiana led to California.

For Ida Mae Brandon, a sharecropper in Mississippi, the road, the railroad, led to Chicago.

Ida Mae's life is perhaps the one most historically familiar to us. She and her husband were 'croppers and grew and picked cotton. I learned in this book that it took 70 cotton bolls to make a pound, 7,000 bolls to make a hundredweight, which was considered a solid day's picking in the Mississippi sun.

Their planter-boss, Mr. Edd, was, by local standards, a decent man. His sharecroppers were usually told they broke even. Sharecroppers had no recourse. Planters kept the books and most cheated. Only one in five sharecroppers in the South saw any money for a year's toil. Of that 20% the pay was between 30 and 150 dollars per year. Ida Mae and her husband somehow gathered up their courage, sold what belongings they could, packed up personal stuff, went to the train and prayed they wouldn't be stopped and arrested. Leaving was, if the sheriff said so, against the law.

Ida Mae and George made it to Chicago and lived out their lives. The city was a hard, cold place. There were hostility, prejudice, white flight and even bombings. Over time the neighborhood descended into gangs, violence and drugs, but there was no staying in the South, with humiliation, Jim Crow, and lynching.

Wilkerson paints an elaborate and convincing picture of the world the migrants left. Mississippi black teachers were paid $215 a year, a third the salary of white teachers. Across the South a black was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929. Newspapers sometimes alerted readers to upcoming lynchings, and the crowds of men, women and children with picnic lunches occasionally swelled to fifteen thousand.

There was of course universal segregation, rest rooms, water fountains and so on, but the most astonishing example was the new, 1958, Jacksonville, Florida bus depot, which had two of everything, including two segregated cocktail lounges.

Wilkerson's third case study is George Starling. Starling's offense was trying to organize citrus fruit pickers in Eustis, Florida. During WWII the grove owners were getting very rich and labor, as in WWI, was in short supply. Starling began a little organizing for an increase in the number of cents paid per box picked, but learned he was to be killed for his labor activities. Vigilantes in Florida between 1882 and 1930 lynched 266 blacks, more than in any other state. Starling fled on that evening's train, settled in Harlem and became a railroad porter, and thus a kind of chaperone and guide to subsequent waves of migrants.

Not only does Wilkerson's book remind us of what we might like to forget, it informs in surprising ways.
The migrants from the South did not injure the quality of life in northern cities. The migrants were better educated, harder working and had more stable family lives than the blacks and most of the poorer whites who were already there.

Wilkerson also suggests, not surprisingly, that migrants are individuals of some spunk, strength, determination, bold enough to travel long distances into the unknown to make a better life for themselves and their children. Although there are in many ways similarities between these migrants and the immigrants from Europe?migration routes, dialect, favorite foods, folkways, religion and so on, American blacks Wilkerson interviewed resisted this comparison. We are Americans, citizens, have been for many generations, they insisted.

This is an impressive, splendid, magisterial study and gracefully written. It deserves to be on the same shelf with C. Vann Woodward, Taylor Branch and Wilbur Cash and will be required reading for anyone wishing to better understand the South and for that matter the U.S. in the 20th century.

 

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