Isabel Wilkerson was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for Feature Writing. This occurred in 1994 when she was Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times. Her first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” is the result of 15 years of research and writing during which she interviewed more than 1,200 people. Thus was born her story of the Great Migration, one of the largest migrations of an ethnic group in American history, and which occurred totally within the borders of our country.
Six million blacks were part of this mass exodus for over a period of six decades, from 1915 to 1970, leaving behind the suffering and humiliation they experienced in the South to settle in northern and western cities in search of a better life. The lives of ex-slaves in the South were no different from their days under slavery except that they were paid for their services to their employers. Each month, the plantation owner would deduct the cost of animal feed and other supplies from the worker’s pay, leaving him just a few dollars for his hard labor that month. Workers were often chastised and even beaten. They could never complain; it was their word against the owner’s. Happily, this treatment served as the impetus to leave the place of their birth for better conditions that their friends promised they would receive up North.
From the 1,200 interviews that she conducted, Isabel chose three persons for an in-depth study of their experiences with the migration. Each had made his journey in a different decade, and settled in a different region, but their stories had similar characteristics. They were able to improve their lot up North and encouraged their relatives and friends to join them also.
Isabel in the Cotton Fields
Ida Mae Gladney left Mississippi for the North with her husband George and their two children in the 1930’s. They had to leave secretly under cover of darkness to escape the wrath of their plantation owner. Their original destination was Milwaukee where Ida Mae had relatives who encouraged them to come, but George was unable to find work there. They moved to Chicago where rents were higher for blacks and prejudice was rampant. However, the respect they were given on a bus or in a restaurant, or the privilege of taking a drink from any water fountain was so unique and pleasurable that they were able to tolerate other unfair treatment.
George Swanson Starling was forced to flee his home in Eustice, Florida in 1941 to avoid being lynched. Even though he had two years of college, the only job he could get was to work in the citrus orchards in Eustis. His father discouraged him from continuing his college education although he was eager to get his diploma. George urged his fellow workers to refuse to work unless they received more money. When he learned that his life was in danger, he decided to leave home. He married his childhood sweetheart, Inez, and they decided to go to New York. George was able to get a job as a porter on the migration trains that traveled between New York and Florida. He worked at his job for 35 years, taking his duties of caring for his passengers very seriously.
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was a medical doctor, had been in the army in Austria, and married the daughter of a black college president from Atlanta, Georgia. Answering to the name of Pershing, he moved to California in the 1950’s after leaving his home in Monroe, Louisiana. He lived for several years in Los Angeles before he was able to send for his wife and two daughters who had stayed back in Atlanta with his wife’s parents. He became very successful, and was known to be the personal physician of the musician, Ray Charles. Unfortunately, his financial status allowed him to gamble at casinos and racetracks, a life different from that of his wife and daughters. When his wife died in her fifties, he came to the realization that his success was not accompanied by happiness.
Isabel Wilkerson had a personal interest in the research and writing that she did for “The Warmth of Other Suns.” She was the daughter of migrant parents. Her mother left rural Georgia and her father left southern Virginia, to settle in Washington, D.C. Isabel currently teaches Journalism at Boston University. It is unclear whether she has another book in the works, particularly since it could not possibly match her story that evolved from 15 years of research.
Recent census data shows that blacks who left the South had more schooling than blacks who stayed. Migrants had higher employment rates than blacks who were born in the North, as well as a more stable family life which is indicated by lower divorce rates and fewer children born out of wedlock. They brought their music and folkways of the South with them, transporting their culture from isolated regions of the country to the big cities of the north and west.
The Great Migration
‘The Warmth of Other Suns” is a work of history; it is not a novel. It is the story of families who changed the face of our country through their willingness to work hard and to overcome the hardships in their background to secure a better life for their children. Isabel chose her book’s title from a saying of black writer Richard Wright, that he left the South to feel the warmth of other suns.
One criticism of Isabel Wilkinson’s work is the fact that she concentrated more on the emotional and personal reasons why blacks left the South. She failed to address the issue that the mechanical cotton picker put thousands of people out of work. Another factor that was not addressed was the high demand for wartime factory workers which drew thousands of people to the manufacturing cities in the North. My sense, however, is that Isabel Wilkerson had a legitimate story to tell of the emotional suffering that was a driving force in the phenomenon that we call “The Great Migration.”
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