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The Great Migration North: Fleeing for Life

How Jim Crow laws and job recruitment drained African Americans from the South from 1915 to 1970.

Migrants from Florida on their way to Cranberry, New Jersey for the potato harvest. Near Shawboro, North Carolina, July 1940. | Location: Shawboro, North Carolina, USA. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, (New York: Random House, 2010), 640 pages.

Some books make a big splash at the moment of publication, and then recede into the shelves of bookstores and libraries until such a time when their wisdom and analysis once again calls them forward. 

Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, is one such book. Wilkerson’s meticulously researched narrative about this nation’s most “underreported story of the twentieth century” gives sorely needed context to the frustrations of black Americans that are so palpable today.

The Great Migration is the term given by historians to the vast movement of some six million Southern blacks to the North from roughly 1915 to 1970. It shares much in common with other waves of immigrants to the United States, with the significant caveat that this was a domestic migration, from one part of the country to another, and from rural to urban areas. The Great Migration’s beginning date of 1915 reflects the Southern black response to the recruitment efforts of Northern industries desperate for workers to fill their increased wartime orders, which coincided with increasing Jim Crow segregation in the American South. 

These recruiters often worked in secret to avoid violent confrontations with white Southerners who did not want to lose their labor force and the caste-based system they had created. Most historians of the Great Migration focus on this early period, positing an end to it with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, with its paucity of jobs. Census material released in the early 1990s reveals a different story: that the Great Migration continued unabated until 1970, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally forced an end to Jim Crow segregation. 

“By then,” Wilkerson notes, “nearly half of all black Americans—some 47 percent—would be living outside the South, compared to ten percent when the Migration began.” This vast movement of people in search of economic opportunity and freedom to exercise the rights of citizenship changed almost every social, economic, and political aspect of the United States in the twentieth century. 

Wilkerson documents this migration through the voices of three figures, each representing a different decade and a different part of the country. Hundreds of hours of oral histories inform her narrative, along with the sociological and economic studies and historical events she deftly weaves into her analysis. Other oral histories and illustrative stories sprinkled throughout the book shed further light on Wilkerson’s main point: that despite their ties to and love for the South, the written and unwritten rules of Jim Crow segregation made life untenable for many and even impossible for some, who faced the choice to leave or die. 

Once settled in the North, migrants did not cut ties with their Southern friends and family. Visits went both ways, and migrants made certain that they presented themselves as not just having done well by moving North, but as unquestionably having made the right decision in doing so.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney and her family landed in Milwaukee in 1937, having decided to leave their sharecropping world in rural Mississippi after a cousin, Joe Lee, barely survived being beaten with heavy chains by a group of white men who wrongly suspected him of stealing turkeys. The following morning, the missing turkeys turned up, having roosted further afield than usual. The badly battered Joe Lee did not receive even a semblance of an apology, and was never again quite right after the beating. Ida Mae and George Gladney feared the arbitrariness of such encounters, even though the planter they worked for treated them fairly well. 

Moving North required strategic planning and a high level of secrecy in order not to be denied the ability to leave. The Gladneys gradually sold their possessions so as not to raise suspicion and purchased tickets out of a station thirty miles distant, where they would not be recognized. Sheriffs and planters were known to pull would-be migrants off of trains on any justification they could muster. 

Migrants determined their northern destinations by the railroad routes available to them. Those hailing from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama headed north to Chicago and Milwaukee on the Illinois Central Railroad and its feeder lines. The Gladneys first went to Milwaukee where Ida Mae’s sister lived, but then moved to Chicago when jobs proved scarce. George and Ida Mae both eventually found work at the Campbell’s Soup factory. 

George Starling fled for his life from Eustice, Florida, in 1945, riding the Silver Meteor to New York City. With two years of college and several months of wartime labor in Detroit building B-52 cargo planes, Starling had pushed his fellow citrus pickers in the central Florida groves to hold out for higher wages. After several months of this collective bargaining, growers planned to silence Starling. He learned this in the nick of time and headed straight for Harlem, the home of his aunts and the cultural center of the African-American community. He soon landed a job on the north-south railroad line as a porter and was able to bring his family up from Florida to Harlem. 

Working the north-south railroad line proved tricky, as Starling had to accommodate Jim Crow segregation laws upon crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, though he refused to act subservient. A tall man, Starling’s proud carriage rubbed Southern conductors the wrong way, and they sought to punish him. On one occasion, as he was settling an elderly white woman’s luggage into the overhead rack above her, the conductor, who was built like a football lineman, barreled into Starling, knocking him off balance. The porter managed to set down the heavy baggage, but almost fell on the white woman. The conductor’s intentions were clear to all who saw the incident, especially the elderly woman, who wrote a letter to the railroad management company that resulted in a six-month suspension for the conductor. Fearing the repercussions, Starling traded train assignments with a friend. When that friend arrived at the west Florida terminus, a group of armed friends of the conductor was there to meet George Starling. Had he not switched train routes, things may well have ended very badly for him.

Surgeon Robert Foster found his ambitions thwarted by Jim Crow laws that forbid blacks from practicing medicine in Southern hospitals. Even Foster’s rank of captain in the U.S. Army did not erase the color line on American military bases in Europe. If he remained in the South, his only option would be to carry the medical equipment he needed from house to house, as did his doctor brother in their hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. Instead, he opted to migrate to California, driving his Buick Roadster across the Southwest to get there in 1953. 

Jim Crow laws meant that no hotels were open to him across Texas, until he reached Lordsburg, New Mexico. Even though legal segregation with its “Colored Only” and “White Only” signs did not exist in Arizona, white hotel proprietors still honored the practice. Foster went from hotel to hotel, growing more humiliated as he was turned away from each one. Having no choice, he continued to drive the dark and twisty desert roads, finally reaching Los Angeles without having slept since his night in Lordsburg. 

Foster thought he could build a medical practice on his network of fellow migrants from Louisiana, but they failed to materialize. Instead, he worked for an insurance company, traveling from house to house doing medical exams. In less than a year, he built a clientele and opened an office that was soon so popular that patients willingly waited an entire day in line to see him.

Wilkerson’s narrative moves along thematically, telling stories that accompany each particular theme for each of the three characters. Her narrative also includes stories of other migrants that further illustrate her point, including well-known names such as Jesse Owens and Ray Charles, as well as the author’s own migrant parents. The format works extremely well, offering compelling and often haunting vignettes that stay with the reader. Wilkerson’s strength lies in her ability to bring historical context to her storytelling, giving readers not only a riveting narrative, but a firm understanding of the significance of the Great Migration as a major turning point in twentieth century U.S. history.

When asked about his intentions in migrating north, George Starling likely conveyed the thoughts of many migrants when he replied, “I just knew that I was getting away from Florida. I didn’t consider it like it was a general movement on and I was a part of it. No, I never considered that. . .  . I was hoping I would be able to live as a man and express myself in a manly way without the fear of getting lynched at night.” 

Freedom, so out of reach in the South due to the violence and arbitrariness of Jim Crow segregation, beckoned courageous southerners to the North in the hopes of living fully as American citizens. Isabel Wilkerson’s first book importantly gives context to what is perhaps another historical turning point as the descendants of the Great Migration draw attention to the myriad ways in which those hopes have been frustrated and dashed.

Dedra McDonald Birzer is a lecturer in history and rhetoric at Hillsdale College.

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