A couple of months ago I read a book review of Michelle Obama’s book, “Becoming” written by Isabel Wilkerson. Ms. Wilkerson’s review referenced the Great Migration of African Americans from the Southern US to the North, when talking about Obama’s family, who raised her in Chicago. Wilkerson’s writing was so interesting, that I bought HER book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”.
Although I knew that African Americans left the South in droves, I had never heard this migration referenced as a movement and I did not know details. Six million African Americans left the South for the North from 1916 to 1970. This book covers that time period in an informative and engaging way. Wilkerson starts with describing how the Jim Crow laws of the South systematically eroded the gains that freed slaves made after the Civil War, one repressive law after the other and what the consequences were for those living there. She shows us the daily lives of African Americans in the South and what led them to leave, then the opportunities and difficulties that awaited them in the North.
The book follows three people who migrated at different times over the 20th century, an agricultural worker from Florida, a sharecropper’s wife and her family from Mississippi, and a former army surgeon from Texas, as they settled in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Like migrants from other countries, often these migrants in their own country moved because they were in danger, because they wanted more economic opportunity, or because they wanted a better life for their children. Some were inspired by stories of how much better things were in the North, reminding me of America’s “streets paved with gold”.
There were so many things that seem surreal, such as the absurdity of train travel in those days. Trains travelling from the South had “Colored” and “White” cars. When they crossed into the North, the trains stopped and passengers were reshuffled into cars where everyone could sit together. The opposite happened on the journey back South. Although this was more an indignity than a danger, and as usual, separate was NOT equal, it also meant that whites and African Americans, even if friends and colleagues, could not travel together. The African American surgeon, who served in the US Army, could not find a hotel that would take him in when he traveled, and he experienced discrimination from both whites and African Americans when trying to establish his practice in LA.
In the North, the migrants faced housing and employment discrimination, including being able to live within restricted areas and having to pay more expensive rents because of limited availability. They were paid less for the same jobs. Wilkerson made the case that they worked hard and did not complain, for the most part, because the circumstances were better than where they came from, and often they could not return. Despite the discrimination, their children had educational opportunities that were not found in the South and many went on to become more educated than their parents, and to fulfill their parents’ dreams of a better life. Unfortunately, the economic and housing discrimination did take its toll and set up some of the economic inequities that we see today.
All of the protagonists were alive when Wilkerson did her research so their stories are told from their childhoods until current times. Wilkerson’s conversational writing style made for easy and quick reading and I became engrossed in finding out what happened to each family.