The United States is a nation of immigrants. What is often overlooked is that it has also historically been a land of dynamic internal movement. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a masterful and poignant reminder of the extent to which the internal migration of almost 6 million African Americans in the twentieth century has shaped the contemporary cultural landscape of the United States. The book offers a sweeping overview of the journey of millions out of the rural South and to the urban centers of the North between 1910 and 1970. It is meticulously researched and enriched by the stories of migrants themselves, whose narratives are seamlessly woven through the ample archival data. With this volume Wilkerson created a masterpiece that has gained a well-deserved place in the canon of migration literature. I was attracted to the book due to a nagging suspicion that my understanding of migration in the U.S. was woefully incomplete, which has since been confirmed. If you want an introduction to the U.S.’s most underreported migration, this is a good place to start.
The Warmth of Other Suns follows the stories of three individuals, who never met one another, but who are united in its pages by their northward trajectories. The first is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who traveled from rural Mississippi to settle in the South Side of Chicago. The second is George Starling, an intelligent and ambitious young man who, chafing under Jim Crow, began to organize workers in the fruit orchards of Florida. His work was not welcomed by the orchard owners, and he was forced to flee for his life and settled in New York. Finally, there is the talented and extravagant doctor, George Pershing Foster, who drove out of Louisiana to make a name for himself in Los Angeles.
One of Wilkerson’s main arguments is that the Great Migration was an unrecognized immigration within the borders of the U.S. She details numerous ways in which the participants were similar to other migrants arriving from far-off shores. Migrants from the South worked hard for better lives in the North. They carried their culture with them, importing the foods and customs of their hometowns. They were attracted by jobs and the promise of a better future, particularly after World War I ended the flow of European immigrants to the industrial centers of the North and demand for labor increased.
Despite these similarities, most migrants personally rejected this characterization, asserting their right to belong. They were not immigrants; they were citizens. Nevertheless, like those fleeing fascism in Germany or Communism in Eastern Europe, the black Americans who left the South during this era were seeking to escape a politically repressive regime of terror. They were citizens of a country that failed to protect their fundamental civil rights and political liberties, particularly in the territories below the Mason Dixon line. I would venture so far as to say that many of these migrants satisfied the basic definition of political refugees, as outlined by the United Nations in 1951: they fled the Jim Crow South owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race. Naturally, the migrants never crossed an international border – but ultimately, as Wilkerson puts it: “They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”
The book details the indignities of life in the segregated American South at length, and chronicles migrants’ reactions to life in the North. A striking example is found in one migrant’s response to the following question, posed by an interviewer from the Chicago Commission on Race Relations: “What difficulties do you think a person from the south meets in coming to Chicago?” Most of the responses listed are largely what one might expect, such as the cold weather and northerners’ unfriendliness. But one migrant had a telling response: “growing accustomed to being treated like people.”
Life in the North: “The Kinder Mistress”?
The North, however, was not always able to live up to its promises of political and social equality. Among white northerners (a group I belong to), I believe there is a strong tendency to assume an attitude of moral superiority when it comes to discussing race relations in the United States – to pretend that the violent repression of black Americans is something that happened/happens “down there”. What this book does particularly well is not only illustrate the brutality that drove African Americans out of the South, but also detail the tremendously difficult circumstances migrants faced in the North. Further, Wilkerson skillfully highlights the legacies of that racism that persist in contemporary northern American cities and traces the genealogy of social inequalities in both North and South that are largely taken for granted today. For example, the neighborhoods where migrants settled were often left to decay, and the dreams migrants had for themselves and their children were not always realized in that environment. The book discusses southern families whose children fell prey to crime or addiction in the North. It is important to recognize that these outcomes are explicitly linked to the manner in which African Americans were received in the North. As Wilkerson notes:
Migrants [were] sealed off in overcrowded colonies that would become the foundation for ghettos that would persist into the next century. These were the original colored quarters– the abandoned and identifiable no-man’s-lands that came into being when the least-paid people were forced to pay the highest rent for the most dilapidated housing owned by absentee landlords trying to wring the most money out of a place nobody cared about. (p. 271)
The neighborhoods where southern migrants were forced to settle are well-known: the South Side of Chicago, South Central L.A., large parts of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York, Roxbury in Boston, East St. Louis, the Near East Side of Detroit, the East Side of Cincinnati, and the Hill District in Pittsburgh. It was in these crowded neighborhoods that hard-working migrants from the South sought to build their better life. Those who ventured out of their prescribed areas were met with staunch opposition and unspeakable violence. Wilkerson details the story of the Clark family, living in a crowded two-room tenement in Chicago. The family decided to move to the all-white suburb of Cicero, which had been settled by Czechs, Slavs, Poles, and Italians. On their first attempt at moving into their new, spacious apartment, the family was told by the chief of police that they “should know better” than to try to move in and are chased away. On their second attempt, a riot ensues. The crowd destroyed the family’s belongings, burned their marriage certificate and baby photos and a treasured piano. Eventually, the mob firebombed the entire apartment building and the National Guard was called in to restore order. This was in 1949. In the North.
As Wilkerson notes, segregation here in the North was “not by edict as in the South but by circumstance”. Nevertheless, the results were largely the same. Stark inequalities produced starkly unequal outcomes: “blacks working long hours for overpriced flats, their children left unsupervised and open to gangs, the resulting rise in crime and drugs, with few people able to get out and the problem so complex as to make it impossible to identify a single cause or solution”. Such conditions brought Dr. Martin Luther King to Chicago at the height of the Civil Rights movement. King led a march there against housing segregation in 1966. A violent mob soon gathered, and King’s remarks following the incident are telling: “I have seen many demonstrations in the South,” he said, “But I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.” Dixie does not bear sole responsibility for this nation’s legacy of racial apartheid.
Despite the challenges of life in the New World, The Warmth of Other Suns shows how southern migrants carved out new lives for themselves in the North. This book describes a migration that has been written out of the common narrative of American migratory history that is so often held as a defining feature of this country. As such, it serves as an important reminder to all Americans that the United States not only welcomed the “huddled masses yearning to be free”; it also produced them.