When Miles Davis’ parents left Arkansas, they were among the early African-American migrants to leave the South for better opportunities in the North.
If they hadn’t moved to Alton, Ill., where Davis was born in 1926, the future jazz great probably would not have had the opportunity to learn and practice music, author Isabel Wilkerson says.
More than 6 million African-Americans left the South between World War I and the 1970s, dramatically changing the country.
“We’re still trying to comprehend the impact,” Wilkerson says.
For more than 15 years, she researched that impact for “The Warmth of Other Suns.” A journalism professor at Boston University, she talked by phone while on a train to New York last week. While Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times, she won a Pulitzer Prize for feature stories about the 1993 flood in the Midwest.
Her book is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award and has been cited on numerous lists as one of the best books of last year.
“It’s gratifying to see how people are embracing it,” she says.
Wilkerson says readers respond to different things, from the personal stories to the magnitude of a trend they may have been aware of only vaguely.
To explore this “Great Migration,” Wilkerson narrates in detail the intimate stories of three people as they relocate to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
“The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”
One of the migrants Wilkerson profiles comes briefly through St. Louis. Although St. Louis counts as the North, Wilkerson calls it a border crossing like Washington and Cincinnati, and not one of the major “receiving stations,” such as Chicago and Detroit.
Robert Pershing Foster’s first trip out of Monroe, La., is to visit his brother, a resident at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis. Foster eventually decides to become a doctor, too, and as a surgeon moves to Los Angles and builds an overflowing, lucrative practice treating many other migrants from Texas and Louisiana.
The migrations began in response to labor shortages during World War I, but another primary reason to leave was the South’s caste system.
Wilkerson describes the segregation and racism throughout the book, without ever mentioning a water fountain or restroom (“that was only the beginning of the caste system,” she says).
Every Southern black would have known or heard of someone who had been lynched, with lynchings occurring an average of every four days.
As she describes the Florida boyhood of George Starling, Wilkerson writes, “Surrounded as he was by the arbitrary violence of the ruling caste, it would be nearly impossible for George or any other colored boy in that era to grow up without the fear of being lynched ...”
At one point, George waits at a pharmacy for an ice cream. The pharmacist has his terrier jump on the counter and asks the dog, “What would you rather do? Be a nigger or die?” The dog lies down and plays “dead” as the white customers laugh.
Of course, for the 6 million and more people who left the South, many found a similar caste system in Northern cities, Wilkerson says. Miles Davis wrote bitterly of the racism he encountered during his life, and the East St. Louis riot of 1917 began, in part, because of the new influx of black laborers, who were not allowed to join unions.
Migrants “were met with hostility, yet they persevered,” Wilkerson says, becoming, or inspiring, writers like Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, August Wilson and Toni Morrison. Richard Wright became “the bard of the Great Migration,” she writes. He left Mississippi for Chicago and said he wanted to feel “the warmth of other suns.”
The migration did hurt the South, she says, which panicked when it realized it was losing cheap labor. But the culture didn’t change dramatically until the 1970s. Now, there is some “reverse migration,” with African Americans moving back, some in search of their “homeland.”