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Sunday, September 3, 2017


I recently read The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (2010).

In this work of non-fiction, IW documents the Great Migration of black Americans from the South to the East, North, and West from 1915 to the 1970s.  IW gives us meaningful context by specifically including the stories of three individuals:

  • Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago.
  • George Swanson Sterling, who migrated from Florida to New York.
  • Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who migrated from Louisiana to California.

These three, as did millions of others, chose to flee the codified and overt racism of the South (even after their supposed emancipation), only to find themselves subject to tacit and covert racism in the American North, East, and West.

The southern migrants fled for many reasons: fear for their lives, an unwillingness to continue to cope with oppressive Jim Crow laws, the hope of a better future.  But oppression was not the only thing they left behind; loved ones, heritage, tangible belongings, and precious memories were also casualties of their flight.

Some powerful quotes:

"Still it made no sense to Pershing that one set of people could be in a cage, and the people outside couldn’t see the bars.” (p. 174) 

“All told, perhaps the most significant measure of the Great Migration was the act of leaving itself, regardless of the individual outcome. Despite the private disappointments and triumphs of any individual migrant, the Migration, in some ways, was its own point. The achievement was in making the decision to be free and acting on that decision, wherever that journey led them.” (p. 535)

“With the benefit of hindsight, the century between Reconstruction and the end of the Great Migration perhaps may be seen as a necessary stage of upheaval.  It was a transition from an era when one race owned another; to an era when the dominant class gave up ownership but kept control over the people it once had owned, at all costs, using violence even; to the eventual acceptance of the servant caste into the mainstream.” (p. 538) 

An informative and moving work.  

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