A wise friend of mine once said that immigration is what defines and renews the United States. Virtually all immigrants come to this country in search of opportunity to better their condition through their own efforts. Many of them flee tyranny. Immigration provides a constant replenishment of enterprising, freedom-seeking people.
Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration shows that this is true of the African-Americans who left the South for the North and West between 1915 and 1970. They, too, were in search of economic opportunity and political freedom. Their journeys were as difficult and as significant as the journeys of immigrants who crossed oceans and national borders, and, like other immigrants, they had to struggle with poverty, prejudice, an alien culture, even a language barrier (the black Southern dialect was not standard English).
Wilkerson describes this history through the lives of three individuals who reflect the diversity of the black migration—Ida Mae Gladney, the wife of a poor Mississippi sharecropper, who left for Chicago in 1937; George Starling, a hot-tempered Florida fruit picker who left for New York in 1945; and Robert Pershing Foster, a physician who sought an independent life in Los Angeles in 1953.
Sharecroppers in the 1930s were only one step up from slavery, if that. They had to accept whatever their landlords chose to give them, and risked their livelihoods and even their lives if they dared ask for an accounting. Gladney and her husband had a relatively decent landlord, but left Mississippi after a relative was beaten nearly to death after being falsely accused of stealing a turkey.
Starling was marked for death after he persuaded fruit pickers in his crew to demand higher wages. He was like someone in a Central American country ruled by death squads. He had to sneak out, like someone fleeing from behind the Iron Curtain, by traveling to a Florida city where he wasn’t known, and then buying a ticket for New York City.
Dr. Foster’s father was a high school principal, and he married a daughter of Rufus Clements, the president of Atlanta University, the largest black university in the South. He could have had a relatively comfortable life if he had been willing to adapt to a segregated society. Instead he struck out for Los Angeles and independence.
He built up a successful medical practice through his skill and his devotion to his patients, but he never got over the need to prove himself. Another way he sought to assert himself was to emulate the lifestyle of Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack. He was the personal physician of Ray Charles, who wrote a song about him, and a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, after Vegas became open to black people. He achieved great material success, but at the price of cutting himself off from his roots.
Starling became a railway porter. One of his jobs going South was to shift black passengers into segregated cars when the train exited Washington, D.C. When segregation was outlawed, he took it upon himself to encourage black passengers to stand up for their rights. He was able to earn a good living, but he had a troubled marriage, a daughter became pregnant in her early teens, and a son became a drug addict. He told Wilkerson that he made both good and bad life decisions, but at least they were his own decisions.
Ida Mae Gladney was the only one of the three still alive in 2010, when the book was published. She and her husband worked hard, achieved modest success and were loved by their extended family. She lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood, where she passed the time sitting by her window watching the drug dealers and street gangs outside.
Some African-Americans in recent years have moved back to the South, which has changed dramatically, if not completely, during the past 50 years. But Gladney said she is now a Chicagoan, not a Mississippian, and faithfully attends neighborhood association meetings.
Wilkerson did a fine job of weaving together the stories of Gladney, Starling and Foster and the history of African-Americans in the 20th century, and challenged common assumptions concerning this history.
She said the African-American migration was not a result of the mechanization of agriculture in the South, but rather was a response to a labor shortage created by the migration. White Southerners tried to prevent black people from leaving the South, to the point of sending police or vigilantes into railroad stations and throwing black people off the trains. The loss of black farm labor may also be a reason for the large presence of unauthorized Mexican immigrants on Southern farms and in the migrant labor stream, but this is not a question she addressed.
She said the poverty of black ghettoes in large American cities was not the result of the migration of ignorant rural Southerners, as is commonly believed. She said that, on average, the black migrants had better education, more stable families and better work ethics than those they left behind or black families already in the North. A high proportion of successful black American politicians, musicians, writers and entertainers are children of the great migration, she wrote.
While in many ways the experience of black migrants from the South resembled the experience of European immigrants of a generation or two earlier, the African Americans faced greater difficulties. They were lower in the social scale than any other ethnic group, and they could not assimilate by changing their names or losing their foreign accents. They encountered plenty of racial prejudice and discrimination, but it was not imposed at gunpoint to the degree that it was in the South (the exception was when black families tried to move into all-white neighborhoods).
White Americans sometimes think of our black fellow-citizens as a social problem. But we choose to think of American history as the story of a struggle for freedom and democracy, then we have to recognize that no group of Americans have struggled as hard to make these ideals a reality as black people have. Wilkerson’s book is part of that story.