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Wilkerson: How 'The Great Migration' shaped modern culture

When Isabel Wilkerson began researching her award-winning book, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," she knew that she would be delving into one of the nation's most profound cultural and demographic shifts — a mass exodus that would shape almost every aspect of modern American life.

Between 1915 and 1970, some 6 million African Americans left the South, scattering to cities throughout the North, Midwest and the West — forever changing their economic destinies and escaping what Wilkerson calls a long-held "caste system" meant to control them.

In the end, she decided, the book was really about much more than demographics: "I'm convinced that this book, this story is really about freedom — and how far people are willing to go to achieve it."

Wilkerson discussed her findings — woven from 15 years of research and more than 1,200 interviews — as part of the Nix Mann Endowed Lecture series before a standing-room only crowd Sunday, Feb. 2 at the Carlos Museum.

The setting was especially appropriate, she noted, given the museum's current exhibition featuring the work of acclaimed artist Romare Bearden, who is himself an outcome of the Great Migration. His parents had moved from North Carolina to New York City when Bearden was three; their home became a gathering place for artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

A Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, Wilkerson is a former James M. Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory. Part of her archival research for the book was conducted while she was here, combing over old newspapers in the Woodruff Library, she acknowledged.

Wilkerson began her presentation by describing the world that many African Americans were more than ready to escape in the South: an arcane "caste system" bound by race-based Jim Crow laws that seem absurd by modern standards:

  • In Birmingham, Ala., an African American man could go to jail for playing checkers with a white man.
  • In many states, it was against the law for an African American motorist to pass a white motorist.
  • In courtrooms throughout the South, it was common to maintain a "black" Bible and a "white" Bible for witnesses to swear upon to tell the truth.

In writing her book "one of my goals was to make this era come alive," she said, embarking on a talk that wove together elements of history, culture, economics and politics.

Here are some highlights:

Jim Crow laws: "What it meant was you had to stay in your place – what it meant was to be in a caste system, an artificial hierarchy. Everything that you could and couldn't do in that caste system was determined by what you looked like, and you were born into a world of limitations and restrictions as to what you could do … taking the time to regulate every single aspect, every move that you might make from the time you woke up until the time you went to sleep, created a 'nerve-jangling world.' …"

Caste system: "One of the overarching (reasons for the system) was economic. The South relied on an oversupply of cheap labor … That meant there needed to be people to do the hard, backbreaking work of planting and chopping and tending. Harvesting the tobacco, the cotton, the crops — the lifeblood of the South. That meant there needed to be a system of control so that people would be forced into their place."

Lynchings: "Every four days somewhere in the South, an African American lost his of her life — usually his life — over some presumed breech of this caste system … There were people who lost their lives for the accusation of having stolen 75 cents, there are people who lost their lives for having stolen a hog. The more common reason for lynching was the amorphous accusation of acting like a white person…"

Cultural impact: "You think about those cotton fields, those rice plantations, those tobacco fields and sugar plantations … on them were actually opera singers, jazz musicians, artists, novelists, surgeons, architects, defense attorneys and engineers ... So this Great Migration was actually a massive flowering of unrecognized talent. Finally, after all these generations, (a community) found ways to flourish in ways it had not before and the people who came out of it literally changed 20th century culture as we know it."

Roots of migration: "People had always wanted to leave, but they hadn't always had an opening to act upon. (Until World War I) the North had relied on immigrant labor from Europe. With Europe at war, that meant that immigration had come to a virtual halt in the United States … the North had a tremendous labor shortage at the precise moment that it needed more help than ever. So it looked for the cheapest labor in the land. African Americans in the South were ripe for recruitment."

Interference: "The South did not take kindly to this poaching of its cheap labor and did everything it could to keep the people from leaving. In fact, the efforts to keep African American laborers from leaving only fed their desire to go. They went to places farther away so they might not be recognized, they dressed in disguise, they left in the middle of the night — they did whatever it took…"

Predictable streams: African Americans fled the South "in beautifully predictable streams. To this day when you go to Northern cities and talk to families that have been there for some time… you'll find direct links to a particular part of the South."

Finding freedom: "These migrations came out of the power of a single decision. And the power of a single decision can change a family, change a community and even a country … (in doing so) they actually freed themselves. And in freeing themselves, they actually freed a country of a scourge of a caste… and in some ways opened the way for our modern era."

How her book is received: "No matter where I go, the most challenging audience is high school students. They are so beautifully removed from all of this that they have a hard time accepting that this is what human beings would do to each other…"

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