“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not,” Galatians 6:9.
I can only imagine what it must’ve been like for my parents and grandparents growing up in the South. Picket signs, black and colored waiting rooms, and being ignored or pushed aside in a store after a white person enters. It was a different America then. Who would’ve ever thought (fifty years ago) black and white people would interact the way we do today? I know that in the minds of certain individuals that racist attitude still exists, but what an awesome God we serve for helping many to move beyond.
As we celebrate Black History Month, I commemorate those who have paved the way; making possible many of the conveniences we enjoy today. Many who lived in southern states (although other states may have been subject to the same racist treatment) have endured a lengthened amount of degradation by the implementation of Jim Crow: the racial caste system which operated primarily between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Deemed more than merely a set of strict anti-Black laws, it was a way of life for many.
In this issue, contributing writer Renarda Williams shares an insightful interview conducted with Pulitzer Prize winner, Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. In this interview, Wilkerson speaks candidly about those who fled the South in order to make a better life for themselves, breaking away from the caste system designed to hold an entire race back.
By Renarda Williams
The migration by African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North and West -- from World War I through the 1970s -- is told through the stories of three people during that period.
Pulitzer Prize journalist Isabel Wilkerson chronicled one of the greatest events in African American and American history with her "remarkable" and "magnificent" book, The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story Of America's Great Migration (Random House, September 7, 2010).
Wilkerson conducted over 15 years of writing, research, drawing on archival materials, and interviewed 1,200 people for The Warmth Of Other Suns -- one of the most important blueprints of African American and American history.
Wilkerson wrote about the one of the most underreported stories of the twentieth century in this country. She focuses on the lives of Ida Mae Gladney, George Sterling, and Robert Foster. They were among the African Americans who defected away from the horrors of Jim Crow South to seek a better life in the North and West.
The Empowerment Initiative Online Newsletter interviewed Wilkerson via telephone about her book, and how it will impact Black America and America.
TEION: How important the Great Migration was for African Americans who left Jim South in shaping the scope of urban America?
Photo Credit-Joe Henson
Before the Great Migration, 90% of African Americans lived in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half were living outside the South -- in the North, the Midwest and the West. It was no accident. They were on a mission. They had foresight, a vision and a dream to flee the 'caste system' of Jim Crow that [oppressed them]. The outpouring was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls, but an orderly migration that flowed along the railroad lines and bus routes between certain southern states and certain receiving cities. People followed these routes to the North and West.
TEION: What disadvantages did African Americans encounter once they left the South?
WILKERSON: Well, a question that could be asked is why did they leave? They left because the caste system dictated their every move. It exposed them to everyday indignities and was violently enforced in the form of lynching. What happened to Claude Neal in Florida, whom few Americans have heard of, was an extreme example of the kind of mob violence that surrounded them.
In the decades leading up to and immediately following the start of the Great Migration, a lynching occurred every four days somewhere in the South. There were reminders everywhere that there was a caste system. Blacks and whites could not play checkers together in Birmingham, Alabama, for instance. And in courthouses throughout the South, there was a Black bible and a white bible to swear to tell the truth on.
But they faced many challenges in the North and West in the places they fled to. Many unions would not accept them. Blacks were brought in as strike breakers. Many neighborhoods were off-limits to Blacks. Restrictive covenants prevented whites who might have been willing to sell to blacks to do so and many Blacks faced violence and fire bombings when they did try to move into white neighborhoods.
Even though Blacks met hostility in the North, most of them considered conditions in the North to be better than what they left in the South. They did whatever it took to fit into their new worlds. Some African Americans changed their names, changed their accents.
The Great Migration did not end until the conditions in the South began finally to change. And that took longer than might have been expected. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 were resisted by most Southern states until the 1970s. One county in Virginia closed the school system because they did not want to desegregate schools.
TEION: Out of all the Southern states African Americans left, what state had the most leave the South?
WILKERSON: Mississippi had the biggest percentage of African Americans [who] defected to the North ... and most of them moved to Chicago. There are now more African Americans living in the city of Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.
TEION: Did the stories of Ida Mae Gladney, George Startling, and Robert Foster make you understand their importance in making an impact in African American and American history?
WILKERSON: Yes! The African American defection was made by individual people. There were no leaders like Moses, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King ... to lead them out of the South.
Booker T. Washington did not want Blacks to leave the South. He wanted them to remain in the South until things got better. Many black ministers encouraged their flocks to stay in the South. But those who defected to the North did not look to their leaders to save them. They took matters into their own hands and made the decision to leave.
TEION: Do you want your book to reach young African Americans whose parents, grand parents, uncles, and cousins who defected to the North and West, so they can learn about their roots?
WILKERSON: Parents who defected from the South cannot make their children read about Black history and the Black defection. They need to let their children read about Black history ... whenever they are ready.
Every African American needs to know about the Black defection.
Most of us owe our existence in the North and West to someone who made the hard decision to leave the southern caste system for something better. Yet, it’s something most Blacks take for granted.
If it were not for those who left the South, there would not be a Motown. Berry Gordy's parents came from Georgia. Diana Ross and The Jacksons were children of parents from the South.
Music in general, especially Jazz, would not be where it is today. Miles Davis’s parents left Arkansas for Illinois. John Coltrane migrated from North Carolina to Philadelphia where he got his first alto sax. It’s hard to imagine what American music would be and much of American culture had there been no Great Migration.
Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times. She was the first African American woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize; and the first African American to win for individual reporting.
Wilkerson also won a George Polk Award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for her research into the Great Migration.
She has lectured on narrative at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and has served as Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University; and as the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism at Emory University. She is currently Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University.
During the Great Migration, her parents journeyed from Georgia and southern Virginia to Washington, D.C., where she was born and reared.
I thank God for those who helped in paving the way for many conveniences afforded to African Americans today. As that "racial caste system" still exists in the minds of many, we must continue to still move forward ... in faith that things will continue to get better.
In Jesus Name,
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