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The Story Behind The Great Migration - Part II


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Now, more on the epic story of the Great Migration. That's the historic movement of over six million African-Americans from the South to the North and West that started around World War I. It's the subject of Isabel Wilkerson's book "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story America's Great Migration."

Isabel Wilkerson spent 15 years capturing the stories of those who migrated. Last week on the program, she shared with us why it was so hard for migrants to leave their homes in the South and why it's important to hear their stories now.

Ms. ISABEL WILKERSON (Author): Well, one of the goals was to try to get people to be able to imagine themselves doing the kinds of things that they did, and to try to picture: What would you do if you were in that circumstance. And beyond that, my goal was to restore the migration to its proper place in history. And then finally, it would be that all of us recognize that we have so much more in common than we've been led to believe, so much more in common. All of us have someone in our background who wanted something better and acted on it. And that's why we're here.

MARTIN: Today, we are continuing that conversation with a closer look at what happened when those migrants reached the North. Isabel Wilkerson joins us now from NPR member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.

Isabel, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Ms. WILKERSON: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So, just to review, for those who didn't hear our first conversation -and I hope they will go back and listen and to it - why the title? What was the warmth of other suns?

Ms. WILKERSON: The warmth of other suns was Richard Wright's distillation of why he left Mississippi to set on a course for Chicago. And he said that he was leaving to respond to the warmth of other suns, where perhaps he might bloom and live out the dream of the life he had for himself. And it represents, in some ways, the dreams of all the people who left the South, the six million people who left the South from 1915 to 1970, and set on a course for the North, Midwest and the West.

MARTIN: Just to review, again, you've worked on this book for 15 years. You interviewed more than 1,200 people over an 18-month period. And then you found three people to focus your story. Tell us about those three.

Ms. WILKERSON: The first one was Ida Mae Gladney, who was a share cropper's wife, who was terrible at picking cotton. And they ended up having to flee on the train to first, Milwaukee, and then to Chicago, where ultimately, they had a really difficult time finding work and getting adjusted in the North. And then second one was George Starling, who was a citrus picker because he had had to drop out of school. There were not the opportunities for college for black students at that time, and the money had run out for schools he had - was going to farther away from his home. And he had to also flee for his life, really, after he had tried to organize the pickers for better conditions and wages. He went to Harlem in 1945.

And then finally, there was a Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who migrated from Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles in a somewhat perilous journey across the desert, which he had not anticipated as being as difficult as it turned out to be. And he ended up leaving because he was not able to practice surgery in his own hometown of Monroe, Louisiana.

MARTIN: We talked a lot in our last conversation about what they left and why they were leaving. Let's talk about what they found when they did move North, and as you pointed, also, West. I mean, this was a movement that traveled all across the country. And I want to start with Dr. Foster, because I don't know that a lot of people think about, you know, the presence of African-Americans on the West Coast. You know, Dr. Foster just knew - as you describe it in the book - that he knew life was going to be better when he got to Los Angeles. Was it?

Ms. WILKERSON: Well, he found that even on the road to the West, it was not what he had expected it to be. And he had a really difficult time making a go of it in the beginning. It was quite discouraging to him, because he hadn't anticipated to the trouble he might run into. On the way there, he was actually told or warned after it was kind of too late to turn back that there was no formal Jim Crow in the West, but they called it James Crow - a little gentler, chivalrous way of letting you know that there were certain places you could not go and certain things that you could not do.

MARTIN: One of the things that was fascinating about Dr. Foster's story is that later he became - is it fair to say doctor to the stars? I mean he was, Ray Charles was one of his famous patients that he had quite an active social life in Los Angeles. But he also developed, do you mind if I call it that, some kind of weird ticks...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...that may have been related to his earlier kind of exclusion from the mainstream? Like, he was obsessed with appearance, for example.

Ms. WILKERSON: Well, the interesting thing about him is in some ways to me he represents the most extreme version of this deep desire for acceptance and for realizing the American dream. He had such a difficult time breaking into the field of medicine, even in Los Angeles where things were better, but things were still closed because being a migrant from the South meant youre not immediately accepted by the people who were there already. He had to work very hard to get himself established.

At one point he had to go door to door taking blood pressure and urine samples, actually, for Golden State Insurance Company. Just the very idea of a surgeon making door to door house calls in South Central, Los Angeles for minute amounts of money was very humbling and in some ways that represents great sacrifice that the forbearers of the majority of African-Americans that you might meet in the North and West might have had to endure in order to get established so that their children could live out the lives that they ultimately did.

He represents someone who was willing to do whatever it took in order to succeed. He could not admit defeat and he did this for quite some time before establishing his practice, which ultimately was built on the connection to the South, actually. He ended up becoming first physician to many of the people who had migrated from Texas and Louisiana who really loved having a physician who understood the culture, the background, understood even the superstitions of the South and the folk ways. I mean there are some people who would prefer to go to a root doctor, but they would come to him anyway, listen to what he had to say. Sometimes they'd do what he said and sometimes they wouldnt, but he understood that culture. And at one point his practice was so popular that people would actually wait for hours for him to get back.

MARTIN: You paint a very vivid portrait of the way he connected with patients, which - and again, I'm not going to give it all away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: In ways his way of practicing medicine led to his undoing later on, because he couldnt keep it up. But we'll let people discover that for themselves.


MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm having the second part of our two-part conversation with Isabel Wilkerson, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."

And tell us about the two other people who you profiled at length. Ida Brandon Mae Gladney. She went to Chicago, the center of black culture for a time. How did she fare?

Ms. WILKERSON: Black women had probably the hardest time in many of these Northern industrial cities because strong backs were valued in the foundries, in the steel mills, in the factories, in the slaughter houses, and so a lot of times the men were able to more easily find work.

She arrived in the 1930's during the Depression, a really hard time for everyone in the country. But she found herself in great competition with women who were coming from other parts of the world who, you know, had advantages when it came to even such basic things as becoming a domestic. It was considered much more valuable for some people, a status for people to have maybe a Swedish domestic or a maid, and so she had a really hard time.

It was so difficult for black women that what were known as slave markets would develop on certain corners in the Bronx or certain parts of the South Side of Chicago, where black women would gather very early in the morning, 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, and they would be standing there competing to be chosen by white housewives who were needing help with mopping the floors or whatever they might need, and the white women who were coming to look for help could take their pick. The saddest thing about it is they were often bidding against one another so that someone who needed help could get someone for very cheap. In the end, so sad for some of the women, they might have ended up working very long hours for not much more than they would've been making if they were day laborers picking cotton in the South. And that was especially true during the Depression years, when she arrived.

MARTIN: She had a rough time.


MARTIN: And finally, George Starling? He moved to Harlem and had a job that was pretty prestigious for the time at one point, working on the railroads. Tell us a little bit about his story.

Ms. WILKERSON: He arrived basically during the really busy period for employment. He was able to find a job quite quickly, working for the railroad. It was World War II, so he found work immediately. It had some level of prestige, although it was backbreaking, difficult work. He was essentially a servant. He was a porter on the railroad and he had the opportunity to see the migration unfold before him as he went back and forth, north and south, observing what was going on.

He also had this experience of trying to negotiate what can you actually do in the North. And one of the experiences that he had was after he had come back from a run from the South, on one of the 23-hour rides from the South, he landed back at Pennsylvania Station and he decided to go with a friend to have a drink at a bar. After they had set down their beer glasses, the bartender took the glasses and smashed them against some concrete bar or fixture there and it made this great crashing noise. Other people looked at him, and it turned out that this was not an uncommon experience for men in particular who might go into a restaurant or a bar in New York and other parts of the North and discover that they were not wanted.

Again, the whole idea of James Crow. There were no signs that said you were not accepted here or not accepted there, and yet they became aware of the resistance and hostility to them in other ways, and it was crushing to him.

MARTIN: He wound up doing pretty well for himself. I mean he was able to buy a home and - I guess I dont want to give it all away, but I do want to ask what you feel you learned about why some people did well and some people didnt. And what did doing well mean in this context? Because even though in material terms Ida Mae may not have done as well as some of the others, it seems to me that she, at least as you describe her, seemed to have a kind of a richness and a sense of fulfillment about her life. Do you think that's fair?

Ms. WILKERSON: I absolutely do. I feel as if a lot of this has to do with how modest their goals were to begin with. They were not coming there expecting to be running companies or to be owning great mansions. They were merely looking to be free of the caste system under which they'd grown up in and to be able to earn a living wage and have their children go to better schools. But they found themselves confined to these narrow slivers of the least desirable parts of town. The police would look away as vice and crime began to proliferate in what became known as ghettos, whenever they tried to venture out beyond the areas, they often ran into resistance. I think that there's a lot that the succeeding generations can learn from what they did.

And one of the tragedies of all this is a lot of them didnt talk about it, which is why I feel so honored to have been able to hear their stories, because often when they left, they left for good and they didnt look back and they often didnt tell their children about all the things that they did. Many of them didnt talk about these difficult things that I've just told you. And so this is a way to be able to record those experiences for succeeding generations and maybe it will help all of us to appreciate more how we got here.

MARTIN: What do you think you learned from this journey? This has been so much a part of your adult life, and you had a really rich life before. I mean as we mentioned a number of times, youre a Pulitzer Prize winner, a bureau chief for The New York Times and obviously highly successful in your own right. Your parents are part of this story; they were part of the Great Migration and moved the family to the Washington, D.C. area. So how do you think this has changed you?

Ms. WILKERSON: I'm changed partly because I had the privilege of being able to spend so much time with these beautiful people. The fact that they were willing to share their stories for the world to now know means that they gave us a window into the minds and hearts of people who did this. And it changed me because I had a chance to have a greater appreciation for how I got here and how all of us got here - how the cities came to be.

I mean in some ways they would all say to you that they'd made many mistakes, which is what I love about them. They were quite honest and authentic in describing their lives. But leaving the South was not one of the mistakes they made. And that's something that stays with me.

The second thing happens to be, what is success and what's not success? The Great Migration to me was perhaps a success merely because the people got out and were able to make decisions for themselves, which is a really inspiring and empowering message for everybody. In other words, they weren't looking to leaders. The leaders actually were against the whole idea of the Great Migration. They were not looking to outsiders to tell them what to do. They had dreams and they acted upon those dreams and that's an inspiration for everybody.

And finally, when it comes to the idea of the warmth of other suns and what that means, clearly they were looking for other suns under which they could grow and to bloom. But ultimately, I think the lesson for Ida Mae Gladney is that she chose to accept the best of both the South and the North, which is why I consider her to be probably the most successful of all inside her heart. She never changed who she was. She had a very thick Mississippi accent, which was very difficult for me to understand in the beginning, but by the end of it I actually could almost imitate her if I needed to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILKERSON: ...after a short period of time, and she never changed. I mean she could still make the best sweet potato pie but she was a big fan of the Chicago Bulls. I mean she just managed to incorporate all of the values, the best of the North and the South, which is in some ways what the promise of every child and grandchild of the Great Migration might be. In other words, and for all Americans, the blending, the marriage of the North and the South in one. And if any one can find a way to do that and be whole, then that's a lesson for everyone.

MARTIN: But did she ever share her cornbread recipe?

Ms. WILKERSON: No. I watched her make it, but she never made it the same way.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, see, there you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Isabel Wilkerson is author of "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration." She was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. She was the first African-American to win for individual reporting. She's now a professor of journalism at Boston University.

And if you want to hear the first part of our conversation, please go to Go to the Programs page and then click on TELL ME MORE.

Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As we just discussed, the story of the Great Migration is an integral part of the history of almost every African-American family. And tomorrow, we will hear how that epic journey touched the lives of one of our colleagues here at NPR: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED co-host Michele Norris. Her new book, "The Grace of Silence," includes an account of her own family's sometimes perilous, tragic and ultimately triumphant migration north.

Here she is reading an excerpt from her book and talking about her father, who migrated from Alabama to Minnesota.

Ms. MICHELE NORRIS (Co-host, "All Things Considered"): I always wonder how a young man could go through his early life with a nickname like Honey. That's what everyone called my father in Birmingham - Honey. Though to get it right you had to let the first syllable hang a bit - Honey. It seemed too sweet a name for a man unless he was a blues singer or a boxer. Dad was neither. He was the second youngest of six sons from the Ensley neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. Anyone who questioned his nickname would quickly have to confront a rambunctious fraternity. All of the Norris men were tall, thin and talkative, quick with a punchline, and if necessary even quicker with a sharp left hook.

MARTIN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED co-host Michele Norris. She joins us tomorrow to talk about her new book "The Grace of Silence," and her career, her life and how her family's history - the impact her family's history had her on her own story. That's tomorrow.

And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lets talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.