The final week of the Chautauqua season has been spent discussing
“The Path to the Civil War.” Yet it was the long path after the war that
Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle author Isabel Wilkerson is
concerned with in this week’s selection, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
She will speak at the CLSC Roundtable Lecture at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
After the South’s defeat, the period known as Reconstruction saw new
laws and regulations put into place that echoed the injustices of
slavery. Jim Crow laws segregated and humiliated black southerners, and,
along with lynching and intimidation, set many yearning for a new home.
“The people in the South felt like the Civil War was going to bring
them more opportunities,” said Clara Silverstein said, program director
of the Writers’ Center. “They were freed from slavery, but it really
didn’t.”Silverstein presented a CLSC Brown Bag review of The Warmth of Other Suns Monday at Alumni Hall.
Jim Crow was one of the principal reasons that around six million
black southerners left for the North between 1915 to 1970. Called the
“Great Migration,” it was “perhaps the biggest underreported story of
the 20th century,” Wilkerson wrote, and so it is the focus of The Warmth of Other Suns.
Wilkerson, a journalist, was inspired because her own parents had
been part of the migration. Her mother came from Georgia and her father,
a Tuskegee Airman, from Virginia, and they settled in Washington, D.C.
She currently is a professor of journalism and director of narrative
nonfiction at Boston University, and she was the first black woman to be
awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 while working as Chicago bureau chief
of The New York Times.
Her others awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a George Polk
Award and Journalist of the Year for 1994 by the National Association of
The Warmth of Other Suns is Wilkerson’s first book, one for
which she researched for 15 years and conducted more than 1,200
interviews. She spoke with former black southerners now living in New
York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Oakland, Calif., and
Wilkerson chose three to illustrate the various experiences of moving
Though many economists blame the boll weevil for destroying cotton
crops and therefore resulting in the Great Migration, Wilkerson argues
differently. When conducting all her interviews, what stood out was the
conditions of the South — the racism, the discrimination and the hard
prospects — that led to “the first mass act of independence by a people
who were in bondage in this country for far longer than they have been
free,” Wilkerson wrote.
Wilkerson wrote about how landowners in the South profited from black
sharecroppers, many who were former slaves, by holding them in place
through debt. These farmers made no more than a few dollars a year, if
anything, after selling their crop, no matter how hard they worked. The
landowner, who sold farming supplies on credit and did the accounting,
always made sure the year’s labor matched the debt.
“It is a great American story that has really been overlooked until
she took the time and trouble to interview all these people,”
Silverstein said. “I know from growing up in the South what it would
have been like if they stayed in the South.”
Silverstein grew up in Richmond, Va., and attended high school during
desegregation. She even wrote a book about the experience called White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation. Many of the black students she went to school with had parents stuck in low-wage jobs, without many prospects.
“Their families had been kept in a certain place for so long, it was
very hard for them,” she said. “I see what the opposite story was. Those
who stayed in the South didn’t really get the opportunities they
The Warmth of Other Suns follows Ida Mae Brandon Gladney,
George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, each from
different regions and time periods and each following different paths.
“They had the fullest life stages at every stage of their life, and
they also had the recall when they were older,” Silverstein said. “These
three seemed to remember amazing details from every stage of their
life, and I think that was a real strength of the book.”
Each found both success and hardship. Gladney escaped the trap of
sharecropping and eventually had the chance to vote, but the
neighborhood she settled in became overrun by drug dealers. Starling got
a job as a Pullman train porter, from which he could watch the whole
Great Migration unfold, yet he was barred from career advancement
because he was black. Foster, a doctor, gained the most financial
success and even treated Ray Charles, but he still had his personal
shortcomings, including a gambling addiction.
“I think she did do a good job of not showing all these people
perfect. … Some of the problems of the ghetto and some of the problems
we hear about of the ’60s, they came to roost,” she said.
Reviewing the book, Silverstein said she sees two main arguments in The Warmth of Other Suns.
“One of them is that the Great Migration is a hidden story of
immigration in this country, that she’s comparing it to some of the
stories of those that came from other parts of the world to the U.S.,”
Indeed, with six million making the move, it was even much larger
nationwide than the Gold Rush of 1849 or the Dust Bowl migration of the
1930s. Yet it went unspoken, because of its great span and because
African-American studies did not really take off until later in the 20th
century, Silverstein said.
The other argument is one against those who say that the Great
Migration caused all the problems of northern cities. This influx of
black southerners has been blamed for increased welfare recipients,
crime and children born out of wedlock. Yet in her research, Wilkerson
drew from new census data pointing out that those who moved north were
generally more ambitious, better educated and more likely to keep
together a family.
“What she found was that people who came from the South had really
strong family values and worked really hard,” Silverstein said. “I think
that’s a hidden strength that she points out.”
Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is author of The New York Times’ bestseller, The Warmth of Other Suns. The book brings to life one of the greatest underreported stories of the 20th Century, a migration that reshaped modern America. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people, unearthed archival research and gathered the voices of the famous and the unknown to tell the epic story of the redistribution of an entire people. She chose to tell the story through three unforgettable protagonists as they make the decision of their lives.