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Review: America’s Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson (2010). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Random House.


There are all kinds of migrants. Some travel seasonally in search of work, whereas others will leave the countries where they were born in search of a better life. Some migrants are trying to escape poverty, others are fleeing persecution, and still others are refugees from warzones.

One of the most unusual and important migrations in history took place in the United States in the 20th century. It occurred within the boundaries of the U.S., yet the vast majority of migrants had no intention of going back where they came from at the end of the season—or ever again. They were not fleeing a war, yet many left home out of fear for their lives.

All told, between 1915 and 1970 about six million African Americans would travel from the South to the North and West, to settle there permanently. This almost unprecedented movement of people would completely change almost every aspect of American life. It would eventually give rise to blues music in Chicago, hip hop in California, and a cultural renaissance in Harlem.

Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century. It was vast. It was leaderless. It crept along so many thousands of currents over so long a stretch of time as to be difficult for the press truly to capture while it was under way.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson began interviewing African American octogenarians in the mid-1990s. Many retained vivid and detailed memories of what the migration had been like for them: why they left, what it was like to arrive, and what they did after. This book chronicles three of those stories to illustrate the different facets of the journey.

In 1993, Ida Mae Gladney was 80 years old and living in an increasingly violent neighborhood in Chicago. She told Wilkerson that the local gangs were generally respectful to her, but it was hardly the world she expected to find when she left Mississippi in 1929. At the other end of the country, George Starling was a son of sharecroppers and retired railway attendant who owned a brownstone apartment building in Harlem. A college dropout, he helped organize black fruit pickers in Florida to demand higher wages during World War II and had to flee to the north to escape lynching. Meanwhile, Robert Pershing Foster was an aging socialite and high-roller in Los Angeles. A medical school graduate and army doctor during World War II, Foster was unable to practice medicine in any hospital in the South, so he drove his Buick Roadmaster across the southwestern desert to set up a practice in California.

Each of these three experienced the persecutions of the Jim Crow South in different ways, and each of them discovered a different set of opportunities and disappointments in the North and West.

Jim Crow segregation did not emerge as a universal system of oppression until the last decades of the 19th century. At that time, black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington predicted that Jim Crow laws would stimulate black people to leave the South. They argued against leaving, however, in the hope that the South could be reformed. The debate between those who left and those who stayed would continue throughout the 20th century.

The demand for labor created by World War I turned the exodus from a trickle into a steady stream. American workers were fighting in Europe, and the war led to a demand for munitions and a shortage of consumer products. Additionally, the war disrupted European industries and curtailed the supply of European immigrants whom American factories had been relying on. These industries began sending recruiters to the South to encourage black workers to come north.

At first, white southerners were happy to see them go. The New Orleans Times-Picayune commented on the migration, saying, “As the North grows blacker, the South grows whiter.” However, it soon became apparent that the South was losing its labor force. Southern newspapers at this time made very revealing comments: “Black labor is the best labor the South can get. No other would work long under the same conditions.”

As the South woke up to its impending economic disaster, efforts were made to stem the tide. Labor recruiters from the North were hit with impossible licensing requirements to prevent them coming to the South—but many came in secret. Regardless, word had already spread that there were jobs to be had in the North.

Then, white southerners took to intercepting the trains. Black travelers were forced to disembark; tickets were torn up without a word, and some trains were stopped entirely. One man in 1963 had to go so far as to travel to a nearby town every day to observe when the interstate bus would leave. He could not ask for the schedule without arousing suspicion, nor could he board the bus in his own town without everyone knowing where he was going. The trains were equally well-guarded.

Railway lines in the South were divided by law into “white” and “colored” seating cars. However, as soon as they left the South the trains had to be integrated: either the signs were taken down or else the colored cars were decoupled. In the West, the changeover occurred after El Paso; on the East coast it happened at Washington D.C., and on the train to Chicago it happened at the Illinois border.

George Starling, the labor organizer from Florida, got a job as a porter on the same East coast trains he came north on. He became a sort of ambassador for the North, explaining to migrants what to expect during the journey. For example, the border towns just beyond the edges of the South were often inconsistently segregated. In some towns a black person could be in physical danger if they asked for a room at a hotel, whereas in other towns it would be awkward to ask for a colored hotel.

The migrants were often denied service in the train’s dining cars, so they had to bring their own lunches. The sight of shoeboxes full of fried chicken was universal on trains leaving the South. George Starling had to help passengers carrying suitcases full of potatoes, recently slaughtered hogs, and all manner of other surprising goods.

Meanwhile, Starling was living in Harlem at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. At the Savoy Ballroom, he might rub shoulders with jazz legends or friends from back in Florida.

In many ways, the North treated the migrants almost as poorly as the South had. As soon as northerners noticed the arrival of black migrants, they began working franticly to exclude them. Harlem became the capital of urban black culture during the 1920s, but before that,

White Harlemites banded together into committees to fight what they openly called “a growing menace,” an “invasion” of “black hordes,” and a “common enemy,” using what Gilbert Osofsky called “the language of war.” They formed organizations like the Save-Harlem Committee and the Harlem Property Owners Improvement Corporation to protect against “the greatest problem Harlem has had to face.”

In cities all across the North, white residents did everything they could to prevent black people from moving into their neighborhoods. When their efforts failed, the white population moved away immediately. Whole neighborhoods could be depopulated in six months. Wilkerson interviewed several white people who were children during this period. They reported that once all their friends had left town it seemed natural to leave as well, and they didn’t ask why.

Furthermore, black migrants themselves were often hostile to those who came after. Recent arrivals were universally ridiculed for their backcountry lack of sophistication—sometimes in a good-natured way, though sometimes not. When Robert Pershing Foster first tried to set up a medical practice in Los Angeles, he found that the other black migrants weren’t interested in his services. One black woman flatly refused to be examined by a black doctor: as a proud migrant herself, she felt that white doctors were better and she insisted on getting only the best treatment. As a recently-arrived black doctor, Foster was unable to find customers in Los Angeles. He found himself cold-calling other doctors looking fruitlessly for referrals for several years after his arrival.

The North responded to the migration by trying to create its own systems of segregation. The South’s de jure Jim Crow laws were imitated by de facto customs against integration. An infraction of the rules in the South was met with lynching, whereas in the North the result was rioting. The first race riot occurred during the Civil War in 1863, when Irish immigrants objected to being drafted into a war they felt had nothing to do with them.

Even so, migrants still found the North preferable to the South. In Mississippi, Ida Mae Gladney and her husband could make 50 cents for every 100 pounds of cotton they picked, which was roughly equal to a day’s hard labor. A hundred pounds of cotton, they said, was like a hundred pounds of feathers—a vast quantity of material. In Chicago they worked for an ice delivery service and could make 50 cents for every block of ice delivered. Even so, northern employers often paid black migrants less than their white colleagues, arguing that it was still more than they made back home. Landlords would also charge black tenants considerably higher rents to try to dissuade them from settling in the area at all.

Ida Mae and her family struggled to get by in Chicago. Their run-down tenement apartment was comparable to the shacks they had lived in back in the South. Meanwhile, George Starling and Robert Pershing Foster also found the North to be more difficult than they expected. Though they were educated, they were forced to take jobs they were overqualified for and that underpaid them.

The migrants were considered unfavorably in most contemporary commentary, which has made it hard for historians to learn what the migration was really like. Reports at the time emphasized how backwards and uneducated the migrants were, but historians today have found they were typically among the more educated people in the South. Most came from towns rather than farms. As a general rule, Wilkerson argues, the more difficult a migration is the more resources the migrants must have. Because of the obstacles in their paths, the very poorest southerners were not able to leave at all.

By the 1960s, the civil rights movement was changing the face of the migration. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished segregation, George Starling found that the railroad company that employed him still insisted on keeping black passengers separate. Starling responded by covertly explaining to passengers their rights under the new laws, saying they could legally sit wherever they wanted to, even if the conductor demanded otherwise.

Robert Pershing Foster’s father-in-law was Rufus Clement, president of Atlanta University and one of the most prominent black men in the South. Clement became an accomodationist during the civil rights movement, defending the legitimacy of “separate but equal” in an effort to prevent conflict. By that time, Foster was a hugely successful doctor, high-stakes gambler, and personal physician to Ray Charles. Foster’s daughter was a college student in Atlanta at the time: she wanted to join in the protests, but her father disapproved. According to Wilkerson,

It wasn’t that he was against the civil rights movement. He was all for standing up for one’s rights. It was just that, to his way of thinking, the way to change things was to be better than anybody at whatever you did, wear them down with your brilliance, and enjoy the heck out of doing it.

Eventually, the civil rights movement eroded the motivation for black people to travel north. At the same time, the decline of northern industries removed much of the economic incentive to leave. Historians agree that the migration was essentially over by 1970. Even so, the legacy of the Great Migration continues to this day. Most of the country remains heavily segregated, both in the North and the South, and racism retains a significant political influence. The Great Migration completely changed the face of our society, yet the history of its ramifications is still being written.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Are you personally acquainted with anyone who participated in the Great Migration? What are their stories?
  2. Many black leaders in the South, such as local ministers, argued against the migration. They felt that to leave for the North was to give up, to abandon those still living in the South. How do you feel about their arguments? What do you think were the pros and cons of leaving versus staying?
  3. How has the Great Migration influenced your life? How do you think your community would be different if it had never happened?


The Great Migration was one of the most significant and least-understood movements of the 20th century. Its influence on present-day American life is incalculable, yet many Americans know little about how it happened or why. Wilkerson’s book is a profound and informative account of the migration, describing both large-scale dynamics and personal, first-hand experiences.

Peter Bass
© 2018 CYS

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