WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Isabel Wilkerson: How Did The Great Migration Change The Course Of Human History?

Apr 30, 2021

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Migration

During the Great Migration, almost six million Black Americans moved across the U.S., changing the course of American history. Isabel Wilkerson shares what we can learn from these migration stories.

About Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and writer. She is the author of the critically-acclaimed book The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of the Great Migration. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities, and the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize. She is also the author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times in 1994, making her the first Black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer and the first African-American to win for individual reporting. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal. She has taught at Princeton, Emory, and Boston Universities and has lectured at more than two hundred other colleges and universities across the United States and in Europe and Asia.

She is a graduate of Howard University.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On today's show, migration and the idea that by choosing to leave your home to make life better for yourself and your family, you are making history, maybe without even knowing it.

ISABEL WILKERSON: I truly believe that, you know, migration sets in motion the life chances and, in fact, the very existence of perhaps a majority of human beings on the planet.

ZOMORODI: This is Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson. She was born in Washington, D.C., but her parents were migrants, even if they didn't call themselves that.

WILKERSON: They had come from different parts of the South, my mother from Georgia and my father from Virginia. And growing up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by people whose parents or grandparents had all come up from the South, it was something that was just part of the atmosphere. It was in the food. It was in the accents. It was in the culture. It was the language. It was the music. It was everywhere. But no one was speaking directly about - no one was giving it a name.

ZOMORODI: But Isabel distinctly remembers that there was a photograph.

WILKERSON: Yeah, that picture was one of my mother and a friend of hers that she - a childhood friend. And they are in their very best clothes. My mother has her pearls on. And they've put, you know, the small town Jim Crow South behind them. This was like a passport for themselves to document their having arrived, to be able to show and send back to the folks back home to say, I'm doing well in the new world. That was what it felt to me. And that was one of the photographs that I found that represent that for my mother.

ZOMORODI: It wasn't until Isabel was an adult and was reporting from cities across the country that she put the pieces together. Her family's story was a migration story, the story of millions of African Americans who had left the South.

WILKERSON: It began very slowly and then went from being a trickle to a flood of people exiting the South. And they were seeking refuge. They became, in some ways, like political refugees within their own country.

ZOMORODI: We now refer to this time as the Great Migration. Starting in the 1900s, it was the largest movement of people within the United States. But Isabel realized that the stories of those who went north, like her parents, were largely missing from history. And so she decided to do the work herself. She interviewed over 1,200 people and wrote a definitive history called "The Warmth Of Other Suns."

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILKERSON: It was the outpouring of 6 million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the north and west from the time of World War I until the 1970s.

ZOMORODI: Here's Isabel Wilkerson on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILKERSON: It stands out because this was the first time in American history that American citizens had to flee the land of their birth just to be recognized as the citizens that they had always been. No other group of Americans have had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens. So this Great Migration was not a move. It was actually a seeking of political asylum within the borders of one's own country. They were defecting a caste system known as Jim Crow. It was an artificial hierarchy in which everything that you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I know it is pretty common to learn about Jim Crow laws and how terrible the conditions were for African Americans in the South. But still, I mean, the idea to leave your home, to say goodbye to your family, who you may never see again, I mean, the conditions that motivated 6 million African Americans to break all ties and leave - that cannot be understated.

WILKERSON: Oh, they were living under a regime in which everything that you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like or the group to which you had been assigned. They were living in a world where it was against the law for a Black person and a white person to merely play checkers together in Birmingham. As one example, they were living in a world where there was actually a Black Bible and an altogether separate white Bible to swear to tell the truth on in court. The same sacred object could not be touched by hands of different races. And any breach of that order, that social, political and economic order that had been designed could mean literally your life. Every four days somewhere in the American South in the first four decades of the 20th century, someone was lynched for some perceived breach of that caste system. And so this was what they were fleeing. I often say that this migration was not about geography. It was about freedom and how far people are willing to achieve it. It was really a defection, you know, seeking of political asylum. They became, in some ways, like political refugees within their own country.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILKERSON: This Great Migration began when the North had a labor problem. The North had a labor problem because it had been relying on cheap labor from Europe, immigrants from Europe to work the factories and the foundries and the steel mills. But during World War I, migration from Europe came to a virtual halt. And so the North decided to go and find the cheapest labor in the land, which meant African Americans in the South, many of whom were not even being paid for their hard work. Many of them were working for the right to live on the land that they were farming. They were sharecroppers and not even being paid. So they were ripe for recruitment.

But it turned out that the South did not take kindly to this poaching of its cheap labor. The South actually did everything it could to keep the people from leaving. They would arrest people from the railroad platforms, remember, putatively free American citizens. They would arrest them from their train seats. And when there were too many people to arrest, they would wave the train on through so that people who had been hoping and saving and praying for the chance to get to freedom had to figure out, how now will we get out?

And as they made their way out of the South, they followed three beautifully predictable streams, as is the case in any migration throughout human history. One was along the East Coast to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York and on up. There was the Midwest stream, which carried people from Mississippi, Alabama to Chicago, to Detroit, then the entire Midwest. And then there was the West Coast stream, which carried people from Louisiana and Texas out to California. And when they really wanted to get away, they went to Seattle. And when they really, really wanted to get away, they went to Alaska, the farthest possible point within the borders of the United States from Jim Crow South.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So one of the people you write about is a woman who took the Midwest dream, a woman named Ida Mae. she decided to go north because terrifying things had happened to her, including family friends who had been lynched. And, you know, Ida Mae is just an ordinary person. But the details in her story tell us so much about what was going on in the U.S. during Jim Crow. And you spent a lot of time with her, right?

WILKERSON: Yes. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney was a sharecropper's wife in Mississippi in the 1930s. And one of the relatives of her husband was accused of having taken something without proof. But he was accused of having taken something. As a result of that, he was beaten to within an inch of his life. And after seeing this happen, the husband, the two of them decided that this was going to be the last crop they would be making. And they had to set about planning and figuring out how they were going to escape. And they could not go and tell people of their plan. They could only share it with a few trusted people - her mother and one of his cousins. And they began to give away or remove some of the things from where they were living and quietly went about their work of harvesting the cotton from the field and then at the appointed hour, caught the train to head north. And really, many of them said that they could not really rest and exhale until they had crossed out of that state, really out of the - even out of the state of Tennessee going north. And that's when they could feel that they were truly on their way.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And you write that even though they made it out, they didn't end up in some kind of northern utopia. They basically had to live in squalor, at least to begin with.

WILKERSON: Yes, they ended up in Chicago. And eventually - they actually arrived in the midst of the depression, which meant that it was very difficult going for them. And there they made an existence, made a family. And she was not one to dwell on what might have been. She was one to think about that everything was meant to be, that things were for a purpose. She lived what was called the serenity prayer, you know? She never looked back. I mean, that's one of the things about the people in the Great Migration is that a lot of them - one reason why it wasn't as well-known as it otherwise could have been is that the people did not speak of this very much. They didn't want to burden their children with what they had suffered. They didn't want their children to feel the same restrictions that they had grown up under, so they really didn't talk about it that much. And, you know, this was necessary, you might say, because of the post-traumatic stress that they were experiencing. I mean, this is a traumatic life that they were - that they had been forced to lead.

You know, a migration - I really believe that every migration is a referendum on the place that people are leaving, and it's a vote of confidence and a leap of faith in - and hopefulness about the place that they are going to. And in that respect, you know, once you've made that decision, you want to believe that it was the right decision to make. You know, I say in the book that, you know, this was the first big step that the nation's servant caste made without asking because for the vast majority of time that African Americans have been on the soil, they were not given the chance to have agency over their lives. And that's really what migration is. Migration is taking one's life into one's own hands, making decisions that you think will be best for your family going forward and making that leap of faith into the unknown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILKERSON: Think about those cotton fields and those rice plantations and those tobacco fields - were opera singers, jazz musicians, playwrights, novelists, surgeons, attorneys, accountants, professors, journalists. And how do we know that? We know that because that is what they and their children and now their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren have often chosen to become once they had the chance to choose for themselves what they would do with their God-given talents.

Without the Great Migration, there might not have been a Toni Morrison as we now know her to be. Her parents were from Alabama and from Georgia. They migrated to Ohio, where their daughter would get to do something that we all take for granted at this point but which was against the law and against protocol for African Americans at the time that she would have been growing up in the South had they stayed. And that is just to walk into a library and take out a library book. Merely by making the single decision to leave, her parents assured that their daughter would get access to books. And if you're going to become a Nobel laureate, it helps to get a book now and then. You know, it helps. Music as we know it was reshaped by the Great Migration. As they came north, they brought with them on their hearts and in their memories the music that had sustained the ancestors - the blues music, the spirituals and the gospel music that had sustained them through the generations. And they converted this music into whole new genres of music and got the chance to record this music, this new music that they were creating and to spread it throughout the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "STRUTTIN' WITH SOME BARBECUE")

WILKERSON: Jazz was a creation of the Great Migration, starting with Louis Armstrong, who was born in Louisiana and migrated on the Illinois Central Railroad to Chicago, where he got the chance to build on the talent that was within him all along.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS COMPOSITION)

WILKERSON: Miles Davis - his parents were from Arkansas. They migrated to Illinois, southern Illinois.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE COMPOSITION)

WILKERSON: John Coltrane - he migrated at the age of 16 from North Carolina to Philadelphia, where, upon arrival in Philadelphia, he got his first alto sax.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK COMPOSITION)

WILKERSON: Thelonious Monk, Michael Jackson, Jesse Owens, Prince, August Wilson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Michelle Obama - these are all a few of the millions of people who were products of the single decision to migrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK COMPOSITION)

ZOMORODI: Isabel, knowing all you know about the Great Migration, what is your perspective on more recent migrations within the U.S.? Like, the most obvious example that comes to mind is New Orleans. So many people left the city after Hurricane Katrina, and they never returned.

WILKERSON: Well, I think that all migrations share so much in common in that - one thing that I was really excited to discover in the process of working on "The Warmth Of Other Suns" was the work of E.G. Ravenstein, who was a 19th-century geographer who created what are known as the laws of migration. And he was basically saying that people go no farther - they go no farther than is necessary to achieve their goals. So if a family from New Orleans migrates out and makes lives for themselves and their families someplace else, this is a decision that they made that they felt was the best for themselves and for their children. And I have just the greatest sense of respect and admiration for that.

And I think that, you know, when we look at any migration, we should always look at, what is it that they're seeking to achieve? - and to realize that they are looking to find freedom and success. They're not doing this in order to not succeed. There's too much at stake for them not to succeed. And, you know, we could - it could take a different form based upon the location and the group itself, and are you crossing national or international borders? But essentially, I think people all want the same thing. I think that they're all seeking the same thing. And if - the more that we're able to recognize the very human-centered goals and nature of migration itself, I think we would have greater understanding for any migration that we're looking at.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Do you think that lack of understanding is part of the reason why there is always a debate and such controversy over different groups of people migrating into the U.S.? It just comes up over and over again.

WILKERSON: I think that there's something that has to do with how the people who are doing the migrating are perceived in the first place. I mean, if migration is something that is in a way an origin story for many Americans, then that means that many Americans should already have a sense of appreciation for the ways that migration affected their own family lineage and thus should be able to have more of an understanding of other people who are migrating as well. I think that that has to do with, in some ways, a distancing from groups that are seen as other. It's a marginalization of the people who are migrating, who may not be seen by some Americans as similar to themselves. It's not recognizing the common humanity of various groups. And that is to the detriment of everyone.

ZOMORODI: Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist. Her most recent book is "Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents." You can find her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about Migration.

I'm a Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.