During the six decades between World War I and the mid-1970s, some six million black Americans fled the South in a mass migration that was “perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century.” The Warmth of Other Suns is Isabel Wilkerson’s monumental examination of the causes and impact of that historic movement. The book effectively blends sociology, history and poignant stories of servitude, loss and courage.
Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people, but focuses on three as representative of the broader movement. Ida Mae Gladney had become tired of the backbreaking routine of picking cotton 12 hours a day when she left Mississippi in the 1930s and eventually settled in Chicago. George Starling, fearing he might be lynched for organizing citrus-grove workers, said goodbye to Florida in the 1940s and moved to New York City. And Robert Foster, a surgeon who could not operate in white hospitals because of his color, moved in the 1950s from Louisiana to Los Angeles.
“They were stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay,” Wilkerson writes. “In the end, it could be said that the common denominator for leaving was the desire to be free, like the Declaration of Independence said.”
Wilkerson won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing while at The New York Times, and now teaches journalism at Boston University. This is her first book.
Stories of horrific violence against blacks, as well as the daily humiliations of life in the Jim Crow South, are woven into the narrative. Someone was hanged or burned alive, on average, every four days during the four decades ending in 1929, Wilkerson says. Newspapers told readers of the time and place of upcoming lynchings, which were festive events for thousands of white citizens.
Bombings were common. When a black civil-rights worker in Florida was seriously injured in a blast in 1951, he was rushed to a hospital. By the time the only black doctor in town arrived, the victim was dead. Presumably, no white doctor would touch him.
Mean-spirited caste system rules and threats were part of the fabric of life. Blacks had to step off the curb when they passed a white person. They also had to take separate elevators and stand on separate train platforms. Plantation owners routinely cheated black sharecroppers out of the money due them, but they dared not protest out of fear of being whipped or worse.
Wilkerson herself is a child of the great migration, her parents having moved from the South to the North, which may account, in part, for the book’s empathetic tone.
Focusing on three people proved to be a brilliant narrative device. Wilkerson spent years researching the subject and excavating the memories of the main characters, all three of whom have since died. She traces the sadness, setbacks and joys of their lives as she tells a much bigger story about the significance of this mass migration.
Ida Gladney eventually became a hospital aide in Chicago. Before she left Mississippi, white men had seized her husband’s cousin for allegedly stealing turkeys and severely beat him with a chain to the point where his clothes were soaked in blood. It turned out the turkeys had wandered into the woods, but no one apologized for the beating.
George Starling dreamed of finishing college, but never got the chance. After fleeing Florida in his 20s, he spent the rest of his working years as a luggage handler on trains running along the East Coast. On the run to Florida, he had the job of moving black passengers from the white cars to the Jim Crow car before the train entered Virginia.
Robert Foster encountered unexpected racism in Los Angeles but eventually established a successful medical practice. In one of the book’s most moving episodes, Wilkerson describes in harrowing detail the time in 1953 when Foster left Louisiana and drove through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, disoriented and barely awake from exhaustion, but for most of the way could not find a motel that would admit a black man.
Because Foster’s brother, also a physician, was barred from practicing medicine in white hospitals in Louisiana, he carried a portable operating table with him to perform surgery and deliver babies in patients’ homes.
The book’s title comes from the author Richard Wright, who left the South in 1927 and headed for Chicago to feel “the warmth of other suns.”
Moving north was no panacea. Blacks encountered discrimination in jobs and housing, often paying double the rent a white family had paid for the same apartment. As blacks were moving north, Eastern European immigrants were flooding into the same cities, competing for jobs and housing, which sometimes led to tension and violence.
Wilkerson lists famous sons and daughters of the Great Migration, and wonders what would have happened to them if their parents or grandparents had not left the Jim Crow states. The list includes Michele Obama, Toni Morrison, Diana Ross, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey.
The book challenges the widely accepted belief that black migrants were responsible for urban America’s dysfunction. Compared to blacks already living in northern cities, the migrants “were more likely to be married and remain married, more likely to raise their children in two-parent households, and more likely to be employed…[and] less likely to be on welfare.”
Wilkerson displays obvious affection for her subjects, driving one to a medical appointment and tenderly holding the hand of another, but never shies away from their difficulties and setbacks, such as broken marriages, a child turning to drugs and Robert Foster’s consuming gambling addiction.
This scrupulously researched and reported book will be essential reading for future historians and anyone interested in its deep insights into the half-century-long exodus of black Americans determined to escape from a shameful “feudal caste system.”
Wilkerson has set a high standard for what is possible with narrative nonfiction.