Responding to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2010)
The two cities where I have spent much of my life (Portland, Oregon, and Indianapolis) are alike in two respects: historically, they have been anti-slavery and highly resistant to settlement by African Americans. In parallel but distinctly different ways, both cities were strongholds for the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. One of my current research interests is to learn more about these racist social systems within which I have lived for nearly seventy years. My purpose, in part, is to do what I can to help shape a better future in cities like the two I have known.
A chance conversation recently called my attention to a book that helps me understand race relations in the century that started around 1915, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. She writes that beginning with World War I and continuing until the early 1970s, “some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s” (p. 9).
Black southerners left all of the states of the old South—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—along with Kentucky, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. They traveled to the former Union states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, California, Nevada, Oregon, and the District of Columbia, along with the border states of Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri, and Washington, which was admitted to the Union after the Civil War (p. 556). Their numbers overpowered the size of earlier migrations across North America, the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, with 100,000 participants, and the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s with 300,000.
I became aware of the movement of African Americans into Portland, where I grew up, during my pre-teen years when many people, including black southerners, came to the Portland-Vancouver area to work in the shipyards during World War II. During my first three years in high school, I was aware of only one African American in my traditional college-prep school, and he, an upper classman, was one of the more popular students on campus. In 1948, the Vanport flood destroyed the homes of many people who had moved to the city during the war years and many families were relocated. As a result, approximately thirty-five African American students were transferred to my 1,200-student school. Although a tiny minority, they were a conspicuous presence because they stayed together as a group. Those of us already there, most of us white with a scattering of Asian American students, didn’t know how to respond to classmates with a different way of using our mother tongue and with different social mores. We kept to our separate ways. Read More ….Great Migration Wilkerson