Isabel Wilkerson faces a happy challenge when she speaking to high schoolers about her book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”
It so strains their imaginations that, for example, in Birmingham, Ala., it was once specifically illegal for a black man and a white to play checkers or that in Raleigh, N.C., black people and white swore to tell the truth on separate Bibles, Wilkerson said she’s had to find something to which high schoolers can more easily relate.
At the Mondavi Center on Tuesday, the author of this year’s UC Davis Campus Community Book Project selection said she told a group of students in Hawaii that as recently as the 1970s, it was illegal for a black driver in the South to pass a white driver, no matter how slow he was going.
The students were incredulous.
Could you at least honk? they asked. What about tailgate?
No, Wilkerson told them, “You had to stay in your place.”
A boy raised his hand and said, “Well, I would have moved then.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Wilkerson told him. “That’s what 6 million African-Americans did — 6 million Americans did — within the borders of our country to be able to live freer.”
A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times who now teaches journalism at Boston University, Wilkerson interviewed some 1,200 people over 15 years to complete her two-year-old book, “a mission, a labor of love” that became a bestseller and garnered critical praise for illuminating an often untold story.
Lasting from World War I to the 1970s, the Great Migration — “a leaderless revolution” — reshaped not just the country’s demographics but everything from its politics to its culture.
This was “not a move,” Wilkerson said. “(This) was, in fact, a defection. This was, in fact, a seeking of political asylum within the borders of one’s own country. … No other group of Americans has had to act like an immigrant would just to be recognized as citizens, which they’d been born as.”
Before that mammoth shift, 90 percent of African-Americans lived in the South, under the thumb of a caste system that went to great lengths to keep its oversupply of cheap labor to harvest tobacco, rice, sugar cane and cotton.
Between 1889 and the Great Depression, an African-American was lynched every four days on average, Wilkerson said, most often for “acting like a white person.”
Lost to the country until the migration were the many other ways African-Americans could have contributed to the country. Lost, too, was the energy spent by the beneficiaries of the caste system, white Southerners, keeping a people down.
Said Wilkerson, “If you’re gonna hold someone down in the ditch, you have to get in the ditch with them.”
Black families were arrested at train stations or trains were waved through to keep them from boarding for points north and the promise of work in cities whose source of cheap labor, European immigrants, dried up during World War I. African-Americans, many of whom toiled for no pay as sharecroppers, were “ripe for recruitment.”
“It was the first time in American history that the lowest caste people signaled that they had options and were willing to take them,” Wilkerson said.
The story of the Great Migration is the story of mostly young people who made the sacrifice to leave behind loved ones whom they might never see again — and who had the courage to head off into the unknown in search of a better life for their children.
Once they arrived in the cities of the North, the Midwest, the West, they faced segregation and, often, more violence.
“These people by their actions had their power, collectively — one person added to another person added to another person — multiplied by millions leaving one part of the country with such velocity and such volume they were actually able to change the very region that they had fled. Imagine that,” Wilkerson said.
“Combined with the courage of the people who stayed and braved the sheriff’s hoses and deputies …, these people were able to do what a president, Abraham Lincoln, could not do. … They freed themselves.”
In so doing, they gave gifts too many to count to the rest of the country and the world.
But for the Great Migration, the world would not have the novels of Richard Wright, who penned the phrase Wilkerson chose for her book title while writing about his family leaving Mississippi; or the plays of August Wilson, whose grandmother walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania; or the plays of Lorraine Hansberry, whose family (like Wright’s, migrants from Mississippi) fought segregation in Chicago, inspiring her best-known work, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Elsewhere, an Alabama couple moved to Ohio, where their young daughter could legally check out books from the public library. The girl’s name? Toni Morrison.
Motown Records founder Barry Gordy, transplanted from Georgia to Detroit, brought to the world the likes of Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, both of whom had parents who met after their families came north.
A young Miles Davis was able to take trumpet lessons in Illinois. A New York cleaning woman who’d moved from North Carolina paid for piano lessons for her son, Thelonious Monk. And John Coltrane moved north himself, at age 16, from North Carolina to Philadelphia, where he first picked up an alto saxophone.
Wilkerson didn’t speak of her own parents, who moved from Georgia to Virginia to Washington, D.C. Instead, she told the story of another couple, sharecroppers in 1920s Alabama:
So long had they thought about moving to Ohio, they named the youngest of their nine children “James Cleveland.” He was a thin-boned boy, weak, sickly, and his parents worried he wouldn’t be up to working in the fields.
Eventually, the couple made the decision to leave the only county they’d ever known to take the train to Ohio, a place where there was snow, something they’d never seen. The father’s hands shook at the train station.
On the first day of school in Cleveland, the teacher asked the couple’s youngest boy his name.
“J.C.,” he said, in his thick Alabama accent.
His teacher, unable to understand him, began calling him “Jesse.”
“And that,” Wilkerson said, “is how Jesse Owens got his name.”
— Reach Cory Golden at email@example.com or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden