Good Morning Obots!
We continue our look at the events and history surrounding over 6 million African Americans moving from the deep south to the north and western parts of the United States. An event known as The Great Migration.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson told a group of high school students that for most of the 20th century in the U.S., it was illegal for a black motorist to pass a white one on the road, they were flabbergasted.
One student said he would’ve honked. Another said he would tailgate.
Finally, one student came up with the answer she was looking for: He would’ve left.
“I said ‘My sentiments exactly,” said Wilkerson, a journalism professor at Boston University. “That is what 6 million African Americans did starting with World War I and continuing on until the 1970s,” she said.
Wilkerson was referring to the Great Migration, the subject of the book she spent 15 years working on: “The Warmth of Other Suns.” She talked about her research, for which she interviewed 1,200 people, while giving the University of Iowa Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Lecture on Wednesday before a packed atrium on the University of Iowa campus.
The Great Migration was the movement of millions of blacks from the rural and small-town South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970. The people, many of them sharecroppers who worked to live on their employer’s land, moved to escape the caste system in the South designed to keep blacks in a lower societal position than others.
The caste system was so strong that between 1889 and 1929, a black person was lynched every four days for a perceived breach of the code, Wilkerson said. The most common reason: They acted like a white person, she said.
It wasn’t until after the book was published and Wilkerson was touring the country talking about it that she said she realized what it’s truly about: freedom.
“It’s actually what all of them wanted, and it’s of course what Martin Luther King, who we’re all gathered here to honor this special week, what he wanted as well,” she said. “I discovered that in fact, that’s what the book is actually about and that’s the story that I ultimately was telling.”
The migrations weren’t spontaneous, in fact, there were predictable streams, whose effects still can be observed in U.S. cities today, Wilkerson said. Many blacks living in Chicago trace their roots to Arkansas and Mississippi, Wilkerson said. In New York or Washington, D.C., where Wilkerson is from, many people are from the Carolinas or Georgia.
Growing up, Wilkerson said people didn’t talk about the Great Migration, but many of her neighbors were from the Carolinas.
Jean Robillard, UI’s vice president for medical affairs, told the group that the Great Migration is the “biggest underreported story of the 20th century.”
“Before reading the book, I was unfamiliar with much of this important history,” he said, “and was moved by her magnificent telling of this giant shift in the United States population.”
Anthony Berger, a first-year medical student at the university, said his interest in health disparities initially drew him to the book. While reading it, he said he found Wilkerson’s description of the treatment of blacks as a “caste system” very interesting.
“You think of caste system and you think of India, not the black population of the U.S.,” he said. “I thought she just had a really interesting approach.”
Iowa City resident Royceann Porter, a member of the local Coalition for Racial Justice Steering Committee, also attended Wednesday’s lecture. She said a lot of people are afraid to talk about racism.
“But it needs to be talked about,” she said. “It needs to be expressed. It happens.”
While serving as the Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times, Wilkerson won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the 1993 Midwestern floods and her profile of a 10-year-old Chicago boy growing up with a man’s obligations.
To close her lecture, Wilkerson reminded the audience of the sacrifices each of their ancestors made when they migrated to forge better lives for future generations.
“It gives us a beautiful burden to bear, and that is to make their sacrifice mean something,” she said. “I believe that Dr. King would have agreed with that.”
Journeys of Promise, produced by Online Journalism students at La Salle University in Philadelphia, tells the stories of six African Americans who migrated to Philadelphia from the South as part of the Great Migration, the largest internal migration in U.S. history. The six sojourners who tell their stories here were interviewed in Spring 2011 at Center in the Park, a senior center in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood.