Escaping Jim Crow American Caste

Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles: Although we see these cities today as places with large numbers of African Americans, they weren’t always that way. Isabel Wilkerson describes the great migration of six million African Americans across the country from the South in her book The Warmth of Other Suns.


She is the first African American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, and she will be the keynote speaker for ThreeSixty Journalism’s 10th annual dinner and fundraiser on November 11.


Wilkerson says that writing is all she has ever wanted to do. She worked on her high school newspaper and majored in journalism in college. But it was her parents who were the catalyst for the book.


Wilkerson, like most African Americans who live in the North, West and Midwest, is a product of the great migration that began in the 1920s and ended in the 1970s. Her mother from Georgia and her father from Virginia both migrated to Washington, D.C., where they met. “I would not have existed had there been no migration,” notes Wilkerson.


Though the specifics varied that led to their decision to leave, Wilkerson says migrants all had one thing in common: fleeing a social and economic caste system created as a result of slavery. This system made it illegal for Blacks and Whites to play checkers together in Birmingham, and for Blacks to check out a library book. It presented separate Bibles — a White Bible and a Black Bible — to swear on in southern courtrooms.


“This caste system was brutally enforced to such a degree that every four days a Black person was lynched for some perceived breech of the caste system,” Wilkerson says. “The fact that they survived it is astounding.”


Fifteen years of research and interviewing 1,200 people resulted in a book that details the journey of three individuals representing the three streams of migration of African Americans to the East Coast, West Coast and Midwest, and the types of people who migrated.


During the 1930s, a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi migrated with her family first to Milwaukee and then to Chicago, where they settled.

A man who left college after two years because of his inability to pay the tuition returned to picking citrus fruit in Florida. Once he began to motivate fellow workers to demand better working conditions and pay in the 1940s, he made the journey to New York City in flight for his life.


A man who had been an army surgeon during the Korean War returned to Louisiana, where he was not allowed to continue practicing his profession. He left for Los Angeles. As part of the research for her book, Wilkerson attempted to replicate the surgeon’s journey.


During the time of his travels, there were few hotels, restaurants or gas stations across the three southern states he had to cross that would cater to Blacks, so he was forced to drive straight through. Wilkerson drove the route along with her parents. “We couldn’t make it all the way there because my parent grew afraid that I would run off the road because I was falling asleep at wheel, and they insisted that we stop.”


The states to which these southerners migrated were different but by no means easy. The migrants’ southern accents and lack of knowledge of the social norms of the big cities made them outsiders. Despite the fact that many of them earned more money than they had made back home, they still earned less than most all other groups they encountered, including the newly arrived immigrants from other countries.


It took two or three jobs to cover expenses such as rent that many sharecroppers and former homeowners were unaccustomed to paying. They did all of this without a safety net. “They couldn’t turn to their people back home, because their people back home were actually looking to them for help and guidance and inspiration,” Wilkerson says.


Her research allowed Wilkerson to dispel two myths associated with African American women who migrated to the Midwest: that they came seeking welfare, and that upon arriving they had several kids that they could not afford to support.


Research by sociologists and demographers previously restricted to scholarly circles shows that most all of the people who migrated had had a very consistent and demanding work life in the cities that they left as sharecroppers, domestics, yard men and day pickers. According to the research, they worked longer hours and as a result made more money than the African Americans who were natives of the cities they migrated to.


Wilkerson says that she also found a study conducted by a sociologist who looked at the childbearing rates for women from many countries of origin arriving in the Midwestern big cities during the 1940s. These groups included migrants from Czechoslovakia, Russia, Italy, Poland, and other Central and Southern European countries as well as Black women from southern states.


These groups were ranked based on which place-of-origin’s women bore the most children. “African American women had fewer children per 100,000 women than any other group of people arriving into the big cites at that time,” Wilkerson says. They were at the bottom of the list. “Every bit of conventional wisdom would tell you otherwise, and yet these women made the ultimate sacrifice, which was to have fewer children than all these other groups because they couldn’t afford them.”


Another study reveals that even though the other immigrant groups were new to the United States, many of them were making more money than African Americans who were native English speakers and U.S. citizens. But even with the new challenges of adjusting themselves to life in the big cities, the migration gave African Americans new opportunities.


“This was the first time in the history of African Americans in the United States that a whole generation — millions of African Americans — had the chance to be whomever they were intended to be on their own,” Wilkerson says, “and not having to be at the whim of a system that held them down to picking cotton or scrubbing floors in the homes of the wealthy people in the upper caste.”


African Americans could now send their children to school without time away from studies to help harvest crops. Wilkerson’s book highlights how some of those children became literary icons of the 20th century.


Toni Morrison’s parents’ migration from Alabama to Ohio gave her the opportunity to go into a library and check out a library book. August Wilson’s mother migrated from North Carolina, where she met his father in Pittsburgh.


Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun told a story of a family that migrated from Mississippi to Chicago. Invisible Man is the story of a young man who migrates from the South to New York City and finds himself invisible. “It becomes a touch point in almost every aspect of 20th century African American literature,” says Wilkerson.


The great migration probably influenced American music more than any other single phenomenon. The parents of Barry Gordy, founder of Motown, migrated from Georgia to Detroit. With no money to scout talent, he was limited to looking at the young people around him who were reinterpreting the music they heard at home from the gospel to the blues.


Diana Ross’ mother migrated from Alabama, her father from West Virginia. They met, married, and had their two daughters in Detroit.


Michael Jackson’s mother migrated from Alabama, his father from Arkansas. “They met outside of Chicago, moved to Gary, had the kids, and again history was made,” Wilkerson says.


Jazz might not have existed had it not been for the great migration. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk were all products of the Black exodus from south to north.


At age 16, John Coltrane left North Carolina for Philadelphia, where he got his first alto sax. “His getting an alto sax almost changes music history,” Wilkerson says. “And it happened as a result of his being a part of this great wave of people who were leaving the South and were able to become their fullest selves once outside of the bars of that caste system that had held them back for so long.”


Minneapolis has its own ties to the great migration. For example, a man migrated from Louisiana to Minneapolis and met a woman from Minneapolis. They had a son named Prince. “It’s not surprising,” says Wilkerson, “but I was thrilled about the fact that one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century — and even into the 21st century — of his generation was a product [of the great migration]… He, along with so many other people, has redesigned music as we know it.”


Many of the Minneapolis migrants hailed from Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama. And Wilkerson says the choices to pick up and move were not made haphazardly but with much forethought and attention.


“They were following the railroads that led them to the most direct route to freedom, and they re-created their ancestral homeland in these new communities… There is so much to be learned, and it’s such an inspiring story that’s true. And it’s an American story.”

In addition to Isabel Wilkerson’s appearance at the Nov. 11 annual dinner, ThreeSixty Journalism will honor three local African American elders. Matthew Little, Dr. Annie Baldwin and Betty Ellison-Harpole will share stories of the segregation they endured in the South, the subtler forms of discrimination they found in Minnesota, and the fight for the civil rights they participated in.


Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to