Book Review

For blacks, the Great Migration north was a declaration of independence

By Paula J. Giddings
Sunday, September 26, 2010


The Epic Story of America's

Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Random House

622 pp. $30

For African Americans, restriction of movement has long had profound meaning -- and never more so than after the end of slavery. The flight of 6 million Southern blacks to the North between 1915 and 1970 was, as Isabel Wilkerson writes in "The Warmth of Other Suns," "the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in this country for far longer than they have been free."

Much has been written about the push and pull of oppression and opportunity that drove blacks north and how this mass movement changed the political, economic and social landscape of American cities. Blacks not only brought their muscle and creative talents to the North but also, as some highly touted studies contend, distinct and dysfunctional behaviors that created the intractable poverty and crime that turned cities into ghettoes.

Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose own family made the trek north, puts a different face on what is known as the Great Migration. Those who made the momentous decision to leave the "Old Country," as writer James Baldwin called the South, were as diverse and determined as those who passed through the way stations of Ellis Island.

"They took work the people already there considered beneath them," Wilkerson writes. "They tried to instill in their children the values of the Old Country while pressing them to succeed by the standards of the New World they were in." In other words, black migrants shared a common culture that was animated by the promise and possibility of the American dream.

The author tells the migration story through the portraits of three people whose sojourns began in the 1930s and '40s: George Swanson Starling, a Florida fruit-picker who found his way to Harlem; Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a Louisianan and Morehouse College graduate who went to Los Angeles to establish his medical practice; and Ida Mae Gladney, a married-at-16 Mississippi sharecropper who settled in Chicago.

In some ways, all three found what they were looking for. Starling, who abandoned Florida to escape retribution after he organized fellow fruit-pickers, found work as a train attendant; he gleefully advised passengers of their right to sit in desegregated coaches and reveled in the wondrous Harlem life of the 1940s. The charming and ambitious Foster, a surgeon who began his career collecting urine samples door to door for an insurance company, built a lucrative practice that included such clients as the musician Ray Charles (who wrote a song about him). Gladney, whose family of five had been crammed into a cabin in Mississippi's backwoods, found work as a nurse's aide and became a blue-collar, churchgoing homeowner with enough space for her and her husband's multigenerational family.

However, personal triumph was accompanied by pain and tragedy -- the seeds of which were not brought from the South but awaited the migrants in the North. Foster's relentless climb up the social ladder, in part an effort to compensate for the racial humiliation he met in California, created psychological wounds that alienated him from his wife and family. Two of Starling's children became addicted to drugs in a deteriorating Harlem. And soon after the Gladneys moved into their home, whites fled the neighborhood, eventually relegating the area to urban blight and forcing Ida to live out her old age as "an eyewitness to a war playing out in the streets below her."

And yet, as becomes clear in this extraordinary and evocative work, the refusal to be captives in the South may have saved their lives -- and perhaps their souls. "If all of their dream does not come true," wrote the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that beckoned Southern blacks early in the migration, "enough will come to pass to justify their actions."

Paula J. Giddings is the Elizabeth A. Woodson Professor of Afro-American Studies at Smith College and the author of "Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching."

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