I was leaving without a qualm
without a single backward glance.
The face of the South that I had known
was hostile and forbidding,
and yet out of all the conflicts
and the curses…
the tension and the terror,
I had somehow gotten the idea that life could be different…
I was now running more away
from something than toward something….
My mood was:
I’ve got to get away;
I can’t stay here.
- Richard Wright, Black Boy
* * *
There are other worlds, other entire universes, right next door to where we live.
I was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956. On Oak Park’s eastern edge, Austin Blvd. runs north and south, dividing the suburb from the Chicago neighborhood of Austin. My mother grew up in Austin, and when I was a boy my grandparents still lived there. But in the late 1960′s they relocated across Austin Blvd. to an area they considered better and safer. They were part of the “white flight” that led many Chicagoans to leave changing neighborhoods that were being filled by an influx of African-Americans moving in from the South.
Many years later, in the 1980′s, I returned to Austin. While attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, we became acquainted with Pastor Raleigh Washington, who had partnered with Glen Kehrein of Circle Urban Ministries to found Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church in my grandparents’ old Austin neighborhood.
The church website sketches the situation in Austin at that time:
Rock Church’s story is about ordinary people committed to a vision and mission of community outreach, racial reconciliation, missions, discipleship, and partnering with like-minded organizations. Its community focus is the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. In 1983, when Pastor Raleigh Washington founded Rock Church, Austin had already morphed from a predominately White neighborhood to one whose primary residents were Black. The social, educational, and economic pillars had declined. Most of the doctors, lawyers, businesses, and churches had moved to the suburbs. Few institutions remained to provide social structure within the community; unemployment rose to 40 percent and the high school dropout rate increased to 70 percent.
We went to some services at Rock Church, heard Pastor Washington speak on numerous occasions, had Mrs. Washington in our home to speak to the Trinity wives group, and invited the congregation’s dynamic gospel choir to sing at our little church in Waukegan. These experiences became, for this white, privileged suburban young man, an important eye-opener to the realities of race, poverty, urban life, and the need for social justice.
In recent years, I have discovered more fully how my life has touched, ever so lightly and tangentially, on one of the greatest exodus stories in modern history. I have served as a hospice chaplain in Indianapolis for the past nine years. My work takes me into many different neighborhoods and homes in the city, and has provided me with my first real opportunities to interact intimately with African-American families on their turf.
(And yes, today in a northern city like Indianapolis, their turf remains different from that of the white community. Consider, for example, this article about continuing practices with regard to racial discrimination in the housing market.)
Indianapolis has not always been a friendly place in which to live for blacks; it was even home to the national headquarters for the KKK in the mid-20th century. A woman in one of my churches was shocked to find a Klan outfit when they cleaned out her mother’s attic after her death. Nevertheless, this city was one to which many from the South came in what has come to be known as “The Great Migration.”
From 1915 through the early 1970′s, a remarkable emigration movement took place from south to north in the United States, as southern blacks uprooted and fled to cities all across the North, including Indianapolis, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee here in the Midwest. Prompted by job opportunities in the North during and after the world wars and tired of being oppressed and harassed under the South’s Jim Crow laws, they came like a flood, by the hundreds of thousands each decade. More than six million blacks eventually relocated — more than in the Gold Rush or Dust Bowl migrations west — leading to significant changes not only in individual lives but also in U.S. society as a whole.
Isabel Wilkerson describes this mass exodus in her magnificent chronicle, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
Isabel Wilkerson writes:
From the early years of the twentieth century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every black family in America, had a decision to make. There were sharecroppers losing at settlement. Typists wanting to work in an office. Yard boys scared that a single gesture near the planter’s wife could leave them hanging from an oak tree. They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay, and they each had a decision before them. In this, they were not unlike anyone who ever longed to cross the Atlantic or the Rio Grande.
It was during the First World War that a silent pilgrimage took its first steps within the borders of this country. The fever rose without warning or notice or much in the way of understanding by those outside its reach. It would not end until the 1970s and would set into motion changes in the North and South that no one, not even the people doing the leaving, could have imagined at the start of it or dreamed would take nearly a lifetime to play out.
I have been present in the final season of some of those lives. When one of these pilgrims comes under my care in hospice, I do my best to learn all that I can from him or her. Their lives are among the most interesting of any that confront me in my work. These simple souls are part of one of America’s greatest stories, and many folks like me have remained largely unaware of its details.
The genius of Isabel Wilkerson’s book is that she focuses upon three individual stories that represent the millions of blacks who went north. The Warmth of Other Suns is like a Ken Burns’ film that intercuts between these three tales in the foreground, stepping back occasionally to explain the context of the larger social movement of which they were a part. The way she carries out her literary strategy makes this book extremely personal and poignant.
She writes about Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who with her sharecropper husband George left Mississippi in October of 1937. They made the decision after a terrifying incident in which they were awakened in the night by an angry posse looking for a family member who, it was supposed, stole some turkeys. Despite the fact that he was innocent, when they found the boy they dragged him into the woods and beat him with chains to within a inch of his life. Ida Mae and George had had enough, so they finished picking their cotton crop, settled up with the owner, and snuck out of town to Milwaukee to stay with Ida’s sister. The couple later settled in Chicago, where George went to work at the Campbell’s Soup Factory and Ida Mae worked in a hospital.
Then, there is George Swanson Starling from Eustis, Florida, who literally fled north in 1945. Starling was a college student but had conflicts with his father about it and had to drop out when funds dried up. He went to picking fruit in the Florida orange groves and eventually found himself in trouble with the grove owners because he had had the gall to demand better wages and conditions for the pickers. In Florida in the 1940′s, that was more than enough to get a black man lynched. So Starling fled and went to New York City, eventually bringing his wife Inez to join him. Ironically, he went to work for the very railroad that had carried him northward and spent his years traveling back in and out of the South, laboring on long shifts as a baggage carrier and attendant to the needs of passengers.
Finally, the book focuses on Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, the most outwardly successful of these three emigrants, a physician from Monroe, Louisiana who went to California and became a respected surgeon. His parents had been leading educators in the very unequal Monroe Colored High School (black teachers made 1/3 of what white teachers made in Louisiana). Foster himself went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, the respected black institution of higher learning, married a university president’s daughter and served in the military. His insatiable drive to succeed and the equally passionate forces that tried to stop him meant that Foster had to spend much of his early adult life away from his family, fighting to break in as a physician and establish his own practice. It was in March of 1953 that Foster got in his automobile and made the long, perilous (for a black) drive to California, never looking back.
These three individuals represent the three streams of the Great Migration flowing out of the southern United States. Those from states like Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas usually ended up in northeastern cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Blacks from Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas sought refuge, freedom, and work in the cities of the northern Midwest, like Chicago, Indianapolis, and Detroit. Those from Louisiana and Texas generally went west to California.
They followed the major transportation routes of the day, tired of eking out subsistence livings as sharecroppers and fruit-pickers, fed up with Jim Crow laws that reminded them every moment that they were on the lowest rung of a demeaning caste system, and frightened of a “justice” system by which they were continually victimized, sometimes brutally so.
Wilkerson doesn’t shy away from telling some of the horrific tales of vigilantism that led to inhumane treatment, torture, lynchings, and the desecration of blacks in the south. But even more telling are her vivid descriptions of the daily dehumanizing effects of Jim Crow laws and the socio-economic rules that touched all aspects of life for people of color. For example, she gives vivid descriptions of such institutions as the segregated movie houses, and she outlines, in cringe-inducing detail, annual settlements between sharecroppers and landowners, in which, after a year of back-breaking labor, a worker and his family were lucky to break even.
How could many of these folks not be attracted, then, when reports came from the North of abundant work, better living and working conditions, and higher wages in northern cities during the war years? The draw was so strong and so many began leaving, that southern states and communities passed laws prohibiting northern recruiters from coming to town, and made efforts to stop the flow of northern newspapers and materials informing blacks of new opportunities.
There were many factors, of course, in a mass geographical movement like the Great Migration. In David Oshinky’s New York Times review of Wilkerson’s book, he notes:
Some historians, moreover, may question Wilkerson’s approach to her subject. She tends to privilege the migrants’ personal feelings over structural influences like the coming of the mechanical cotton picker, which pushed untold thousands of Southern blacks from the fields, or the intense demand for wartime factory labor, which pulled thousands more to manufacturing cities in the North. Wilkerson is well aware of these push-pull factors. She has simply chosen to treat them in a way that makes the most sense to her. What bound these migrants together, she explains, was both their need to escape the violent, humiliating confines of the segregationist South and their “hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”
What Isabel Wilkerson describes in The Warmth of Other Suns is a trio of Exodus-Wilderness-Promised Land stories every bit as compelling as the Biblical epic of Israel escaping Egypt by the hand of God. Like that story of divine salvation, the narrative of the Great Migration doesn’t end with a simple “they lived happily ever after” once blacks from the south had been freed and reached their destinations. As the Israelites faced nations around them and Canaanites in the land who resisted the chosen people’s incursion into their cities and territories, so the African-Americans who sought refuge in the north discovered that they were not usually welcomed with open arms and opportunities. As Wilkerson says, those who moved to different parts of the country nevertheless found themselves on the same rung of the ladder.
Some companies in the North didn’t hire black workers, and in most places the working class people who were already there (and whites who had also relocated from the South looking for work) resisted the emigrants in workplaces, social settings, and neighborhoods. It should not be lost on readers that the very reason northern companies lured black workers from the south was to keep their labor costs down — they weren’t being altruistic. In the 1940′s forty percent of black men in Chicago were doing unskilled or semi-skilled work. Another thirty four percent were working as servants. The options were even more limited for black women, of whom two-thirds were servants. Wilkerson notes that only seven percent of black women were hired to do clerical work compared to forty-three percent of white women. In many cases, blacks just traded one form of hard labor in the South for another in the North.
And, though there were no Jim Crow laws organizing northern society into a structured caste system by which black people were kept at the lowest level, the North was only slightly more friendly to their dreams and accepting of their presence. A telling paragraph from the book notes:
There were no colored or white signs in New York. That was the unnerving and tricky part of making your way through a place that looked free. You never knew when perfect strangers would remind you that, as far as they were concerned, you weren’t equal and might never be. It was just the prerogative of whoever happened to be in a position to keep you from getting what the law said you had a right to, because nobody was going to enforce it anyway.
I highly recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s book as a moving true tale of people on a wilderness journey. The lives she traces teach us. And though she doesn’t give a lot of attention to subsequent generations — the children and grandchildren of the Great Migration — what she does say reminds us that the way of our African-American neighbors has remained formidable. But that’s another wilderness story for a different day.
As for me, I am looking forward to visiting an elderly black man from Mississippi this week. He lived as a sharecropper and one day he made his way north. Now he is my teacher, my guide to a wilderness world that fascinates me and helps me understand better the neighbors God calls me to love.