A 3-Pronged Tale of Black Migration

Part 1 of an essay by Harvard Professor Emeritus Martin Kilson on Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African Americans.


Isabel Wilkerson has added another important book to the long tradition of serious writings on the interplay between American society's white-supremacist practices and the migration of black American citizens out of the viciously racist South to the North and West. Wilkerson subtitles her book, The Warmth of Other Suns (Random House, 2010), "The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" -- immediately signaling to readers that the book is monumental-scale popular history. (Wilkerson is a journalism professor at Boston University and former Chicago bureau chief for the New York Times.)

The Warmth of Other Suns is not, however, a "regular social history" presentation of the movement of millions of black Americans out of the South from the start of the 20th century's second decade into the World War II years and beyond. One unusual feature of the book is that it doesn't present a discussion in the main text of the historical works that preceded it -- a discussion of the scholars' shoulders that Wilkerson's book stands on, so to speak. Such an addition would help readers to historiographically locate The Warmth of Other Suns. 

I think of core works like Carter G. Woodson's pioneering A Century of Negro Migration, published in 1918 by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Woodson, who was the founding father of African-American historical scholarship, produced the first major study that identified key historical migratory antecedents of the Great Migration epoch from 1910 onward.

I think also of a raft of other books that probed what might be called the receiving side of black migration, by which I mean the dynamics of fashioning new and stable social patterns in cities where black migrants settled. Among these works are Robert Warner's Negroes in New Haven (1940); St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945); Joe W. Trotter's Black Milwaukee (1982); Kenneth L. Kusmer's A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland (1976); and Dennis C. Dickerson's Out of the Crucible: Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania 1875-1980 (1986). Of course, the pioneering study of the receiving side of black migration is W.E.B. Du Bois' The Philadelphia Negro: A Study, published in 1899 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Thus, in overall historiography terms, Wilkerson's book contains what might be dubbed a low-structural characterization of the period. Viewed from this conceptual vantage point, Wilkerson relates the Great Migration through the prism of the experience of three people. As a result, The Warmth of Other Suns' narrative text has a "nooks-and-crannies social history aura," let's call it. This also means that Wilkerson's narrative text emits a kind of historical intimacy, and thereby a uniquely engaging feature.

Be that as it may, a lacking "structural characterization" in Wilkerson's book is the absence of an overall presentation of basic population data on the geographic patterning of black Americans from 1910 into the 1940s, though there are scattered references to population data, such as Wilkerson's observation that "some 555,000 colored people left the South during the decade of the First World War." There is also a related Wilkerson observation that "the Migration had siphoned off half a million black workers by 1920 alone."

In order to provide readers here with a baseline view of black migration out of the South between 1910 and the 1930s, I present overall U.S. Census Bureau data for the regional residence of the black American population outside the South -- in the North and West -- from 1910 to the 1930s. The total black American population by 1910 was 9.8 million; by 1920 it was 10.4 million; and by 1930 it was nearly 12 million -- 11.8 million to be exact. The total white population in 1930 was nearly 109 million. (See U.S. Census Bureau, Negroes in the United States, 1920-1930 [Washington, D.C., 1935], page 25.)

Wilkerson's Three-Pronged Tale

In The Warmth of Other Suns, the black Great Migration tale -- commencing in the 20th century's second decade and extending into the 1960s -- is related through the prism of three black personalities: a woman named Ida Mae Gladney and two men, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Gladney and Starling had agrarian, working-class backgrounds. Gladney's people were field hands -- cotton pickers; and Starling's people were also field hands -- orange-grove pickers.

Through the Gladney-Starling migration prism, Wilkerson's "three-pronged migration tale," as I dub it, relates what might be called the black agrarian, working-class dimensions of the Great Migration story. Foster, on the other hand, was from a solid, middle-class background. Both of his parents were educated at a small Negro school called Leland College, in New Orleans, and their profession was teaching, with Foster's father attaining the rank of school principal.