Blacks Trek South: Isabel Wilkerson's Take

The author of an epic study of the Great Migration says it paved the way for the new exodus south.

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Isabel Wilkerson (Getty Images)

The news from the 2010 census that African Americans are moving south in significant numbers prompted The Root to call Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, a work that has been called "magisterial." She spent a decade on the book, which documents the massive movement of African Americans between 1910 and 1970 from oppression in the South to opportunity in the North.

An award-winning writer, Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for her journalistic thoroughness and exquisite writing while working at the New York Times. She spoke to us during a pause on her never-ending book tour.

The Root: Is the reverse migration a new phenomenon? I've found articles going back to the 1970s describing black professionals moving from North to South.

Isabel Wilkerson: It's not new. This kind of demographic shift may occur very slowly and deceptively, and that's why a lot of times [the shifts] go unremarked. It's hard to tell what a trend is until the end of it. The Great Migration that I wrote about -- that migration from the South to the North -- leveled off and began to shift in favor of more people moving to the South than outside of the South. The South began to benefit in the 1980s. It's not a new phenomenon, but [instead] it's one we're seeing as a continuation.

TR: How do you connect the earlier Great Migration with this new trend?

IW: When the 20th century began, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South. By the end of that migration, nearly half were living outside of the South. That global distribution has not changed dramatically, even with the reverse migration. These things take decades, generations, to play themselves out.

Right now it may be 55-45 or something along those lines, meaning the South has always had the majority of African Americans. This reverse migration is a movement of smaller percentage [than the Great Migration]. I'm not diminishing the role of it. It just doesn't have the same magnitude ...

It was the magnitude of that original migration that forced the North and the South to confront what was going on in the South and ultimately forced change. The South was losing so much of its cheap black labor, and the North was being confronted with the arrival of so many people from the South that [both regions were] forced to deal with demographic sea change. 

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If [blacks] wanted to leave, they had a place to go. It was the first time in American history that African Americans, the lowest-caste people, had a choice.

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