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.
However, I don't think the Foster migration prism provides Wilkerson an opportunity to intertwine Foster's "middle-class migration tale" with the core structural dynamics that defined most African Americans' experience in the Great Migration epoch. Unlike many blacks of bourgeois background, who fashioned for themselves what I call an "outreach-to-black-masses outlook" (that is, a black-masses-friendly orientation), Robert Joseph Pershing Foster harbored what I describe as a black elitist identity.
Foster didn't use the advantages of upper-class mobility available to him to formally assist the social and political advancement of the great mass of working-class and poor black Americans. So he stood off from aggregate black American concerns, as it were, obsessed solely with his own.
As Carter Woodson revealed in the first major study of the black American professional class, The Negro Professional Man and the Community (1934), by the 1930s, when there were about 135,000 black Americans in professional ranks — thanks to Negro colleges — a sizable number of black professional persons participated in a broad range of black civil-society agencies that extended a "helping-hand outreach" to working-class African Americans. In this way, the black professional class assisted black working-class advancement in the many ways that viable black civil-society agencies made available.
That outreach to working-class blacks was made possible through participation in black civic associations, civil rights organizations, mutual-aid associations, women's organizations like the National Council of Negro Women, professional associations like the National Medical Association and the National Bar Association, and as members of black churches with a civil rights activist outlook.
A first-rate study of such black professional outreach to the broader working-class black community in Philadelphia from the 1920s into the 1960s can be found in the University of California (Riverside) historian Vincent Franklin's important book, The Education of Black Philadelphia: The Social and Educational History of a Minority Community 1900-1950. Professor Franklin, by the way, is editor of The Journal of African American History.
As I read Wilkerson's presentation of Robert Joseph Pershing Foster's migration tale, my attention was drawn to Foster's "black elitist" proclivities. Those proclivities commenced during his undergraduate years at one of the top-ranked Negro colleges, Morehouse College in Atlanta. The black-elitist proclivities of the Foster migration tale provide Wilkerson with a range of black Great Migration material that enables her to highlight a major aspect of her historical narrative.
Namely, Wilkerson's narrative tilts in favor of what might be called a "black-agency historiography" in regard to explaining why a mass quantum of black citizens entered the Great Migration, as contrasted with a "structural-dynamics historiography." Accordingly, the Foster migration tale is laden with materials illustrative of Foster's single-minded quest to be a financially successful medical doctor and surgeon — a success that would simultaneously provide Dr. Foster a high social status.
Foster's quest commenced with courting an undergraduate at Spelman College named Alice Clement, whose parents were at the pinnacle of black Atlanta's professional class; Alice's father, Dr. Rufus Clement, was president of Atlanta University. That university was at the apex of about 100 Negro colleges that, by the 1930s, were training some 90 percent of what W.E.B. Du Bois liked to call the Talented Tenth in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, the great text of African-American progressivism. Before enrolling in one of the black medical schools in 1940 (Meharry Medical College in Nashville), Foster married Alice at a flamboyant wedding ceremony — vividly described by Wilkerson — that was covered in major Negro newspapers in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.
It was during two years as a U.S. Army doctor during the Korean War that then-Captain Robert Foster had a traumatic encounter with American racism — the rejection of his application for the post of chief surgeon — when it was discovered that the applicant was black. Thus, when his U.S. Army tour ended, Foster and Alice and their two daughters migrated to California, settling in Los Angeles. Through a network of African-American physicians already in California, Foster — aided especially by Dr. William Beck, a former professor at Meharry — eventually fashioned both a successful medical practice and established high social connections in Los Angeles.
From what I could glean from the rather peculiar 18-part presentation of the Foster migration tale, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster's successful Great Migration tale did not involve significant social and political "outreach to black masses" dimensions. Visiting Dr. Foster during the last year of his life, Wilkerson queried him regarding how he raised his two daughters. "He became obsessed with appearances," Wilkerson says, "and spent a fortune on their clothes and breeding so that there would be no reason for them to be rejected [by white America] as he had been."
This, I think, was a kind of "black nonrealism identity" that Wilkerson is describing for Dr. Foster, though Wilkerson doesn't explicitly say this. As I view it, Dr. Foster truly believed that a black American professional person with an abundance of material possessions could shield himself and his children from racist assaults on one's "black honor."
Here's how Wilkerson puts this: "Unlike other parents raised in the South, he had never drilled into his children the hardships he had endured or dwelled on the limits of what they could or could not do based on the color of their skin. It was a strategy that worked beautifully in producing young women of grace and refinement but left them knowing little about [black folks'] rituals and folk wisdom and history of the South."
Part 2 tomorrow.
Martin Kilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, was the first African American to teach at Harvard College. He retired from teaching in 1999.