Blacks Trek South: Isabel Wilkerson's Take

Isabel Wilkerson (Getty Images)
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. 


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.

When the Great Migration began, there were 10 million African Americans in the U.S. You were looking at a million leaving per decade. By the end of it, half [of blacks] had been redistributed to the rest of the country. Currently there are 35 million to 40 million African Americans. Even the movement of a million people would not have the same impact now that it would have then.


TR: The motivations for the Great Migration were largely economic as well as political: for example, physical intimidation of black people. Today the reasons for the reverse migration seem more diffused.

IW: I prefer the term "return migration" as opposed to "reverse migration." That's because "reverse migration" makes it seem the people had made a mistake and are going backward. I don't believe any migration is ever a mistake or going backward. It's a universal human story no matter what our background.


There are many migrations that have occurred in this country — from Europe, from the Caribbean, from Asia. Any migration is a decision made by people who have thought things through and choose another place as the best place for their family. Any migration is a referendum on the place they are leaving and an expression of hope for where they chose to go.

That region [the South] is now a different place. It still has a long way to go.  But it's a different place from when the Great Migration began. They're returning to a place different from what it was before because of the effects of the departure and the sacrifice that their ancestors made.


In some ways it's the maturating of a people who had been marginalized for so long. Now the children, great-grandchildren, can make a decision what is absolutely best, not just "We must leave for our lives!" That actually means there are choices that their parents and grandparents didn't have.

They're also moving along the tide of other Americans, the mainstreaming of African Americans into the general trends that may be going on demographically for other Americans. [African-American] children have options of going to Houston, to Jackson, Miss., or to Atlanta or Charlotte — as any other American might. [The South] is now a more open place than it had been before. Many white Northerners who might never have considered living in the South also are moving there because it's more open to them.


TR: How are the new migrants different from their ancestors who went North?

IW: The parent and grandparents went to the biggest and most expensive places in the country: New York, they went to Chicago, they went to Washington, D.C., they went to Chicago and they went to L.A. They went to big, expensive, forbidding, anonymous places that cities can be.


Now, their definition of the American dream is different from that of their parents and grandparents. Their definition may be more space, more land, more square footage. Their parents had a different definition of what they needed: the freedom to walk down the street without having to step off the sidewalk, getting paid for their hard work. Their expectations were not the expectations people would have now. Now they're going to where they can live out the life that they dream for themselves, whether it's the suburbs or a Southern city.

Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.

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