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The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

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On Sale: September 07, 2010
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-679-60407-5
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In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.


The New York Times  • USA Today • O: The Oprah Magazine • Amazon • Publishers Weekly •  Salon • Newsday  • The Daily Beast

The New Yorker •  The Washington Post • The Economist • Boston Globe • San Francisco Chronicle •  Chicago  
Tribune • Entertainment Weekly • Philadelphia Inquirer • The Guardian • The Seattle Times • St. Louis Post-Dispatch  • The Christian Science Monitor 

 From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.
With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.

Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic.


Part One
In the Land of the Forefathers
Our mattresses were made
of corn shucks
and soft gray Spanish moss
that hung from the trees. . . .
From the swamps
we got soup turtles
and baby alligators
and from the woods
we got raccoon,
rabbit and possum.
—Mahalia Jackson, Movin’ On Up

This land is first and foremost
his handiwork.
It was he who brought order
out of primeval wilderness . . .
Wherever one looks in this land,
whatever one sees that is the work of man,
was erected by the toiling
straining bodies of blacks.
—David L. Cohn, God Shakes Creation
They fly from the land that bore them.
—W. H. Stillwell
Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Late October 1937
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney
The night clouds were closing in on the salt licks east of the oxbow lakes along the folds in the earth beyond the Yalobusha River. The cotton was at last cleared from the field. Ida Mae tried now to get the children ready and to gather the clothes and quilts and somehow keep her mind off the churning within her. She had sold off the turkeys and doled out in secret the old stools, the wash pots, the tin tub, the bed pallets. Her husband was settling with Mr. Edd over the worth of a year’s labor, and she did not know what would come of it. None of them had been on a train before—not unless you counted the clattering local from Bacon Switch to Okolona, where, “by the time you sit down, you there,” as Ida Mae put it. None of them had been out of Mississippi. Or Chickasaw County, for that matter.
There was no explaining to little James and Velma the stuffed bags and chaos and all that was at stake or why they had to put on their shoes and not cry and bring undue attention from anyone who might happen to see them leaving. Things had to look normal, like any other time they might ride into town, which was rare enough to begin with.
Velma was six. She sat with her ankles crossed and three braids in her hair and did what she was told. James was too little to understand. He was three. He was upset at the commotion. Hold still now, James. Lemme put your shoes on, Ida Mae told him. James wriggled and kicked. He did not like shoes. He ran free in the field. What were these things? He did not like them on his feet. So Ida Mae let him go barefoot.
Miss Theenie stood watching. One by one, her children had left her and gone up north. Sam and Cleve to Ohio. Josie to Syracuse. Irene to Milwaukee. Now the man Miss Theenie had tried to keep Ida Mae from marrying in the first place was taking her away, too. Miss Theenie had no choice but to accept it and let Ida Mae and the grandchildren go for good. Miss Theenie drew them close to her, as she always did whenever anyone was leaving. She had them bow their heads. She whispered a prayer that her daughter and her daughter’s family be protected on the long journey ahead in the Jim Crow car.
“May the Lord be the first in the car,” she prayed, “and the last out.”
When the time had come, Ida Mae and little James and Velma and all that they could carry were loaded into a brother-in-law’s truck, and the three of them went to meet Ida Mae’s husband at the train depot in Okolona for the night ride out of the bottomland.
Wildwood, Florida, April 14, 1945
George Swanson Starling
A man named Roscoe Colton gave Lil George Starling a ride in his pickup truck to the train station in Wildwood through the fruit-bearing scrubland of central Florida. And Schoolboy, as the toothless orange pickers mockingly called him, boarded the Silver Meteor pointing north.
A railing divided the stairs onto the train, one side of the railing for white passengers, the other for colored, so the soles of their shoes would not touch the same stair. He boarded on the colored side of the railing, a final reminder from the place of his birth of the absurdity of the world he was leaving.
He was getting out alive. So he didn’t let it bother him. “I got on the car where they told me to get on,” he said years later.
He hadn’t had time to bid farewell to everyone he wanted to. He stopped to say good-bye to Rachel Jackson, who owned a little café up on what they called the Avenue and the few others he could safely get to in the little time he had. He figured everybody in Egypt town, the colored section of Eustis, probably knew he was leaving before he had climbed onto the train, small as the town was and as much as people talked.
It was a clear afternoon in the middle of April. He folded his tall frame into the hard surface of the seat, his knees knocking against the seat back in front of him. He was packed into the Jim Crow car, where the railroad stored the luggage, when the train pulled away at last. He was on the run, and he wouldn’t rest easy until he was out of range of Lake County, beyond the reach of the grove owners whose invisible laws he had broken.
The train rumbled past the forest of citrus trees that he had climbed since he was a boy and that he had tried to wrestle some dignity out of and, for a time, had. They could have their trees. He wasn’t going to lose his life over them. He had come close enough as it was.
He had lived up to his family’s accidental surname. Starling. Distant cousin to the mockingbird. He had spoken up about what he had seen in the world he was born into, like the starling that sang Mozart’s own music back to him or the starling out of Shakespeare that tormented the king by speaking the name of Mortimer. Only, George was paying the price for tormenting the ruling class that owned the citrus groves. There was no place in the Jim Crow South for a colored starling like him.
He didn’t know what he would do once he got to New York or what his life would be. He didn’t know how long it would take before he could send for Inez. His wife was mad right now, but she’d get over it once he got her there. At least that’s what he told himself. He turned his face to the North and sat with his back to Florida.
Leaving as he did, he figured he would never set foot in Eustis again for as long as he lived. And as he settled in for the twenty-three-hour train ride up the coast of the Atlantic, he had no desire to have anything to do with the town he grew up in, the state of Florida, or the South as a whole, for that matter.
Monroe, Louisiana, Easter Monday, April 6, 1953
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster
In the dark hours of the morning, Pershing Foster packed his surgery books, his medical bag, and his suit and sport coats in the trunk, along with a map, an address book, and Ivorye Covington’s fried chicken left over from Saturday night.
He said good-bye to his father, who had told him to follow his dreams. His father’s dreams had fallen apart, but there was still hope for the son, the father knew. He had a reluctant embrace with his older brother, Madison, who had tried in vain to get him to stay. Then Per- shing pointed his 1949 Buick Roadmaster, a burgundy one with whitewall tires and a shark-tooth grille, in the direction of Five Points, the crossroads of town.
He drove down the narrow dirt roads with the ditches on either side that, when he was a boy, had left his freshly pressed Sunday suit caked with mud when it rained. He passed the shotgun houses perched on cinder blocks and hurtled over the railroad tracks away from where people who looked like him were consigned to live and into the section where the roads were not dirt ditches anymore but suddenly level and paved.
He headed in the direction of Desiard Street, the main thorough- fare, and, without a whiff of sentimentality, sped away from the small-town bank buildings and bail bondsmen, the Paramount Theater with its urine-scented steps, and away from St. Francis Hospital, which wouldn’t let doctors who looked like him perform a simple tonsillectomy.
Perhaps he might have stayed had they let him practice surgery like he was trained to do or let him walk into the Palace and try on a suit like anyone else of his station. The resentments had grown heavy over the years. He knew he was as smart as anybody else—smarter, to his mind—but he wasn’t allowed to do anything with it, the caste system being what it was. Now he was going about as far away as you could get from Monroe, Louisiana. The rope lines that had hemmed in his life seemed to loosen with each plodding mile on the odometer.
Like many of the men in the Great Migration and like many emigrant men in general, he was setting out alone. He would scout out the New World on his own and get situated before sending for anyone else. He drove west into the morning stillness and onto the Endom Bridge, a tight crossing with one lane acting like two that spans the Ouachita River into West Monroe. He would soon pass the mossback flatland of central Louisiana and the Red River toward Texas, where he was planning to see an old friend from medical school, a Dr. Anthony Beale, en route to California.
Pershing had no idea where he would end up in California or how he would make a go of it or when he would be able to wrest his wife and daughters from the in-laws who had tried to talk him out of going to California in the first place. He would contemplate these uncertainties in the unbroken days ahead.
From Louisiana, he followed the hyphens in the road that blurred together toward a faraway place, bridging unrelated things as hyphens do. Alone in the car, he had close to two thousand miles of curving road in front of him, farther than farmworker emigrants leaving Guatemala for Texas, not to mention Tijuana for California, where a northerly wind could blow a Mexican clothesline over the border.
Isabel Wilkerson|Author Q&A

About Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson - The Warmth of Other Suns

Photo © Joe Henson

Isabel Wilkerson won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing as Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. The first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first African American to win for individual reporting, she has also won the George Polk Award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. She has lectured on narrative at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and has served as Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and as the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism at Emory University. She is currently Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University. During the Great Migration, her parents journeyed from Georgia and southern Virginia to Washington, D.C., where she was born and reared. This is her first book.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson
1.      What is the meaning and origin of the title, The Warmth of Other Suns?
I was reading the footnotes of the Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, one day, and discovered a particularly moving passage on page 496, a passage which is a story unto itself.
When Wright wrote his 1945 autobiography, the Book of the Month Club insisted that he cut the second half (about the North) and change the title from American Hunger to Black Boy. He wanted the book published so he conceded to their request. But that left the book without the ending it needed so he hastily came up with an alternative passage. Because he was forced to write quickly and succinctly, the passage summarized in a way he had not achieved in the text itself the longing and loss of anyone who has ever left the only place they ever knew for what they hoped would be a better life on alien soil.
As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to excavate it. I felt it was poetry, beautifully rendered but invisible, buried as it was in the footnotes. When it came time to submit the manuscript, I pulled out the most moving phrase for the title, The Warmth of Other Suns. It was a working title at best because my editor and I were still not convinced it was the one. At a meeting of executives at Random House, however, the question came up again and someone remembered this same passage and settled on the very phrase, I had originally identified. My mother, who migrated from Georgia to Washington, D.C. during the Great Migration, and knew what it meant to leave your own sun for another, believed from the moment she heard it that it should be the title.
The question of the title set me on a course of trying to understand just what the sun means to us, what it gives us and what it takes to defy the gravitational pull of your own solar system and take off for another far away. Richard Wright consciously chose to call the cold North the place of warmer suns. It showed how determined he and millions of others like him were to leave a place that had shunned them for a place they hoped would sustain them, the need of any human being and the gift of any sun.
2.      How widespread is the Great Migration?  How many people experienced it?  Can most African-American families in cities like Chicago, LA and New York trace their origins back to similar places in the South?
Some six million black Americans left the South for all points North and West during the decades of the Great Migration, which lasted, statistically, from World War I to the 1970’s. At the start of the twentieth century, ninety percent of all black Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, some forty-seven percent were living outside the South. 
The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these migrants make up the majority of African-Americans in the North and West. Most African-American families in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland and elsewhere can trace their origins back to the South.
Vast as it was, however, the Great Migration is not purely about the numbers but about the lasting effects of so many people uprooting themselves and transporting their culture from an isolated region of the country to the big cities of the North and West. They brought the music and folkways of the South with them and created a hybrid that has become woven into American life as a whole.
3.      How did you find Ida Mae, George, and Robert, and why did you choose to focus on them instead of others you interviewed?  Tell us a bit about your research, and why these three people stood out to you.
It took eighteen months of interviews with more than 1,200 people to find the three protagonists in the book. I interviewed seniors at quilting clubs in Brooklyn, senior centers in Chicago, on bus trips to Las Vegas with seniors from Los Angeles. I scouted for people at union meetings of retired postal workers and bus drivers and at AARP meetings on the South Side of Chicago. I went to Sunday mass in Los Angeles and Baptist churches in Brooklyn. I went to funerals, libraries, senior dances and the southern state clubs in Los Angeles and Chicago.  Essentially, I went everywhere I could think of that would attract large numbers of black seniors who might have migrated from the South.
I went to some of these places enough times that people began to recognize me. I kept running into this one woman at Creole events and at Sunday mass in Los Angeles.  The woman had migrated from Monroe, Louisiana. She heard the kinds of questions I was asking, and she came up to me and said, “I know the perfect person for you.”  She gave me Robert’s name and number.
At a meeting of retired transit workers in Chicago, a woman signed an information sheet I had passed around to gather names of people who had come from Mississippi and Arkansas. The woman wasn’t signing for herself. She was signing for her mother who had never been a transit worker but had come up from Mississippi. Her mother was Ida Mae. George, the third protagonist, introduced himself after Sunday service at a Baptist Church in Harlem and immediately began telling his story.
The goal of the search was to find one person for each of the three streams of the Migration (East Coast, Midwest and West Coast) through whom to tell the larger story of the entire phenomenon. They each represent not only different migration streams but different backgrounds, different motivations for leaving, different outcomes and different ways of adjusting to the New World.  Together, their lives tell a more complete story of the Migration than has ever been told before.
4.      In the process of telling their stories, what did you discover about why some people thrived in their new circumstances, while others did not? 
As the stories unfold, many lessons emerge. One is insight into longevity and what it takes to survive the harshest of lives and come out whole.  Another is a redefinition of success and accomplishment. A third is the varying ways migrants adjust to their circumstances, how they learn to make peace with the past, or not and how that adjustment affects their happiness.  Each of the three protagonists adjusted to their circumstances in completely different ways. One turned his back on the South and created a new identity for himself, going as far as to change his name. He never fully found peace. Another moved between worlds, never fully reconciling one with the other. A third, Ida Mae, took the best of both worlds, never changed from who she was, and was the happiest and lived the longest of all.
5.      Could you give us a few examples of well-known people whose lives would have been different, and perhaps would not have been possible, had it not been for the courage of those who left the South?
Many famous Americans were products of the Great Migration, and there’s no way to know what their lives might have been like or if their achievements would have been possible had it not been for the courage of the parents or grandparents who left the South. Some might never have existed because their parents met in the North. Among the children of the Migration are: Toni Morrison, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Nat King Cole, Michael Jackson, Prince, Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Oprah Winfrey, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, the astronaut Mae Jemison, the producer Sean “Puffy”Combs, the leading neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, the artist Romare Bearden, the playwright August Wilson and many others.
Each of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really. They were among the first generation of blacks in this country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of parents or grandparents who knew it was too late for themselves to truly benefit from the advantages of the north but knew it was not too late for their children.
One such parent, an ambitious sharecropper wife in Alabama, convinced her husband that their family should migrate to Cleveland in the 1920’s. The father was so worried that, as they were packing, he had to steady himself on the shoulders of his nine-year-old son.  The boy felt the father’s hands shaking and only then realized the gravity of their situation. The boy’s first day at school in the North, when the teacher asked his name, he told her it was J.C., which was short for James Cleveland. The teacher couldn’t understand his southern accent and just called him Jesse instead. From that day forward he was known, not by his birth name, but by the one he had mistakenly acquired -- Jesse Owens. He went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin becoming the first American in the history of track and field to do so in a single Olympics and disproving the Aryan notions of his Nazi hosts.
6.      Do most of the children who are products of The Great Migration know about their parents’, or grandparents’ experience leaving the South?  If not, why do you think there is a kind of reluctance to talk about the “old country”?
Most children of the Great Migration know the basic facts of where their parents came from. But one reason the larger story of the Migration hasn’t been fully told is because many families haven’t talked about it much.
When the parents or grandparents left, many left for good. They didn’t look back – it was just too painful. Some had experienced or witnessed violence. Many endured persecution. All had suffered the indignities of caste.  Some felt shame or embarrassment over being southern and rural now that they were living in big, sophisticated cities. 
Like immigrants who change their names or choose not to teach their children the language of the old country, some migrants created new northern identities for themselves and didn’t pass along their stories to their children and grandchildren or take their children back to their homeland.
Others, however, surrounded themselves with people from back home and never left the South in spirit. So, children of the Migration grew up with differing connections to the South depending on their parents’ connection to it and their parents’ ability to make peace with their southern past, or not.
7.      How did this influx of southerners to Northern and Western cities affect the urban landscape of America, and American culture as we know it?
It would be hard to imagine cultural life in America had the Great Migration not occurred. American music as we know it was one of the gifts of the Great Migration. Modern music grew out of the music the migrants brought with them, shaped by their exposure to life in the northern cities and, ultimately, the music their children and grandchildren created.
The three most influential musicians in jazz – Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane – were all children of the Great Migration, their music and their collaboration informed by their southern roots and migration experiences.  Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina, for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen.  Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used alto sax once he got north.
Motown simply would not have existed without the Great Migration.  The parents of Berry Gordy, the company’s founder, migrated from Georgia to Detroit during the migration. Gordy was born and raised in Detroit, where he later recruited other children of the Great Migration as talent for his new recording company, Motown records.
8.      What was the cost to the South of this enormous migration?  In what ways was this domestic migration similar to the immigration of foreigners to the U.S? In what ways was it different?
The South lost vast numbers of its most ambitious workers to the Great Migration. In some cases, entire plantations were left empty of workers. Southern authorities responded swiftly to stem the outflow of its cheap labor. The South reenacted anti-enticement laws from the time of slavery to keep blacks from leaving. The authorities imposed fines of up to $25,000 to anyone caught recruiting black workers north or helping them to get out. Police arrested blacks from railroad platforms, shut down ticket counters to blacks trying to get out, and when those things failed, simply wouldn’t let trains stop at stations where large contingents of blacks were waiting to board.
The accomplishments of well-known migrants, such as B.B. King, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, along with the exponentially larger corps of influential children of the Migration show the cost the South paid as a result of the Great Migration. To this day, the South lags the North in many economic indices, such as wage scales, life expectancy, property values, cost of living and cultural influence in this country. These are complicated economic issues that result from many internal and external forces. But the loss of so much intellectual and creative talent and the fact that those who left comprise the bulk of the success stories of African-American life in this country can only hint at the unknowable price paid by the South as a result of the loss of so much talent and manpower.
This domestic migration was similar to most any other immigration experience in that the people had to make the hard choice to leave the only place they had every known for a place they had never seen, just as any other immigrant must do. The interior sense of loss and longing, of being torn between worlds, never quite fitting in, making sacrifices for the next generation are all universal to the human experience of migration.
The Great Migration differs and is, in fact, tragic because these people were already citizens. In a just world, they shouldn’t have had to uproot themselves to experience the full rights of citizenship. Birth in this country alone should have assured that for them. The realities of race and caste in the South forced them to leave to claim their citizenship. But once in the North and West, they ran into resistance and hostility and had to work even harder to prove themselves, often being pitted against immigrants from other countries, who, in fact, had more in common with them, as landless serfs themselves, than many of them truly realized.

Praise | Awards


“A landmark piece of nonfiction . . . sure to hold many surprises for readers of any race or experience….A mesmerizing book that warrants comparison to The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann’s study of the Great Migration’s early phase, and Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s great, close-range look at racial strife in Boston….[Wilkerson’s] closeness with, and profound affection for, her subjects reflect her deep immersion in their stories and allow the reader to share that connection.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
The Warmth of Other Suns is a brilliant and stirring epic, the first book to cover the full half-century of the Great Migration… Wilkerson combines impressive research…with great narrative and literary power. Ms. Wilkerson does for the Great Migration what John Steinbeck did for the Okies in his fiction masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath; she humanizes history, giving it emotional and psychological depth.”—John Stauffer, Wall Street Journal

“[A] massive and masterly account of the Great Migration….A narrative epic rigorous enough to impress all but the crankiest of scholars, yet so immensely readable as to land the author a future place on Oprah’s couch.”   —David Oshinsky, The New York Times Book Review (Cover Review)
“[A] deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book. . . .Wilkerson has taken on one of the most important demographic upheavals of the past century—a phenomenon whose dimensions and significance have eluded many a scholar—and told it through the lives of three people no one has ever heard of….This is narrative nonfiction, lyrical and tragic and fatalist. The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends. What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush, and listen.”  —Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

"The Warmth of Other Suns is epic in its reach and in its structure. Told in a voice that echoes the magic cadences of Toni Morrison or the folk wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston’s collected oral histories, Wilkerson’s book pulls not just the expanse of the migration into focus but its overall impact on politics, literature, music, sports — in the nation and the world."—Lynell George, Los Angeles Times 

“One of the most lyrical and important books of the season."—David Shribman, Boston Globe

“[An] extraordinary and evocative work.”—The Washington Post

“Mesmerizing. . .”—Chicago Tribune

“Scholarly but very readable, this book, for all its rigor, is so absorbing, it should come with a caveat: Pick it up only when you can lose yourself entirely.”  —O, The Oprah Magazine
"[An] indelible and compulsively readable portrait of race, class, and politics in 20th-century America. History is rarely distilled so finely.” Grade: A —Entertainment Weekly

“An astonishing work. . . . Isabel Wilkerson delivers! . . . With the precision of a surgeon, Wilkerson illuminates the stories of bold, faceless African-Americans who transformed cities and industries with their hard work and determination to provide their children with better lives.” —Essence

“Isabel Wilkerson’s majestic The Warmth of Other Suns shows that not everyone bloomed, but the migrants—Wilkerson prefers to think of them as domestic immigrants—remade the entire country, North and South. It’s a monumental job of writing and reporting that lives up to its subtitle: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” —USA Today
“[A] sweeping history of the Great Migration. . . . The Warmth of Other Suns builds upon such purely academic works to make the migrant experience both accessible and emotionally compelling.” —NPR.org
The Warmth of Other Suns is a beautifully written, in-depth analysis of what Wilkerson calls “one of the most underreported stories of the 20th century. . .  A masterpiece that sheds light on a significant development in our nation’s history.” —The San Jose Mercury News

The Warmth of Other Suns is a beautifully written book that, once begun, is nearly impossible to put aside. It is an unforgettable combination of tragedy and inspiration, and gripping subject matter and characters in a writing style that grabs the reader on Page 1 and never let’s go. . . . Woven into the tapestry of [three individuals] lives, in prose that is sweet to savor, Wilkerson tells the larger story, the general situation of life in the South for blacks. . . . If you read one only one book about history this year, read this. If you read only one book about African Americans this year, read this. If you read only one book this year, read this.” —The Free Lance Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

"A truly auspicious debut. . . . The author deftly intersperses [her characters'] stories with short vignettes about other individuals and consistently provides the bigger picture without interrupting the flow of the narrative…Wilkerson’s focus on the personal aspect lends her book a markedly different, more accessible tone. Her powerful storytelling style, as well, gives this decades-spanning history a welcome novelistic flavor. An impressive take on the Great Migration."  —Kirkus, Starred Review

“[A] magnificent, extensively researched study of the great migration… The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Not since Alex Haley’s Roots has there been a history of equal literary quality where the writing surmounts the rhythmic soul of fiction, where the writer’s voice sings a song of redemptive glory as true as Faulkner’s southern cantatas.”—The San Francisco Examiner

“Profound, necessary and an absolute delight to read.” —Toni Morrison
The Warmth of Other Suns is a sweeping and yet deeply personal tale of America’s hidden 20th century history - the long and difficult trek of Southern blacks to the northern and western cities. This is an epic for all Americans who want to understand the making of our modern nation.” —Tom Brokaw
“A seminal work of narrative nonfiction. . . . You will never forget these people.” —Gay Talese

“With compelling prose and considered analysis, Isabel Wilkerson has given us a landmark portrait of one of the most significant yet little-noted shifts in American history: the migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the North and West.  It is a complicated tale, with an infinity of implications for questions of race, power, politics, religion, and class—implications that are unfolding even now.  This book will be long remembered, and savored.” —Jon Meacham
“Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is an American masterpiece, a stupendous literary success that channels the social sciences as iconic biography in order to tell a vast story of a people's reinvention of itself and of a nation—the first complete history of the Great Black Migration from start to finish, north, east, west.” —David Levering Lewis

“Isabel Wilkerson’s book is a masterful narrative of the rich wisdom and deep courage of a great people.  Don’t miss it!” —Cornel West


FINALIST 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction
WINNER 2011 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
WINNER 2010 New York Times Editors' Choice
WINNER 2010 National Book Critics Circle Awards
WINNER 2011 Mark Lynton History Prize
WINNER 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
WINNER 2010 NAACP Image Award
WINNER 2011 Sidney Hillman Prize
WINNER 2011 Stephen E. Ambrose Oral History Award
WINNER 2011 Sidney Hillman Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial history of America’s Great Migration. A New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year and National Book Critics Circle Award Winner.

About the Guide

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson draws on ten years of research and over 1,500 interviews to tell the remarkable story of America’s Great Migration—the mass exodus of Southern blacks to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970. It is a story whose real significance has until now been largely overlooked and poorly understood.
Over six million blacks migrated North during this period, but Wilkerson focuses on three representative people—Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster—who left the South in 1937, 1944, and 1953, respectively.

Unlike most migrations, the blacks who left the South were seeking full citizenship within their own country, rather than traveling to an entirely new land. The racial terror that reigned in the Jim Crow South—the daily humiliations, constant fear of violence, and the yearning to live a full and free life—drove them to make a perilous journey, risking their lives and livelihoods in the process. The dramatic nature of this migration, the dangers and sacrifice involved, and the consequences for those who made the journey—for both the North and South and American culture more generally—has never been told with this level of insight and detail.
Ida Mae Gladney left the backbreaking work of sharecropping for a quiet life in Chicago where she found contentment and helped vote Barack Obama into the state senate. George Swanson Starling escaped the orange groves of Florida and landed in Harlem, working as a porter on trains up and down the eastern seaboard. Robert Pershing Foster left Louisiana to study medicine and became a wealthy and much beloved doctor in Los Angeles, who was personal physician to Ray Charles. Despite their different circumstances and destinations, all were united by shared suffering under the illogic and cruelty of Jim Crow and by a compelling desire for freedom.
By focusing on individuals as well as census figures, archives, and other historical documents, Wilkerson captures with unprecedented vividness the lived experience of the Great Migration. Wilkerson lets readers feel the very texture of life under Jim Crow law—the constant fear and daily humiliations, both small and large: Robert Pershing Foster having to drive through three states before finding a hotel that will accept him; Ida Mae Gladney having to pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day, which was like “picking a hundred pounds of feathers,” and then getting cheated out of a fair wage; George Swanson Starling standing up to the orange grove owners and having to flee a lynch mob for doing so. The intimate portraits of The Warmth of Other Suns bring the book to life and convey the true depth of hardship and suffering of all who were swept up in the Great Migration had to endure.
The Great Migration is, finally, a testament to the courage, resilience, and dignity of the people who risked everything to gain some measure of the freedoms promised them in the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation—even as they faced new difficulties in the North. The book sheds new light on one of the most important demographic upheavals in American history and shows just how dramatically American culture has been changed, and continues to be changed, because of it.

About the Author

Isabel Wilkerson won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing as Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. The first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first African American to win for individual reporting, she has also won the George Polk Award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. She has lectured on narrative at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and has served as Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and as the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism at Emory University. She is currently Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University. During the Great Migration, her parents journeyed from Georgia and southern Virginia to Washington, D.C., where she was born and reared. This is her first book.

Discussion Guides

1. The Warmth of Other Suns combines a sweeping historical perspective with vivid intimate portraits of three individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster. What is the value of this dual focus, of shifting between the panoramic and the close-up? In what ways are Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster representative of the millions of other migrants who journeyed from South to North?

2. In many ways The Warmth of Other Suns seeks to tell a new story—about the Great Migration of southern blacks to the north—and to set the record straight about the true significance of that migration. What are the most surprising revelations in the book? What misconceptions does Wilkerson dispel?

3. What were the major economic, social, and historical forces that sparked the Great Migration? Why did blacks leave in such great numbers from 1915 to 1970?

4. What were the most horrifying conditions of Jim Crow South? What instances of racial terrorism stand out most strongly in the book? What daily injustices and humiliations did blacks have to face there?

5. In what ways was the Great Migration of southern blacks similar to other historical migrations? In what important ways was it unique?

6. After being viciously attacked by a mob in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today” (p. 389). Why were northern working-class whites so hostile to black migrants?

7. Wilkerson quotes Black Boy in which Richard Wright wrote, on arriving in the North: “I had fled one insecurity and embraced another” (p. 242). What unique challenges did black migrants face in the North? How did these challenges affect the lives of Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster?

8. Wilkerson points out that the three most influential figures in jazz were all children of the Great Migration: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. What would American culture look like today if the Great Migration hadn’t happened?

9. What motivated Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster to leave the South? What circumstances and inner drives prompted them to undertake such a difficult and dangerous journey? What would likely have been their fates if they had remained in the South? In what ways did living in the North free them?

10. Near the end of the book, Wilkerson asks: “With all that grew out of the mass movement of people, did the Great Migration achieve the aim of those who willed it? Were the people who left the South—and their families—better off for having done so? Was the loss of what they left behind worth what confronted them in the anonymous cities they fled to?” (p. 528). How does Wilkerson answer these questions?

11. How did the Great Migration change not only the North but also the South? How did the South respond to the mass exodus of cheap black labor?

12. In what ways are current attitudes toward Mexican Americans similar to attitudes toward African Americans expressed by Northerners in The Warmth of Other Suns? For example, the ways working-class Northerners felt that Southern blacks were stealing their jobs.

13. At a neighborhood watch meeting in Chicago’s South Shore, Ida Mae listens to a young state senator named Barack Obama. In what ways is Obama’s presidency a indirect result of the Great Migration?

14. What is the value of Wilkerson basing her research primarily on firsthand, eyewitness accounts, gathered through extensive interviews, of this historical period?

15. Wilkerson writes of her three subjects that “Ida Mae Gladney had the humblest trappings but was perhaps the richest of them all. She had lived the hardest life, been given the least education, seen the worst the South could hurl at her people, and did not let it break her . . . . Her success was spiritual, perhaps the hardest of all to achieve. And because of that, she was the happiest and lived the longest of them all” (p. 532). What attributes allowed Ida Mae Gladney to achieve this happiness and longevity? In what sense might her life, and the lives of George Starling and Robert Foster as well, serve as models for how to persevere and overcome tremendous difficulties?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Eric Arnesen, Black Protest and the Great Migration: A Brief History with Documents; Richard Wright, Black Boy, Native Son, 12 Million Black Voices; James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son; Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration; Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America; Toni Morrison, Jazz.

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