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The Great Migration: Journey That Reshaped America

It is a migration unmatched in American history. In the middle of the 20th century, more than 6 million African Americans left behind everything they knew in the South and headed to the North, Midwest and West Coast. In their search for work, education and opportunity, they changed the culture of the nation.

That "Great Migration" is the subject of a new book by Isabel Wilkerson, former Chicago bureau chief for the New York Times. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson tells the stories of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster. All began their lives under the Jim Crow laws of the South and made a decision to search for a better life in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

Running From Injustice

Ida Mae Gladney left Mississippi for Chicago in 1937. The wife of a sharecropper was not happy picking cotton, Wilkerson says. But the main reason the Gladneys left was because a cousin was beaten nearly to death over a theft that he had not committed.

"Her husband went home to her and said, 'This is the last crop that we're making,' and they left for the north," Wilkerson tells NPR's Guy Raz.

When Ida Mae and her husband George got to Chicago, they found it tough to get settled. They didn't have the skills to find work in the city. George ended up hauling ice up four and five flights of stairs in the cold-water flats of Chicago, and Ida Mae did odd domestic jobs before she finally found work as a hospital aide.

"It took them decades really to get situated before they were able to afford to buy a home on the south side of Chicago," Wilkerson says.

Agitating Amid The Citrus Trees

The story of George Swanson Starling, another character in Wilkerson’s book, is quite different. Starling came from "the featureless way station of citrus groves and one-star motels" between Georgia and Orlando, Fla., Wilkerson says. It was a place of "cocksure Southern sheriffs, overworked pickers, root doctors, pool hustlers, bootleggers, jackleg preachers."

Although he was an outstanding student, Starling had to leave school to find work. He got a job in Florida as a citrus picker, but got into trouble when he spoke out about how he and his co-workers were being mistreated. He began agitating for higher wages and better conditions.

"And in doing so he ran up against that caste system in which it was not considered appropriate for people of his caste to do that," Wilkerson says. "And the grove owners became angry and he had to leave Florida basically for his life."

Starling moved to New York in 1945.

Trouble Even After The Journey

When newcomers such as Starling and Gladney arrived in the North, it wasn't always to a warm welcome.

"It's often said that immigrants, once they arrive, are the first ones to want to close the door on any new arrivals," Wilkerson says.

The African Americans already in those Northern cities sometimes resented the arrival of the newcomers -- not unlike the plight facing immigrants today.

It took time to find their place in the major cities of the North and West, but the Southerners who stayed ended up combining elements of heir old culture – the music and folkways – with the new opportunities in the North. And they brought up a generation of talented men and women Wilkerson refers to as "the children of The Great Migration."

Among them are Toni Morrison, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Prince, Tupac Shakur, Miles Davis, Oprah Winfrey, the playwright August Wilson and many others.

"All of them, their work was informed by and infused by the Great Migration, which was in many ways their own stories," Wilkerson says.

The Legacy

Today, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren these migrants make up the majority of African Americans in the North and West. But many of them don’t know about their connection to the South, Wilkerson says.

That’s partially because when their parents or grandparents moved, they didn’t intend to look back. Like immigrants who choose not to teach children their native language, some didn't tell the stories of the South to their children out of embarrassment – they wanted to move on.

It's only recently, the author says, that the stories of the Great Migration are being recorded -- despite the fact that it was larger than the Gold Rush or the Dust Bowl migrations.

"It actually spanned three generations of reporters who would not have been able to cover the whole thing and really truly grasp it as it was occurring," Wilkerson says.

"It's much easier to look back on it and say why wasn't it done?"

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NPR Staff