Between 1915 and 1970 over 6 million Black southerners escaped Jim Crow by uprooting their lives and moving north and west.
“They fled as if under a spell or a high fever. ‘They left as though they were fleeing some curse,’ wrote the scholar Emmet J. Scott. ‘They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad token, and they left with the intention of staying.'”. [p 19]
Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of The Great Migration through the lives of three who left: Ida May Brandon Gladney who left Mississippi for Chicago with her husband George in 1937; George Swanson Starling who left Florida citrus groves for New York City with his wife Inez in the 1945 with a lynching group at his back; and, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who left for California in 1953 with plans to bring his wife out soon after.
When the North left the South at the end of Reconstruction, they left the South to their own devices and the South quickly turned back to a neo Slavery through the Jim Crow laws.
“These were the facts of their lives – of Ida Mae’s, George’s, and Pershing’s existence before they left – carried out with soul-killing efficiency until Jim Crow expired under the weight of the South’s own sectarian violence: bombings, hosing of children, and the killing of dissidents seeking basic human rights. Jim Crow would not get a proper burial until the enactment of federal legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was nonetheless resisted years after its passage as vigorously as Reconstruction had been and would not fully take hold in many parts of the South until well into 1970’s” [p 58]
The book goes through the lives of its subjects; their youth, the pressures that forced them to join the migration, their actual leaving, their lives and prospects in their new homes. Ida May and her husband left after settling up with the owner/planter on whose land they share cropped. Unlike most sharecroppers, they did not owe the grower any money after working all year so they were free to leave. George left a few hours before a group formed to torture him to death for helping fruit pickers negotiate better pay for their labors. Robert, a doctor and physician chafed under the conditions of his employment in the south. Many who left on the trains to the north had to be secretive about their plans. It wasn’t uncommon for whites to head Blacks off at the train station platform and simply take the tickets from their hands.
Arriving in the North and the West, the migrants faced the same discrimination they had in the Southh; although they weren’t at risk of being lynched. Color lines were drawn around the neighborhoods. When a Black family tried to move into a white neighborhood, the neighbors burned the house down. The housing segregation was least successful in New York City – although most Blacks lived in Harlem – but in Chicago
“The South Side would become almost totally Black and the North Side almost totally white.” [p 313]
Employment discrimination was just as rampant:
“Ida May and George found themselves at the bottom looking up at the layers of immigrants, native-born white people, and even northern-born Black people who were stacked above them in the economic hierarchy of the North.” [p 360]
In every aspect of their lives:
“Even without trying to pass oneself off as anything other than what he or she was, an ethnic immigrant would not likely be distinguishable from any other white person boarding a train, lining up for a foreman’s job, or waiting for a loan officer at a bank – public situations that opened Black migrants to immediate rejection but that white ethnic immigrants were protected from by virtue of their skin color.” [p 468]
So, Black people have been at a disadvantage at every turn in both the North and South: they could not live where they would like nor have access to the jobs, education, and funding that could improve their lot. It’s really no wonder that riots break out. Originally, race riots, like the one in Tulsa, were started by whites against Blacks. But in 1943 Detroit, Blacks struck back.
“It was only after Detroit that riots became known as primarily urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city Blacks venting their frustrations on the ghettos that confined them.” [p 155]
While largely non-violent, the latest Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder at the knee of the police, certainly well up from this reservoir of frustration.
While all 3 of the subjects were admirable, my favorite person in the book is George Starling. With 2 years of college he was by far the most educated picker in the fields. He helped the other pickers discover when they were cheated of their earnings by the growers – though often nothing could come of it, for fear of death. During World War II – when labor was in high demand – George and a couple of other men organized the pickers and told them not to go into the fields until the three leaders could negotiate fair terms for the first time in their lives. He did this at the risk of torture and death. He got word that white people were organizing a party to find him and left town immediately. He and his wife had to escape to another town to board the train north.
George’s desire for fairness drove him throughout his life. George spent his life working as a passenger car attendant. Early in his career he at least one time had to switch routes with another attendant to escape being ambushed back home. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he risked his job, the wrath of the conductors and perhaps his life, when he whispered to Black passengers that they did not have to move to segregated cars when the train entered the South no matter what the conductor said.
There has been much debate about The Great MIgration and the problems that grew in the northern cities. Wilkerson maintains
“It is not a question of whether the migrants brought good or ill to the cities they fled to or were pushed or pulled to their destinations, but a question of how they summoned the courage to leave in the first place or how they found the will to press beyond the forces against them and the faith in a country that had rejected them for so long.” [p 599]
This book had been on my virtual bookshelf for years. With the needed push for the Black Lives Matter movement, I knew this was the time to read it. This is an outstanding biography/history. Wilkerson’s telling of Ida May’s, George’s, and Robert’s stories is compelling. This is the rare non-fiction book that I could not bear to put down.
The book provided me with the clearest description of white privilege I have read. On the grand scale I understand how Black people have been cornered in both the north and south and continuously channeled into poor housing and poor jobs. In one particular interaction in Robert Foster’s life, I can see my own blindness. As Robert was planning to leave for California, he was talking with a white storekeeper whom he had known his whole life. When Robert told the store owner he was moving to California, Mr. Massur asked
” ‘What’s wrong with St. Francis? [the local hospital for whites]’
Pershing shook his head. The man had lived there since before Pershing was born, and a central fact of colored people’s existence hadn’t registered after all these years.
‘You know that colored surgeons can’t operate at St. Francis, Mr. Massur.'” [p 203]
I see myself in Robert’s thinking
“It made no sense to Pershing that one set of people could be in a cage, and the people outside couldn’t see the bars.” [p 204]
I come away from this book with one overriding thought. Black Lives DO Matter. At the most basic, police need to stop killing Black people. But on a larger scale, Blacks have been at a disadvantage for hundreds of years. Society needs to remove the unspoken restrictions so that Blacks can reach their full human condition and no longer be “less than,”.
“It is important for our ;white citizens always to remember that the Negroes alone of all our immigrants came to America against their will by the special compelling invitation of the whites; that teh institution of slavery was introduced, expanded and maintained by the United States by the white people and for their own benefit; and they likewise created the conditions that followed emancipation.” [p 604]”
Read this book.