Between 1916 and 1970 a movement took place in which six million African Americans abandoned the largely rural areas of the Southern United States for the urban Northeast, Midwest and West. Historically known as the Great Migration, it was the result of the post-Civil War and Reconstruction era in which “the segregationist policies known as ‘Jim Crow’ soon became the law of the land,” and Blacks suffered from harsh working conditions and social challenges.
When Northern factories faced a shortage of industrial laborers thanks to World War I, Blacks not only saw an opportunity to escape their plight, but they were welcomed by recruiters to join the wartime effort. From 1910 to 1920 the Black population grew dramatically in major Northern cities (New York by 66%, Chicago by 148%, Philadelphia by 500% and Detroit by 611%).
As the movement continued to grow, it unfortunately did not leave behind the racial stigma. Issues like segregated housing resulted in many Blacks creating their own cities within big cities, like Harlem in New York City.
For decades the Great Migration “became one of the biggest underrecognized stories of the 20th Century.” But thanks to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist/author Isabel Wilkerson’s narrative nonfiction “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the Great Migration has been recognized as a very visible watershed moment in U.S. history, resulting in such descendants as John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Bill Russell, Denzel Washington and Michelle Obama.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities and the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize, the book took Isabel 15 years to research and interview 1,200 people, including her own parents, “who defected from the Jim Crow South.” It gained even greater fame when President Barack Obama put it on his 2011 summer reading list.
According to Isabel, “It [Great Migration] reshaped the demographics of African Americans in this country. Fleeing opened up the way to pursue dreams that were not possible to even imagine in the caste system of the South.”
On Friday, March 26, the 21st Annual Destiny Award Luncheon Co-Chairs Lisa and Clay Cooley have arranged for a virtual conversation with Isabel Wilkerson.
According to Lisa, “Isabel is a gifted storyteller, captivating audiences with the universal human story of migration and reinvention, as well as the unseen hierarchies that have divided us as a nation, in order to find a way to transcend them. She has become an impassioned voice for demonstrating how history can help us understand ourselves, our country and our current era of upheaval.”
Benefiting St. Philip’s School and Community Center, the event will also feature presentation of the 2021 Mona and David Munson Humanitarian Award to broadcast legend/humanitarian Tom Joyner.
* Photo credit: Joe Henson ** Graphic courtesy of Isabel Wilkerson *** Graphic courtesy of St. Philip's School and Community Center