Freedom Trains
By David Oshinsky
SEPT. 2, 2010

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson
Illustrated. 622 pp. Random House.

A segregated railroad depot waiting room in Jacksonville, Fla., 1921. Credit State Archives of Florida

In the winter of 1916, as Americans read the news of unimaginable slaughter in a distant yet rapidly spreading European war, it was easy to overlook stories like the one in The Chicago Defender reporting that several black families in Selma, Ala., had left the South. A popular ­African-American weekly, The Defender would publish dozens of such stories in the coming years, heralding the good jobs and friendly neighbors that awaited these migrants in Chicago, even printing train schedules to point the way north. Smuggled into Southern railroad depots by Pullman porters, dropped off by barnstorming black athletes and entertainers, The Defender emerged as both cheerleader and chronicler of an exodus that would lead about six million African-Americans to abandon the states of the Old Confederacy between 1915 and 1970. “If all of their dream does not come true,” it confidently predicted, “enough will come to pass to justify their actions.”

Prophetic words, indeed, Isabel Wilkerson insists in The Warmth of Other Suns, her massive and masterly account of the Great Migration. Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing at The New York Times in 1994 and currently teaches journalism at Boston University, has a personal stake in the story. Her mother left rural Georgia, her father southern Virginia, to settle in Washington, D.C. Wilkerson knows well the highly charged nature of this field. For many years, commentators routinely demeaned these migrants as the dregs of a failed society. Even the distinguished black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier fretted over the “ignorant, uncouth and impoverished” throngs that had invaded his beloved Chicago. Arguments raged for decades about the tangled pathology of black families divided from their rural roots and thrown together in dead-end Northern slums. “The migrants were cast as poor illiterates,” Wilkerson says, “who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness and welfare dependency wherever they went.”

But the more recent scholarship, which Wilkerson embraces, tells another story. Today, these black migrants are viewed as a modern version of the Europeans who flooded America’s shores in the late 1800s and early 1900s. What linked them together, Wilkerson writes, was their heroic determination to roll the dice for a better future. It is no surprise, therefore, to find census data showing that blacks who left the South had far more schooling than blacks who stayed. Or that the migrants had higher employment numbers than Northern-born blacks and a more stable family life, as shown by lower divorce rates and fewer children born outside of marriage. Put simply, Wilkerson says, the well-known “migrant advantage” has worked historically for Americans of all colors.

The Warmth of Other Suns is Wilkerson’s first book. (Its title is borrowed from the celebrated black writer Richard Wright, who fled Jim Crow Mississippi in the 1920s to feel the warmth of those other suns.) Based on more than a thousand interviews, written in broad imaginative strokes, this book, at 622 pages, is something of an anomaly in today’s shrinking world of nonfiction publishing: 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.

Wilkerson follows the journey of three Southern blacks, each representing a different decade of the Great Migration as well as a different destination. It’s a shrewd storytelling device, because it allows her to highlight two issues often overlooked: first, that the exodus was a continuous phenomenon spanning six decades of American life; second, that it consisted of not one, but rather three geographical streams, the patterns determined by the train routes available to those bold enough to leave.

People from Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi boarded the Illinois Central to Midwestern cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit; those from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia rode the Seaboard Air Line up the East Coast to Washington, Philadelphia and New York; those in Louisiana and Texas took the Union Pacific to Los Angeles, Oakland and other parts of the West Coast. Wilkerson is superb at minding the bends and detours along the way. She notes, for example, that some migrants, unfamiliar with the conductor’s Northern accent, would mistakenly get off at the cry of “Penn Station, Newark,” the stop just before Penn Station, New York. Many decided to stay put, she adds, giving Newark “a good portion of its black population.”

The first of Wilkerson’s three main characters, and plainly her favorite, is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi. Married at 16, the mother of three, Ida Mae lived to serve her husband, George, whose dire prospects reflected the feudal Southern agriculture that had replaced slavery after the Civil War. Each December, at “settling time,” George would meet with Mr. Edd, the white landowner, to learn how he had done. In a malevolent ritual, played out across the cotton South, Mr. Edd would open his ledger book to prove that the annual debt for supplies bought on credit almost exactly matched the value of George’s annual crop. George Gladney didn’t know much about arithmetic, but he did know the dangers of challenging a white man’s figures. So he’d thank Mr. Edd and return to his shack with a few dollars to show for a year’s worth of backbreaking toil.

Members of the Great Migration, Chicago, 1918. Credit Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

In 1937, a cousin down the road was beaten almost to death by a white posse that wrongly suspected him of stealing a few of Mr. Edd’s turkeys. Fearing he’d be next, and tired of working dawn to dusk for pennies, George told Ida Mae to pack up the family. A few days later, they boarded the Jim Crow car of an Illinois Central train heading north.

They eventually settled in Chicago, where George found work in a Campbell Soup factory, Ida Mae in a hospital. There no longer were “colored” and “white” signs to degrade them, but the specter of racial caste was omnipresent. The Gladneys survived by exploiting the small but significant advantages of Northern life, while retaining the work ethic of their rural Mississippi roots. In one especially telling episode, Ida Mae had to decide whether to join a strike against her hospital or cross an angry picket line in order to pay the monthly bills. It wasn’t a hard decision, Wilkerson explains. “The concept of not working a job one had agreed to do was alien to Ida Mae.”

The other main characters, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, also had compelling reasons to leave the South. Starling, the valedictorian of his “colored” high school class in central Florida, had dropped out of college when his money ran out and gone to work picking citrus in the fields. Appalled by the conditions, he tried to organize a work stoppage; a friend warned him that the local growers, backed by a homicidal sheriff, were planning to lynch him. In 1945, Starling boarded the Silver Meteor bound for New York.

Foster, from Monroe, La., had the most privileged background of the three. The son of demanding middle-class parents, educated at Morehouse, the most prestigious black college in America, trained as a surgeon, Foster wasn’t about to waste away in the small-minded South, delivering sharecroppers’ babies and being paid with “the side of a freshly killed hog.” Monroe was known for sending its migrants to California, a route taken by the parents of the future basketball star Bill Russell and of the Black Panther leader Huey Newton. In 1951, Foster joined that western stream.

Both Starling and Foster represent the contradictions of the Great Migration. Starling took a porter’s job on the same Silver Meteor that once brought him north. The life he led in Harlem was richer than anything he could have imagined. But he also knew that the migrants now riding his train would reap the blessings of a civil rights movement that were unavailable to him: history had come too late for the once promising student from the citrus groves. Foster, for his part, matured into one of Los Angeles’s finest surgeons. But his rejection of his Southern roots was so exaggerated, Wilkerson says, as to leave him adrift, nursing ancient wounds, unable to relish the blessings of his life.

The book is not without problems, however. One is repetition: a number of anecdotes and descriptions appear more than once. Another is omission. Though she relies on many sources, Wilkerson ignores Nicholas Lemann’s classic 1991 account of the black migration to Chicago, The Promised Land, which paints a somber portrait of its impact upon the migrants and their progeny. In contrast, Wilkerson has little to say about the following generation or its problems beyond a cheerful listing of politicians, athletes, musicians, writers and film stars who got the opportunity “to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves” because their parents had joined the Great Migration.

Some historians, moreover, may question Wilkerson’s approach to her subject. She tends to privilege the migrants’ personal feelings over structural influences like the coming of the mechanical cotton picker, which pushed untold thousands of Southern blacks from the fields, or the intense demand for wartime factory labor, which pulled thousands more to manufacturing cities in the North. Wilkerson is well aware of these push-pull factors. She has simply chosen to treat them in a way that makes the most sense to her. What bound these migrants together, she explains, was both their need to escape the violent, humiliating confines of the segregationist South and their “hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”

In 1998, Wilkerson accompanied Ida Mae Gladney on a visit to Mississippi. It was October, and cotton was still in the fields. “We cross a gravel road,” Wilkerson writes, and “Ida Mae said, her eyes growing big, ‘Let’s go pick some.’ ” Wilkerson wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of two black women trespassing on what was very likely a white man’s plot of ground, but Gladney insisted. “It’s as if she can’t wait to pick it now that she doesn’t have to,” Wilkerson writes. “It’s the first time in her life that she can pick cotton of her own free will.”

The experience fired old memories. “I just couldn’t do it,” Gladney confessed. “I’d pick and cry. I ain’t never liked the field.” The next day found her at the local cemetery, surveying the headstones of people she left behind long ago. “Ida Mae, you gonna be buried down here?” her brother-in-law asks. “No, I’m gonna be in Chicago,” she replies. The South is behind her. Chicago is home.

David Oshinsky, a frequent contributorto the Book Review, is the author of ­Polio: An American Story, which won the ­Pulitzer Prize for history in 2006.