The Great Northern Migration
Long after Emancipation, African-Americans found another kind of freedom

The late 1930s in Chicago. one of the destinations for a mass movement of Southern blacks in the 20th century.

By John Stauffer
Updated Sept. 4, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET

Americans cherish the idea of freedom, but they have embraced it in different ways throughout the country's history. Before the Civil War, Southern plantation owners thought freedom meant the right to own slaves; antislavery Northerners understood freedom as the ability to enjoy the fruit of one's labor. In the decades after the war, workers saw freedom as the right to organize and demand a fair wage; business owners believed freedom meant an unregulated marketplace.

There is one meaning of the word, though, on which almost everyone has agreed: moving about the land as one pleases. And yet liberty of movement, unrestricted by master or state, was for much of the nation's past a luxury reserved for the privileged few. Until the 19th century the majority of immigrants to North America arrived as slaves or indentured servants. And Indians, far from moving about as they wanted, were often corralled in reservations or subjected to forced migrations.

For slaves, the Civil War's end and Reconstruction did not have a dramatic effect on their mobility. Most former slaves remained tied to the land through debt peonage—they had to work for their white landlords until they had paid off their debts, incurred through exorbitant fees for supplies such as mules and seed. Debt peonage was a postwar tool designed to ensure continued Southern white supremacy. As one Alabama legislator said during Reconstruction: "The nigger is going to be made a serf sure as you live." If the Civil War was fought over black freedom, then it appeared during the decades following the war that the South won.

Until World War I came along, that is. The Great War marked the beginning of one of the most important and underappreciated revolutions in American history. Two books, Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns" and Peter Rutkoff and William Scott's "Fly Away," bring welcome attention to this revolution, known as the Great Migration, which lasted five decades and saw some six million blacks flee the former Confederate states, seeking new lives in the North. It was an Aboveground Railroad, on a massive scale. The offspring of emancipated slaves and their descendants escaped the horrible oppressions of the Jim Crow South, searching for better wages and opportunities. In migrating they asserted their freedom, thwarting whites' efforts to restrain them by leaving in the dead of night or purchasing a train ticket in the next county, where they would not be known by whites.

The Great Migration transformed American culture. Before it began, more than 90% of blacks in this country lived in the South. By the time the mass movement ended in the 1960s, roughly half of America's blacks resided in the North. The exodus remade New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and numerous smaller cities. It turned jazz, the blues and Pentecostalism into national phenomena. The achievement of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s would have been unlikely without the huge influx of new black constituents in so many politicians' backyards.

Ms. Wilkerson, and Messrs. Rutkoff and Scott, add considerably to our understanding of this national exodus. Ms. Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns" is a brilliant and stirring epic, the first book to cover the full half-century of the Great Migration. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the daughter of one of those Southern migrants, Ms. Wilkerson combines impressive research—which included interviewing more than 1,200 people, she says—with great narrative and literary power.

In many respects 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. She is especially good at capturing the experiential sense of life in the poor South and of the migration itself. Few histories better convey the grueling repetition required to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day for 50 cents. She gets inside the heads the people she's writing about and gives readers a penetrating sense of what it felt like to be a part of the vast move north.

Though it is a rigorous work of history and not a novel, "The Warmth of Other Suns" also resembles "The Grapes of Wrath" in its structure. Steinbeck's focus is the Joad family; but he universalizes their plight with "interchapters" that describe the parallel struggles of other migrants. Ms. Wilkerson's book is a collective biography of three black migrants: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who left Chickasaw County, Miss., with her husband for Chicago; George Swanson Starling, who fled central Florida for Harlem to avoid being lynched; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a surgeon from northern Louisiana, who drove 2,000 miles to Los Angeles, following "hyphens in the road that blurred together toward a faraway place." Ms. Wilkerson offers her own version of interchapters, connecting the lives of Gladney, Starling and Foster to the mass of migrants.

These central players in her story were not well-known, they were ordinary people, representative of their class and region, their tales recovered through extensive interviews. As Ms. Wilkerson emphasizes, the Great Migration was a "leaderless revolution. There was no Moses or Joshua or Harriet Tubman, or, for that matter, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize the migration." Black migrants headed north, she says, simply because they "listened to their hearts." And once it started "the exodus took on a life of its own." A Labor Department report in 1917 noted: "Every Negro that makes good in the North and writes back to his friends, starts off a new group."

The North was no promised land, however. Higher wages were offset by staggering rents, and subtler forms of prejudice replaced the blatant segregation and lynchings that enforced the power of Southern whites. The migrants were determined and resilient—as a group they were better educated and more resourceful than their Southern peers. Dr. Foster established a lucrative medical practice in Los Angeles, catering to the city's black population. And Gladney and Starling reached levels of economic and social stability that would have been impossible in the South.

Ms. Wilkerson powerfully rebuts the stereotype of migrants corrupting Northern cities. Previous scholars have argued that many if not most of these people on the move were illegitimate children or came from otherwise dysfunctional families, owing in part to the lingering effects of slavery, and that they brought unemployment and poverty with them. "The Warmth of Other Suns" counters this near consensus, showing that migrants—despite having to adjust to their crowded and competitive new worlds—led more stable lives than blacks who were born in the North.

To her credit, Ms. Wilkerson refuses to romanticize the people whose stories she tells. She highlights their flaws and failures as well as their successes. Dr. Foster had a gambling problem. George Starling had an unhappy marriage and was rarely home, owing to his job as a railroad porter, and he blamed himself when his son turned to drugs and his daughter became an unwed mother. And Ida Gladney, the most heroic of the three despite having the least education and material comforts, could do nothing to prevent her neighborhood's becoming a locus of crime.

Despite these and other disappointments, the migrants' great achievement was in acting on their impulse to seek freedom no matter where the journey took them. The migration "was its own point," Ms. Wilkerson writes, a revolutionary end in itself.

While Ms. Wilkerson captures the migration's personal and emotional aspects, Messrs. Rutkoff and Scott, in "Fly Away," focus on its cultural side. The authors, who teach history at Kenyon College, argue that the black migrants preserved many of their West African roots and customs in the move north, just as they had during the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas.

These customs included the "ring shout" found in Pentecostal and "Sanctified Baptist" services, and the migrants' yearnings to "fly away" to their African homelands so that their spirits could mingle with those of their ancestors. If these examples sound sketchy, it's because Messrs. Rutkoff and Scott emphasize argument over felt experience.

And yet they make a significant argument. For while Ms. Wilkerson dramatizes the personal freedom that comes with exodus, these authors stress the cultural freedom afforded by holding on to a vision of Africa as the homeland. In preserving their African roots, the black migrants could take pride in where they came from and in who they were in their new circumstances.

Rather than connect the migrants to their African roots, Ms. Wilkerson sees them in the context of other immigrant groups—an approach I found more compelling. Much like Irish or Italian immigrants, migrants from the American South built new lives "around the people and churches they knew from back home," she writes. They took jobs others considered beneath them. And they tried to teach their children the religious values of the "old country" while urging them to succeed by the economic standards of their adopted world.

Ironically, one sign of the Great Migration's success is that after it drew to a close in the 1960s, blacks began moving back to the South. This "reverse migration" has escalated since 1990, prompted by greater job opportunities in the South and the stubborn persistence of Northern segregation. Southern cities such as Atlanta, Houston and Jacksonville, Fla., are now more integrated than their Northern counterparts. This reverse-migration trend suggests a profound transformation: The South, from which blacks fled 50 years ago in search of freedom, now appears to be the new promised land.

—Mr. Stauffer, who teaches history and literature at Harvard, is the author of "The Black Hearts of Men" and "Giants."