The Great Migration

Posted: November 3, 2010 by Scott Kistler in History

I listened to this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air while washing the dishes today.  Terry Gross talked to journalist Isabel Wilkerson about her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  The Great Migration, in which over 6 million African Americans moved from mostly rural settings in the South to cities outside the South, played a major role in charting the course of urban America in the 20th century.  Wilkerson places the dates of the Migration as 1915-1975, although I have seen some dating it as early as 1890.  In Chicago, the earliest part of the migration forged the black community on the city’s famous and infamous South Side, and the later part transformed the West Side into a largely African American area.

Wilkerson made two points that stuck out.  One, she said that the segregation laws in the South included not only the more well-known rules like separate bathrooms and water fountains, but also more obscure local regulations like the ban on white and black people playing checkers together in Birmingham.  The most heartbreaking was that multiple laws existed that required separate Bibles in courts so that blacks and whites could be sworn in on different Bibles.  That’s quite a potent symbol of the evil of segregation.

Additionally, Wilkerson said that her interviews with over 1000 people did not reveal a general consciousness that the migrants were part of a large movement.  It’s not surprising, but it’s a good reminder that people aren’t always conscious of the bigger events that they’re part of.  The communications revolution will certainly be one of the defining historical trends of our period, but I often have to remind myself of how much has changed in just a short period of time.  It makes me wonder what other great historical developments of our age will be seen by historians of the future.


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