News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 28, 2012

The great migration

Little-known part of history still vital to U.S. culture, ISU speaker says

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author, told a Terre Haute audience Tuesday about a chapter in U.S. history that is often overlooked but that shaped the 20th century and continues to influence American culture today.

It is the story of the migration of 6 million African Americans who left their homes in the sharply segregated South for new homes in the north between World War I until the 1970s. The migration, portrayed in her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” affected all regions of the U.S., including Indiana, she said.

“This is not ancient history,” Wilkerson noted. “It’s living history.”

Because of the Jim Crow caste system in the South, this was the first and only time in U.S. history American citizens had to flee their homes to be recognized as citizens somewhere else, Wilkerson said.

Those migrating were attracted by employment opportunities made available by a shortage of European immigrants in the North during the first world war, she said.

In some cases, white southerners attempted to stop the outmigration, Wilkerson said. Fleeing African Americans, who were needed as low-cost farm labor, were arrested at train stations. Others fled the South under the cover of night, she said.

“This was, in some ways, a defection against a caste system,” she said.

Wilkerson spoke to a packed University Hall on the ISU campus. Her approximately 90-minute presentation was part of the University Speakers Series and was cosponsored by the Charles E. Brown African American Cultural Center and the ISU history department.

Wilkerson has been speaking to audiences about her 2010 book all across the globe. In making those talks, she said she has come to discover more fully the importance of the migration she describes. It changed the face of the South and the North, she said. Indeed, it changed American culture by freeing talented people to make an impact on the world outside of southern farm fields.

One such product of the migration was a man named James Cleveland Owens, whose sharecropper parents left Alabama early in the last century when he was just a boy. At an elementary school in Cleveland, the boy’s teacher mistakenly called him “Jessie,” and the name stuck. He would later become a gold medalist in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning as Adolf Hitler watched.

“He was not fit for the [farm] field,” Wilkerson said of Owens, who was considered too sickly as a child for field labor. “He was fit for another field: track and field.”

Owens is just one of countless examples of African Americans whose families moved north during this great migration, Wilkerson said. She noted others such as Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, jazzist John Coltrane, guitarist Jimi Hendrix and Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records.

“They freed themselves,” Wilkerson said. “These people are gifts to the world.”

All of us are products of similar decisions by ancestors to leave their homes for a new place far away, Wilkerson said. In that way, the story of the African American migration of the 20th Century is a story about all of us.

“This is a universal, human story,” she said.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or