The Daily Gamecock

Pioneering Pulitzer winner discusses Great Migration in Columbia visit

Former New York Times reporter’s book praised

Isabel Wilkerson, the first African-American winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, spoke at the Richland County Public Library Friday about her new book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”.

Her book, a marriage of journalism and history, uses the lives of three African Americans to tell the untold story of the six million who migrated north to escape Jim Crow and find better economic opportunities. Wilkerson conducted more than 1,200 interviews for the book, which has already won a National Book Critic Circle’s Award.

“This was one of the biggest underreported stories of the 20th century” Wilkerson said.

The book has only been out for six months, but Wilkerson says there is already interest for a movie. A daughter of the migration itself, Wilkerson is expected by some to win another Pulitzer for the book.

Speaking to an audience composed of mostly elderly African Americans, Wilkerson explained the 15-year process it took write the work and the various people and interesting facts she encountered.

Wilkerson uses the term caste system instead of segregation because the policies of the era affected whites as well as blacks. She spoke of the vast differences from the times of the caste system, which started in 1896 and didn’t end until the early 1970s, and how the youth of today don’t understand it.

“I didn’t talk about restrooms and water fountains in this book because we know about all of that. I wanted to find the other stuff,” Wilkerson said. That other stuff included segregated telephone booths in Oklahoma and even Bibles to swear in on during court cases in Raleigh, N.C.

The former New York Times reporter turned Boston University journalism professor notes that the migration affected more than just African Americans and was very parallel to other migrations in history.

Occurring more than 40 years after the Civil War, the migration was composed of three major streams: east coast stream, midwest stream and west coast stream. Individuals sought to follow the quickest most direct route to what they perceived as freedom.

The streams recreated their own respective cultures in the cities that they ended up in, resulting in communities much like Little Italy and Little Poland. Wilkerson remarked that there were churches in New Jersey composed completely of former South Carolina residents or their children. She also noted that even the southern cuisine was recreated as one could find hog head cheese and even pig’s feet, both typically southern courses, in New York.

“We look to these heroes and others to save us, and these people saved themselves,” Wilkerson said. “These people did what the president couldn’t do — Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but these people put it to work.”

Wilkerson found that those blacks who had migrated north stayed in marriages longer than any other group in the north, and there was a better chance that their children would grow up in two-parent homes than in any other group.

When asked about reverse migration, Wilkerson said, “I don’t call it reverse migration. Reverse signifies you made a mistake. I don’t believe it was a mistake. I call it a return migration — you’re coming home.”