In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I urge you to read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This book, more than any other I’ve read, provides historical context for the state of relations between blacks and whites in America today. There’s a reason it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, just as there’s a reason Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994.
Wilkerson chronicles the massive, though perhaps little-known, migrations of African Americans out of the southeastern region of the United States, between 1915 and 1970. While closely following the lives of three people, she more broadly discusses the stressful and dangerous circumstances under which millions of African Americans migrated. If you’ve ever wanted to understand institutionalized racism—or have ever been skeptical about the concept—this book is well worth your time.
Never forget that what was done yesterday influences what takes place today.
Quotes from The Warmth of Other Suns
People like Ida Mae had few options, and the landlords knew it. New arrivals often paid twice the rent charged the whites they had just replaced for worn-out and ill-kept housing. “The rents in the South Side Negro district were conspicuously the highest of all districts visited,” Abbott wrote. Dwellings that went for eight to twenty dollars a month to white families were bringing twelve to forty-five dollars a month from black families, those earning the least income and thus least able to afford a flat at any rent, in the early stages of the Migration. Thus began a pattern of overcharging and underinvestment in black neighborhoods that would lay the foundation for decades of economic disparities in the urban North.
Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.
[The Illinois Central Railroad] carried so many southern blacks north that Chicago would go from 1.58 percent black at the start of the twentieth century to one-third black by the time the flow of people finally began to slow in 1970. Detroit’s black population would skyrocket from 1.4 percent to 44 percent during the era of the Migration.
The children, having emerged from one-room schoolhouses with their southern English, were often labeled retarded by northern school officials, regardless of their native abilities. Segregation was not the law, but northerners would find creative ways to segregate the migrant children from the white children when so inclined.