Wilkerson Describes Heartbreak And Triumph Of ‘Great Migration’
LAKELAND (April 2, 2012) – Laboring in the fields of the South during the Jim Crow era were people who otherwise might have become musicians, lawyers, teachers and doctors, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson told an audience at Florida Southern College on March 29.
“We know that because that is what their children became,” she said.
Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, an account of the “Great Migration” of black Americans from the South to the cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West during the 20th century, gave her lecture as part of the Florida Lecture Series sponsored by the Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History at FSC.
One of the people Wilkerson described in her book was George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker from Eustis, Fla., who was forced to flee from white grove owners who had threatened to lynch him because he dared to ask for higher wages. It was not simple racism that forced African-Americans to leave the South but what she described as “a caste system.”
“The caste system was created for economic reasons. The racial ideology was added later. The South depended on an oversupply of cheap labor,” she said.
Jim Crow laws that were prevalent in the South from the late 1800s until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so restricted the freedom of black citizens that beginning in 1915 they began to leave and seek opportunities in the North and West. A shortage of immigrant labor due to World War I opened the door, and in all about six million African-Americans would leave the South over a 50-year period.
“For the first time in America, the lowest caste had a chance to choose for themselves where they would live and how they would earn their living,” Wilkerson said.
She noted that in spite of the repression they faced, African-Americans left the South reluctantly and transplanted their Southern culture in the places to which they moved.
“They were leaving home. If they had the option, they wouldn’t have left. These people were Southerners. They left the South, but the South didn’t leave them,” she said.
After relocating in the North, African-Americans and especially their children began to be successful in a wide range of activities. She noted that Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, playwright August Wilson, music producer Berry Gordy and musicians Michael Jackson, Miles Davis and Diana Ross all were children of the Great Migration.
“They gave gifts to the world. They were the first fruits of the freedom of parents who made a heartbreaking decision,” Wilkerson said. “The magnitude of their sacrifice was amazing.”
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