30 Jul The Great Migration and its lasting legacy
I just finished reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns which is an amazing work of research and writing. The detail and care she takes in relating this most important of stories for African Americans is impressive, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for me. When my mother passed away two years ago, I was determined to learn more about that part of the great migration that had gone from Louisiana to Los Angeles. My mother moved from New Orleans (she was originally from Opelousas) to Los Angeles in the late 1940s. I have a large number of relatives in the Los Angeles area who also made that move, but have been unable to find a book or research that looked in any detail at that portion of the great migration which went West. One of the main stories in this book is about Robert Joseph Pershing Foster from Monroe Louisiana, who moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s.
One of the things that touched me the most in Wilkerson’s book was in the final chapter, when she examined the issue of whether the blacks that had gone to the North and West had actually done better than those that had stayed behind. She debunks many of the studies that said the migrants brought with them some of the ills that later would infect the inner cities – rather the migrants were more likely to be married, hard working and to have greater family stability. Many successful politicians like Bill Bradley in Los Angeles, Coleman Young in Detroit and Harold Washington in Chicago were the children of migrants. However, migrants still faced discrimination and many struggled to succeed in places like Chicago, where they had more freedom, but were hemmed into areas where overcrowding and poor housing were the rule.
My parents chose to settle in Spokane, Washington after my father retired from the Air Force. I often wondered why they chose that place, but now I have a better understanding of their choice. For one thing, Spokane was similar to the area outside of Pittsburgh where my father grew up (his parents moved there from Virginia and Georgia). I was born in Spokane in 1964 and the next decade would be one of great upheaval in places like Los Angeles and other big cities around the country. Spokane was a place where time stood still, it felt like growing up in what I imagined the 1950s to be. The streets were safe, we went to good schools, and issues of discrimination were relatively minor. My cousins who grew up in Los Angeles during a similar time period face many more challenges than we did on the bucolic streets of Spokane.
Wilkerson’s book has helped me to realize that I am a product of my parent’s choices. In many ways it is ironic that I now live in Texas, a place that many blacks left to find a better life in places like Los Angeles. Times have changed and my boys have a good life in Austin, Texas. However, I cannot discount the impact that growing up in the Northwest had on me and my life path, even though I grew up after much of Jim Crow was dismantled (but my oldest siblings did not). As Wilkerson writes:
Many black parents who left the South got the one thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross […] and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the Great Migration and raised them in the North or West. All of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really, and were among the first generation of blacks to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of their forebears. Millions of other children of the Migration grew up to lead productive, though anonymous, lives in quiet everyday ways that few people will ever hear about. (p. 535)
Wilkerson’s book is a gift to those of us who want to learn more about the times our parents lived through. As I grow older and watch my own children grow up, I gain more appreciation of the times my parents lived through, the sacrifices they made for us, and how the decisions that they made defined me as a person. My mother also passed on her love of foods like gumbo and okra that was one of the few ways we managed to maintain a small link to her cultural heritage. This book has encouraged me to learn more about that heritage, and to gain a better understanding of my own life in the context of a nation that is still grappling with a long history of racial injustice.