Great Migration

Rethinking the Black Exodus from the South

Professor Henry Louis Gates interviewed Isabel Wilkerson, who spent a decade researching and writing The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, about the mass exodus of African Americans from the South between 1915 and 1970. Gates says in the interview that Wilkerson is the first scholar to treat the migrants like immigrants. “We are always admiring migrants,” says Gates. “The only group of migrants I know of who are not admired in literature are the black migrants from the South.” The traditional view, Gates points out, is that people left for economic reasons: the Bowl Weevil epidemic caused cotton crops to fail. But Wilkerson points out that the number of people who left and the size of the region they left from can’t be made sense of with a cotton-crop failure. Rather, they were defecting from the Jim Crow caste system, and demonstrated many traditional immigrant tendencies when they arrived in their new homes, forming communities and working long hours.