Author Isabel Wilkerson isn’t from Mobile and her prize-winning book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” isn’t set there either. Inarguably, though, its subject is certainly a matter of longtime importance to the Alabama port town.
Of all the books on the Artifice summer reading list, this was easily the favorite due to the width and depth of its scope, both historic and geographic. At its center is the Great Migration, a mass exodus wherein six million African Americans fled the Jim Crow-ruled Old Confederacy between 1915 and 1970.
A 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner for her feature writing for the New York Times, Wilkerson claimed to have interviewed more than 1,200 people over the course of 15 years in her research for “The Warmth of Other Suns.” The title stems from Mississippi-born “Native Son” author Richard Wright’s poetic lines about his own 1927 relocation: “I was taking a part of the South, To transplant in alien soil … Respond to the warmth of other suns, And, perhaps, to bloom.”
As is too often the case in history, catastrophe for some opened doors for others. As Europe simmered into what became World War I, the steady influx of cheap, disposable immigrant labor for American industry waned. Jobs were available in Northern cities, where a black man wasn’t legally required to step from the sidewalk at the approach of whites, where failure to doff your hat, or exchanging pleasantries with white females, or bristling at slights to your humanity wouldn’t earn a visit from terrorists empowered by a mute society.
What those transplants found was a bit more opportunity, but at a different cost. While de jure dehumanization wasn’t there, prejudice still lurked and manifested in myriad ways such as de facto housing segregation via block busting and redlining. Practices more subtle than “night riders” kept the order.
The author spelled out how points of origin and destinations were tied to rail lines. Those close to the Atlantic Ocean — from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia — took the Seaboard Air Line to East Coast cities north of the Mason-Dixon. Others from Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas boarded the Illinois Central bound for the cities of the Midwest, like Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago. Emigrés from Louisiana and Texas rode the Union Pacific to the West Coast.
Though the book is rich in historical data, Wilkerson wisely pulls the reader in with personal narratives, following three individuals as they sought new life with just a glimmer of expanded hope. Each comes from a different locale and leaves during a different period of the decades-long movement.
The first of those is Ida Mae Gladney, the wife of a Mississippi sharecropper. The hardships and perpetual peonage are familiar, but the sorrow is still disheartening in print. In 1937, Ida Mae’s husband had his fill and steered his brood to Chicago where they didn’t live in “high cotton” but still pried a better life from meager advantages.
Florida’s George Starling is the next life course traced. A bright student, Starling was forced from college by financial hardship and immediately cast into a life as an agricultural laborer. When he tried to help workers wrest better working conditions in 1945, he fled not far in front of a law-enforcement condoned lynching party and landed in New York City. He settled into a comfortable life in Harlem, working as a train porter on the same line that carried him to safety.
The other Dixie refugee is Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a descendant of relatively middle-class privilege in Louisiana. He attended an esteemed, historically black college, went on to medical school and became a surgeon. When the despair of racial constraint, of working for barter with those relegated to poverty grew too burdensome, he left the Deep South in 1951. Foster went on to become one of Los Angeles’ most noted surgeons.
While not mentioned explicitly, generations of these émigrés included Mobilians. Some, like noted intellectual and author Albert Murray, knew broader horizons were elsewhere. Others, like musician and bandleader Charles “Cootie” Williams and Lil Greenwood, turned creative talent into a bridge to realized dreams.
In the midst of the book, I recalled an interview with one of Mobile’s most brilliant minds, an inventor and literal rocket scientist. He told me of a group of friends in Atlanta, folks whose common bond was their Mobile roots and how conversation at social gatherings often touched on their ordeals as African Americans in a gothic Southern town. To a person, they were all grateful for the chance to escape.
The inventor and millionaire is just now reaching traditional retirement age. What if he had settled and created research facilities here instead of Atlanta?
Departures don’t always bear racial overtones. I still encounter Mobilians on the verge of relocation who perceive their vocational and avocational options as slim. Whether poets or programmers or graphic artists, they’re still wooed by siren calls from other locales.
What would Mobile have been like had we been able to keep all these generations here? Would our lives, our social and cultural fabric have become more enriched for their presence?
Sadder still is that it’s not the warmth of a stellar body we needed to change, but something far more reachable. It was us.