January 25, 2021

Life and Death in the Promised Land

I was leaving without a qualm
without a single backward glance.
The face of the South that I had known
was hostile and forbidding,
and yet out of all the conflicts
and the curses…
the tension and the terror,
I had somehow gotten the idea that life could be different…
I was now running more away
from something than toward something….
My mood was:
I’ve got to get away;
I can’t stay here.

– Richard Wright, Black Boy

* * *

There are other worlds, other entire universes, right next door to where we live.

I was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956. On Oak Park’s eastern edge, Austin Blvd. runs north and south, dividing the suburb from the Chicago neighborhood of Austin. My mother grew up in Austin, and when I was a boy my grandparents still lived there. But in the late 1960’s they relocated across Austin Blvd. to an area they considered better and safer. They were part of the “white flight” that led many Chicagoans to leave changing neighborhoods that were being filled by an influx of African-Americans moving in from the South.

Many years later, in the 1980’s, I returned to Austin. While attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, we became acquainted with Pastor Raleigh Washington, who had partnered with Glen Kehrein of Circle Urban Ministries to found Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church in my grandparents’ old Austin neighborhood.

The church website sketches the situation in Austin at that time:

Rock Church’s story is about ordinary people committed to a vision and mission of community outreach, racial reconciliation, missions, discipleship, and partnering with like-minded organizations.  Its community focus is the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.  In 1983, when Pastor Raleigh Washington founded Rock Church, Austin had already morphed from a predominately White neighborhood to one whose primary residents were Black.  The social, educational, and economic pillars had declined.   Most of the doctors, lawyers, businesses, and churches had moved to the suburbs.  Few institutions remained to provide social structure within the community; unemployment rose to 40 percent and the high school dropout rate increased to 70 percent.

We went to some services at Rock Church, heard Pastor Washington speak on numerous occasions, had Mrs. Washington in our home to speak to the Trinity wives group, and invited the congregation’s dynamic gospel choir to sing at our little church in Waukegan. These experiences became, for this white, privileged suburban young man, an important eye-opener to the realities of race, poverty, urban life, and the need for social justice.

In recent years, I have discovered more fully how my life has touched, ever so lightly and tangentially, on one of the greatest exodus stories in modern history. I have served as a hospice chaplain in Indianapolis for the past nine years. My work takes me into many different neighborhoods and homes in the city, and has provided me with my first real opportunities to interact intimately with African-American families on their turf.

(And yes, today in a northern city like Indianapolis, their turf remains different from that of the white community. Consider, for example, this article about continuing practices with regard to racial discrimination in the housing market.)

Indianapolis has not always been a friendly place in which to live for blacks; it was even home to the national headquarters for the KKK in the mid-20th century. A woman in one of my churches was shocked to find a Klan outfit when they cleaned out her mother’s attic after her death. Nevertheless, this city was one to which many from the South came in what has come to be known as “The Great Migration.”

From 1915 through the early 1970’s, a remarkable emigration movement took place from south to north in the United States, as southern blacks uprooted and fled to cities all across the North, including Indianapolis, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee here in the Midwest. Prompted by job opportunities in the North during and after the world wars and tired of being oppressed and harassed under the South’s Jim Crow laws, they came like a flood, by the hundreds of thousands each decade. More than six million blacks eventually relocated — more than in the Gold Rush or Dust Bowl migrations west — leading to significant changes not only in individual lives but also in U.S. society as a whole.

Isabel Wilkerson describes this mass exodus in her magnificent chronicle, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The_Warmth_of_Other_Suns_(Isabel_Wilkerson_book)_cover Isabel Wilkerson writes:

From the early years of the twentieth century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every black family in America, had a decision to make. There were sharecroppers losing at settlement. Typists wanting to work in an office. Yard boys scared that a single gesture near the planter’s wife could leave them hanging from an oak tree. They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay, and they each had a decision before them. In this, they were not unlike anyone who ever longed to cross the Atlantic or the Rio Grande.

It was during the First World War that a silent pilgrimage took its first steps within the borders of this country. The fever rose without warning or notice or much in the way of understanding by those outside its reach. It would not end until the 1970s and would set into motion changes in the North and South that no one, not even the people doing the leaving, could have imagined at the start of it or dreamed would take nearly a lifetime to play out.

I have been present in the final season of some of those lives. When one of these pilgrims comes under my care in hospice, I do my best to learn all that I can from him or her. Their lives are among the most interesting of any that confront me in my work. These simple souls are part of one of America’s greatest stories, and many folks like me have remained largely unaware of its details.

The genius of Isabel Wilkerson’s book is that she focuses upon three individual stories that represent the millions of blacks who went north. The Warmth of Other Suns is like a Ken Burns’ film that intercuts between these three tales in the foreground, stepping back occasionally to explain the context of the larger social movement of which they were a part. The way she carries out her literary strategy makes this book extremely personal and poignant.

She writes about Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who with her sharecropper husband George left Mississippi in October of 1937. They made the decision after a terrifying incident in which they were awakened in the night by an angry posse looking for a family member who, it was supposed, stole some turkeys. Despite the fact that he was innocent, when they found the boy they dragged him into the woods and beat him with chains to within a inch of his life. Ida Mae and George had had enough, so they finished picking their cotton crop, settled up with the owner, and snuck out of town to Milwaukee to stay with Ida’s sister. The couple later settled in Chicago, where George went to work at the Campbell’s Soup Factory and Ida Mae worked in a hospital.

Then, there is George Swanson Starling from Eustis, Florida, who literally fled north in 1945. Starling was a college student but had conflicts with his father about it and had to drop out when funds dried up. He went to picking fruit in the Florida orange groves and eventually found himself in trouble with the grove owners because he had had the gall to demand better wages and conditions for the pickers. In Florida in the 1940’s, that was more than enough to get a black man lynched. So Starling fled and went to New York City, eventually bringing his wife Inez to join him. Ironically, he went to work for the very railroad that had carried him northward and spent his years traveling back in and out of the South, laboring on long shifts as a baggage carrier and attendant to the needs of passengers.

Finally, the book focuses on Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, the most outwardly successful of these three emigrants, a physician from Monroe, Louisiana who went to California and became a respected surgeon. His parents had been leading educators in the very unequal Monroe Colored High School (black teachers made 1/3 of what white teachers made in Louisiana). Foster himself went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, the respected black institution of higher learning, married a university president’s daughter and served in the military. His insatiable drive to succeed and the equally passionate forces that tried to stop him meant that Foster had to spend much of his early adult life away from his family, fighting to break in as a physician and establish his own practice. It was in March of 1953 that Foster got in his automobile and made the long, perilous (for a black) drive to California, never looking back.

great-migration-chicagoThese three individuals represent the three streams of the Great Migration flowing out of the southern United States. Those from states like Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas usually ended up in northeastern cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Blacks from Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas sought refuge, freedom, and work in the cities of the northern Midwest, like Chicago, Indianapolis, and Detroit. Those from Louisiana and Texas generally went west to California.

They followed the major transportation routes of the day, tired of eking out subsistence livings as sharecroppers and fruit-pickers, fed up with Jim Crow laws that reminded them every moment that they were on the lowest rung of a demeaning caste system, and frightened of a “justice” system by which they were continually victimized, sometimes brutally so.

Wilkerson doesn’t shy away from telling some of the horrific tales of vigilantism that led to inhumane treatment, torture, lynchings, and the desecration of blacks in the south. But even more telling are her vivid descriptions of the daily dehumanizing effects of Jim Crow laws and the socio-economic rules that touched all aspects of life for people of color. For example, she gives vivid descriptions of such institutions as the segregated movie houses, and she outlines, in cringe-inducing detail, annual settlements between sharecroppers and landowners, in which, after a year of back-breaking labor, a worker and his family were lucky to break even.

How could many of these folks not be attracted, then, when reports came from the North of abundant work, better living and working conditions, and higher wages in northern cities during the war years? The draw was so strong and so many began leaving, that southern states and communities passed laws prohibiting northern recruiters from coming to town, and made efforts to stop the flow of northern newspapers and materials informing blacks of new opportunities.

There were many factors, of course, in a mass geographical movement like the Great Migration. In David Oshinky’s New York Times review of Wilkerson’s book, he notes:

Some historians, moreover, may question Wilkerson’s approach to her subject. She tends to privilege the migrants’ personal feelings over structural influences like the coming of the mechanical cotton picker, which pushed untold thousands of Southern blacks from the fields, or the intense demand for wartime factory labor, which pulled thousands more to manufacturing cities in the North. Wilkerson is well aware of these push-pull factors. She has simply chosen to treat them in a way that makes the most sense to her. What bound these migrants together, she explains, was both their need to escape the violent, humiliating confines of the segregationist South and their “hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”

What Isabel Wilkerson describes in The Warmth of Other Suns is a trio of Exodus-Wilderness-Promised Land stories every bit as compelling as the Biblical epic of Israel escaping Egypt by the hand of God. Like that story of divine salvation, the narrative of the Great Migration doesn’t end with a simple “they lived happily ever after” once blacks from the south had been freed and reached their destinations. As the Israelites faced nations around them and Canaanites in the land who resisted the chosen people’s incursion into their cities and territories, so the African-Americans who sought refuge in the north discovered that they were not usually welcomed with open arms and opportunities. As Wilkerson says, those who moved to different parts of the country nevertheless found themselves on the same rung of the ladder.

Some companies in the North didn’t hire black workers, and in most places the working class people who were already there (and whites who had also relocated from the South looking for work) resisted the emigrants in workplaces, social settings, and neighborhoods. It should not be lost on readers that the very reason northern companies lured black workers from the south was to keep their labor costs down — they weren’t being altruistic. In the 1940’s forty percent of black men in Chicago were doing unskilled or semi-skilled work. Another thirty four percent were working as servants. The options were even more limited for black women, of whom two-thirds were servants. Wilkerson notes that only seven percent of black women were hired to do clerical work compared to forty-three percent of white women. In many cases, blacks just traded one form of hard labor in the South for another in the North.

And, though there were no Jim Crow laws organizing northern society into a structured caste system by which black people were kept at the lowest level, the North was only slightly more friendly to their dreams and accepting of their presence. A telling paragraph from the book notes:

There were no colored or white signs in New York. That was the unnerving and tricky part of making your way through a place that looked free. You never knew when perfect strangers would remind you that, as far as they were concerned, you weren’t equal and might never be. It was just the prerogative of whoever happened to be in a position to keep you from getting what the law said you had a right to, because nobody was going to enforce it anyway.

the_great_migration_f1834340cd6I highly recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s book as a moving true tale of people on a wilderness journey. The lives she traces teach us. And though she doesn’t give a lot of attention to subsequent generations — the children and grandchildren of the Great Migration — what she does say reminds us that the way of our African-American neighbors has remained formidable. But that’s another wilderness story for a different day.

As for me, I am looking forward to visiting an elderly black man from Mississippi this week. He lived as a sharecropper and one day he made his way north. Now he is my teacher, my guide to a wilderness world that fascinates me and helps me understand better the neighbors God calls me to love.


  1. To me Chester, PA was one of the first places described as Mmmm by people on this described migration( look up Homer Simpson to notice it usually is a food description).

  2. CM,

    I was born in Highland Park, a Detroit suburb, and lived between 8 and 9 Mile Roads in Warren until I was 12. We could see the smoke from the ’67 riots from our house and the National Guard helicopters were flying over constantly during that hot, fiery summer. The next year, my dad, who worked for the Post office at the time, was in Chicago on business travel when Martin Luther King was shot and got out on the next available flight. My school district was as lily white as could be despite desegregation and court-ordered busing. Yet across 8 Mile Rd. Detroit loomed, teeming with blacks. There were no signs, no obvious indicators, but it was clear that apartheid existed along Detroit’s northern border. The wall was invisible, but no less real even though never publicly acknowledged. My early impression of race relations was not a good one.

    Having read this iMonk article I am now curious about the stories that Detroit has to tell. My suburban neighborhood was composed of white flight Italians, Poles, and a lot of transplanted Southerners. I never thought to question where the folks south of 8 Mile Rd. came from. This makes me really wonder if a lot of the racial tension that Detroit experienced in the 60’s was a result of transplanted southern cultural sensibilities and the conflict of trying to impose Jim Crow on a populace that had seen their way North seeking freedom from the same. and this leads to the question – are there any books that have looked at this? And now you have me wishing desperately that someone like Ken Burns or the History Channel folks who had made “The Men Who Built America” would do a deep dive and tell the story of Detroit. I believe this would be especially poignant in light of their recent bankruptcy. I think their financial crisis is probably a microcosm of a larger crisis that still remains largely unresolved.

    I have so many more questions than answers now. Thank you for posting this as it has helped me to look at an old question with fresh eyes.

    • Thanks, Rick. I have met a lot of black families here in Indy who have relatives in Detroit or who at one time or another lived there themselves. Usually the connection was with the auto industry and most of them originated in the south and were part of the Great Migration.

      Even though it doesn’t focus on Detroit, I think you would appreciate this book. And perhaps one of our readers knows of someone who has written specifically about the Motor City.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “This makes me really wonder if a lot of the racial tension that Detroit experienced in the 60?s was a result of transplanted southern cultural sensibilities and the conflict of trying to impose Jim Crow on a populace that had seen their way North seeking freedom from the same.”

      Alas, the North has always had its own racism, though it took a different form than in the South. I study early baseball history. I read a lot of newspapers from the 1860s and 1870s, mostly from New York and Philadelphia. I mostly am looking at the sports coverage, but I see other parts as well. The racism can be hair raising, depending on the politics of the paper in question. A prominent black club, the Pythians of Philadelphia, attempted to join the Pennsylvania state baseball association. Even with the sponsorship of the Athletics of Philadelphia, the most prominent baseball club in the state, it became obvious they would lose the membership vote, and they withdrew their application. The national association then followed by passing a resolution prohibiting black clubs from joining, even though none were applying at that point. This was in 1867, just after the Civil War, and with no Southerners involved in the deliberations. Baseball had a period of limited integration in the late 1870s and early 1880s. It came to an end because racial integration offended enough players who made enough of a fuss about it that it became not worth the trouble. The most prominent of these bigots was Adrian Anson, the captain of the Chicago club, which was the powerhouse of the day. (Yes: the club now known as the Cubs was the powerhouse of the era.) Anson was born in Iowa and married a Philadelphian. Again, no Southern influence was necessary.

      • There were the terrible draft riots in New York City during the Civil War when mobs of working-class whites, many of them Irish immigrants, who could not pay their way out of the draft took their anger out on innocent African American residents, lynching and killing as many as 100 before the riots were put down by Union Army cannon firing on the mobs.

        Another shameful chapter in American history.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          Yup. One of the organizers (and second baseman) of the Pythians was one Octavius Catto. He was sort of a local version of Frederick Douglass (whose sons played baseball, by the way). He helped raise colored troops during the war. After the war he was instrumental in getting the Philadelphia street car lines integrated. He was assassinated in Philadelphia in 1871 for voting while black. Northern racism was institutionalized as much as Southern: just differently.

          • After I moved here to Lancaster, PA, from Northern New Jersey about six years ago I was shocked to learn that the area I now live in had been a hotbed of KKK activity until sometime in the 70’s or 80’s; it’s not unusual to see the Confederate flag proudly decorating pick-up trucks. A couple of days ago, I saw a pick-up truck drive past my car going in the opposite decoration with a huge rebel flag flying above the flatbed.

            I don’t think it could have been any more offensive if it had been the Nazi swastika.

    • Granny Nerd says

      After the 1967 riot in Detroit, there was a sort of “second white flight.” The adult children of many who had fled to Warren or Livonia (the two fastest growing cities in the U.S. from 1957 to 1967), now fled, with their own young families, farther north, or west, or south. Often they didn’t even realize they were fleeing the socioeconomic changes–they only wanted “a better life” for their young families. Maybe you could do some research among the families you know who fled farther away and write about the “second generation escapees.” Some returned when things settled down in the 1970s and 1980s; others moved even farther away.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956. On Oak Park’s eastern edge, Austin Blvd. runs north and south, dividing the suburb from the Chicago neighborhood of Austin.

    Is that (or 8 Mile Road, Detroit) the street known locally as “The Berlin Wall”?

    Indianapolis has not always been a friendly place in which to live for blacks; it was even home to the national headquarters for the KKK in the mid-20th century.

    In the Roaring Twenties, Indiana wasn’t just “national headquarters of the KKK”. It was “The Great Klan State of Indiana, KIGY”, and the Grand Dragon of the Klan was a shoo-in for Governor until he went down in a sex scandal (violent rape with fatality) a few days before the election. (I am posting this comment from the former Klanaheim, Kalifornia; you would not believe how powerful the Second Klan was in the 1920s, all over the nation.)

    • The 20’s was the high point for KKKristianity and the migration story isn’t complete unless we consider the Southernization of American evangelicalism. Starting with the Southern Baptists, who “cordially approved” the formation of the Confederacy in 1861, anointed white Southerners as the Chosen People after the War, and preached the Lost Cause myth from the pulpit. Bob Jones, and Frank Norris of First Baptist, Fort Worth, were not alone in actively promoting the KKK. They were the seed generation for Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell. Many of the worst features of modern evangelical culture arrived with the migration of Southern fundamentalism into the mainstream, with the mission to return America to her Anglo-Christian origins.

      • The most visibly racist part of the US was/is always the most visibly Christian. A reason I’m convinced of the power of the gospel is that so many black Americans have retained faith in Christ even after what they endured at the hands of so many white Americans, who professed the same faith.

        • To play Devil’s advocate: some might ask, if the gospel had sufficient power to retain the faith black Americans in the midst of adversity endured at the hands of their white counterparts, why didn’t it have enough power to shape the lives of white Christians in such a way that they would love rather than oppress their black brothers and sisters?

          • Christiane says

            ” . . . if the gospel had sufficient power to retain the faith black Americans in the midst of adversity endured at the hands of their white counterparts, why didn’t it have enough power to shape the lives of white Christians in such a way that they would love rather than oppress their black brothers and sisters?”

            but don’t you see, the gospel DID change white Christians . . . the gospel was lived out by African Americans when they marched peacefully in quiet dignity for the Civil Rights of all Americans . . . their non-violence was rooted in the Gospel, and they followed the leaders that knew that Gospel and preached it and modeled it

            when white Americans witnessed the grace shown by the non-violent protests in the face of horrific attacks by dogs and water cannons, it was THEN that it hit home that right had to be done for the sake of those being persecuted . . .

            without the Gospel, where would people have learned how powerful non-violent stances can be in the face of evil ? without Our Lord being condemned and spat on, and yet forgiving?

            it took a long time for the change to happen, but when your own countrymen stood up peacefully for what was ‘the better way’, and you witnessed this, you KNEW they were right, and recognized Christ’s example in their non-violent prayers . . . they were marching and singing the spirituals of old which had given them as a people that hope which is anchored in Christ Himself

            I’m not the Devil’s Advocate, but I do remember those days and how the non-violent witness to Our Lord was more powerful than the attack dogs and water cannons could ever be

            yes, it WAS the Gospel at work that changed the hearts of all of our people in those days for the better

      • One who insisted on integration in his Christian meetings was southern evangelical Billy Graham!

  4. CM,
    I read the Warmth of the Other Suns when it came out and learned alot from it. I have recommended this book to many people. It helps me in that I work with African Americans who are the children or grandchildren of the people in the Great Migration.

  5. This looks like a fascinating read. Thanks for the in-depth review, CM.

  6. I look forward to reading this book. WWI certainly provided fuel for many to leave the American South, but I would say that WWII fully cranked the engine. My own father had never ventured farther than two counties away before he enlisted in the Army as a 16 year old in 1942. His brothers were already gone to fight; His father had terminal cancer; and the family was desperate for more income. After the war, wanderlust filled many men from our rural, Southern community, both black and white. As “The Warmth of Other Suns” tells the tale of African-Americans leaving for greener pastures in northern, industrial cities, the death of king cotton and the share-cropping system led my own ancestors to seek work in the textile mills of South Carolina, the orange groves of Florida, and the oil fields of Texas.

    I would never argue that the African-American experience was not decidedly different, because of Jim Crow and other evil segregationist policies of the time. I would say that the world of the rural Southerner, regardless of race, changed for all of us with the dawn of the post-war era, though. The perspective of rural folk grew bigger, the world became smaller, and the family more spread out.

  7. Josh in FW says

    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. I thought the article by Tyler Glodjo on the bulletin board was a good companion piece.

  8. Our first black student at Groveton High School in Alexandria, VA attended in the 1960’s. He came back for a reunion 40 years later. He said he enjoyed his time at Groveton and was treated very well. We attended Calvary Presbyterian Church. My little brother brought a black friend home and wanted him to join the Cub Scouts at church. The leaders wouldn’t let him join so my father quit that troop and joined another one that would let the friend join. When I went back for my high school reunion 40 years later and visited Calvary the church was integrated. After Katrina the white churches invited the black churches who had lost their building to worship with them.

Speak Your Mind