Nothing engages our hearts and minds like great storytelling. As Black History Month draws to a close, I wanted to share something that I re-read today: a truly remarkable excerpt from The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a book by Isabel Wilkerson that details the movement of Black Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West from 1915 to 1970.
By 1963, for 50 years or more, African Americans had been fleeing a world where they were restricted to the most menial of jobs, underpaid if paid at all, and frequently barred from voting. Until 1916, the vast majority of African Americans had been confined to the South, at the mercy of slaveholders and their descendants. The Great Migration would reshape the social and political geography of every city they fled to. When the migration began, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South. By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation.
By leaving, they would change the course of their lives and those of their children. They would become Richard Wright the novelist instead of Richard Wright the sharecropper. They would become John Coltrane, jazz musician instead of tailor; Bill Russell, NBA pioneer instead of paper mill worker; Zora Neale Hurston, beloved folklorist instead of maidservant. The children of the Great Migration would reshape professions that, had their families not left, may never have been open to them, from sports and music to literature and art. The people who migrated would become the forebears of most African Americans born in the North and West.
The Civil War-to-civil rights “journey” tempts us to leap past a century of resistance [against subjugation], and to miss the human story of ordinary people, their hopes lifted by Emancipation, dashed at the end of Reconstruction, crushed further by Jim Crow, only to be finally, at long last, revived when they found the courage within themselves to break free.
Although written six years ago, the same important message holds true: we must never forget the history of African Americans in the United States. Through the sharing of stories, we can continue to learn and evolve.
And while Black History Month may be ending, it’s never too late to pledge to work toward a better and more equal future, where everyone has the chance to thrive, regardless of race, color, culture, gender, orientation, disability, age or any other uniqueness.
Much work still needs to be done. But progress is always worth the effort.