A Casting Call

Isabel Wilkerson devoted 15 years to the writing and research of The Warmth of Other Suns.  She interviewed 1200 participants in the Great Migration to meet the three main characters whose lives bring us into the brutality of the Jim Crow south and the courageous migration to parts unknown.  Each of the characters migrated in a different decade.  Both of Isabel’s parents were part of the Great Migration as well and met in DC–so perhaps you could say that she has been working on this book her entire life.

Isabel came to the project after many years as a reporter with the New York Times where she was head of the Chicago bureau and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Feature Writing.

I think you will enjoy hearing Isabel talk some about the research for the book and Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.



As Isabel says, “I think the lesson of all of this [The Great Migration] is to never give up. And to jump off that cliff if that is what it’s calling for in order to achieve your dreams.”

Hope you are enjoying the journey of The Warmth of Other Suns. Reminder: Our conference call with Isabel Wilkerson is on Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm.  The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#.

A reflection

The Warmth Of Other Suns 

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson 

The Great Migration, 1915-1970— a brief excerpt

“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, imagined at the start of it or dreamed would take nearly a lifetime to play out.

Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century. It was vast. It was leaderless. It crept along so many thousands of currents over so long a stretch of time as to be difficult for the press truly to capture while it was under way.

Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.”     Pages 8-9

       A segregated railroad depot waiting room in Jacksonville, Fla., 1921,
      Photo, The  New York Times


Dr Jessie Fields Reflects—-

“The development of the entire country has been affected by the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to cities of the North and West. During slavery enslaved Blacks attempted to escape to freedom on the underground railroad, and  for the first three quarters of the twentieth century the “Overground Railroad” was the means to escape the unyielding oppression, brutality and violence of the south.

I am a Harlem physician and reading The Warmth Of Other Suns has helped me understand some things about the lives of my older African American patients that I could never have learned from a medical textI have been having more conversations with them about which southern state they are from and how they arrived in New York City. Some have told me about horrific experiences leaving irreparable wounds. One, an older gentleman who was born in 1934 in Charleston, South Carolina, left at age 18 following his older sister who had obtained work as a live in maid at a home on Long Island. He described the daily fear of crossing a line by simply walking down a street that you were not supposed to walk down.

Reading this book has also made me reflect on how the Great Migration directly affected my life.

I was born, grew up and went to medical school in Philadelphia. My grandparents, great aunts and uncles migrated to Philadelphia from Florida in the 1940s. Gladys Sparks, my maternal grandmother who could not read or write, came from a rural area outside of Jacksonville. Adell Edith Chandler, my great aunt who inspired me to become a doctor and her brothers, one of whom became my grandfather, were from a farm area, Quincy, Florida. The Chandlers went into the restaurant business and Adell owned and operated Del’s restaurant in the Black community of South Philadelphia. They all came North in search of freedom and a better life.

1955, South Philadelphia Adell Edith Chandler, owner (center)

1955, South Philadelphia
Adell Edith Chandler, owner (center)

As Isabel Wilkerson chronicles, this Great Migration “would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched.” She uncovers the geographic and the spiritual landscape of the journey. The book explores in depth the lives of the people who left the South, why they left, what they found and how they lived after arriving in the North and West. It is very richly researched and beautifully written.

I was struck by how the author clearly outlines the social and economic practices that deepened poverty and segregation in Black communities across America, and the consequences which we continue to live with today.”

REMINDER: Book Club Conversation with Isabel Wilkerson is Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm. The call in number is 805 399-1200 and the access code is 767775#.

Behind the Title

The title of Isabel Wilkerson’s book comes from a passage written by Richard Wright in 1945.  The first page of The Warmth of Other Suns contains the following lines from Black Boy by Richard Wright:


Richard Wright

“I was leaving the South

to fling myself into the unknown . . .

I was taking a part of the South

to transplant in alien soil,

to see if it could grow differently,

if it could drink of new and cool rains,

bend in strange winds,

respond to the warmth of other suns

and, perhaps, to bloom”

― Richard Wright

Powerful poetic and prophetic words that so capture the promise and terror of the move from the South to the North.  Isabel has written about how the title of the book was ultimately selected in an interview on her website.  These lines were written by Richard Wright as part of Black Boy, his autobiography published by the Book of the Month Club.  Originally, the book covered both his childhood in Mississippi and his move to Chicago. The Book of the Month Club asked him to eliminate the Chicago section of the book.  He agreed to do that and had to write an alternative ending.  Isabel writes in the interview, “As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to excavate it. I felt it was poetry, beautifully rendered but invisible, buried as it was in the footnotes.”
Hope you are enjoying reading The Warmth of Other Suns.  I would love to hear your thoughts, favorite sections, things you are experiencing and thinking about as you read.  Shoot me an email at cathy.stewart5@gmail.com or leave a comment below.
Our conversation with Isabel Wilkerson will be on
Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm. 
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