Pulitzer prize winner shares untold history of African Americans’ Great Migration

Video by Christina Soto | Broadcast Reporter, Story by Bailey Brammer | Editor-in-Chief

During the 15 years Pulitzer prize winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson spent researching the Great Migration, she came across appalling examples of segregation. For example, the suspension of a court trial because the hands of a black defendant could not touch the designated “white Bible,” and the illegality of a white man playing checkers with a man of color. While most Americans are familiar with the segregation of seats on a bus and separate water fountains, these examples stuck with Wilkerson and influenced her to share the untold stories of this period in American history.

Wilkerson spoke to Baylor students at the Cashion Academic Center Monday afternoon about her New York Times bestselling novel “The Warmth of Other Suns,” as well as on the similarities between the Great Migration and America today.

The lecture was part of Baylor’s Beall-Russell Lectures in Humanities series, which was created in 1982 by Muncie, Ind. native Virginia B. Ball. Past speakers include historian David McCullough and poet Maya Angelou.

“To be human means at some point someone is going to migrate,” Wilkerson said. “This is the nature of the sacrifice made for all of us somewhere in our background, for us to be here in this moment, and I believe that have bequeathed us a beautiful burden.”

Bob Darden, professor in the department of journalism, public relations and new media, introduced the lecture by reading passages from Wilkerson’s novel and relating the stories presented in the book to some of the issues facing immigrants today.

“It is not about the past, it is about the present and it’s about the future,” Darden said. “And in doing so, it has the power to stir emotions like few books of history of any age.”

Wilkerson has spoken at more than 200 colleges in the U.S., Europe and Asia, including Harvard University. While writing “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Wilkerson conducted more than 1,200 interviews to recount the true stories of three people who took part in the Great Migration.

“This is our shared story,” Wilkerson said. “We often make the decision to go from one place to another when we need to break free. I’ve discovered through all of this travel that I’ve been doing with this book … is that this book is not about migration. In fact, no migration is about migration. This migration is about freedom, and how far people are willing to go to achieve it.”

Apart from her highly-praised novel, Wilkerson also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 when she worked as the Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times. She was the first black woman to win the award, as well as the first African-American to win for individual reporting.

While addressing the importance of the history of the Great Migration, Wilkerson compared the United States to a house. She said that although storms may come, and you may not want to venture into the basement of the house after such horrible weather, not addressing the possible damage can be detrimental.

“We may not want to go into that basement, but after the storm, if we ignore it, we are ignoring it at our own peril,” Wilkerson said. “Whatever is in that basement will come back to haunt us, and will only, in fact, be worse for our having ignored it. That is the power of history itself; it is allowing us to see what has gone before in time for us to make corrections and make adjustments now. A house is never finished a house needs constant renovation, constant reevaluation. Our country is very much like a house in that it is constantly called upon to make adjustments and reassess as needed.”

Wilkerson was selected to speak at the Beall-Russell Lecture by a committee of Baylor faculty after a suggestion by Kevin Tankersley, full-time lecturer in the department of journalism, public relations and new media. Dr. Kimberly Kellison, associate dean for humanities and sciences as well as co-chair of the committee said Wilkerson was a perfect fit for the lecture series.

“I think her story speaks to people in a variety of ways and I’m really happy that we had students, faculty members and staff members who came… and I think there’s some people who came from Dallas and maybe even from further away,” Kellison said. “I think it says a lot about what she talked about as far as the historical narrative of the Great Migration and the story of race in general in our society today.”

Wilkerson emphasized that the Great Migration has impacted the entire country in many ways. Had the six million people who sought their freedom not chosen to leave their homes, we may never have known names such as Jesse Owens or Toni Morrison. In light of their journey, Wilkerson believes that we should come together instead of driving each other toward division.

“I am convinced that the people who made these various migrations did not migrate only to have their descendants fighting one another and divided, not seeing the humanity in one another,” Wilkerson said. “I would like to believe that they made the sacrifice so that life would be better for succeeding generations, that there would be more of a recognition of how much we all have in common.”