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The Great Migration comes home: Deep South exiles living in Omaha participated in the movement author Isabel Wilkerson writes about in her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”

March 31, 2012 9 comments

No story is an island.  That’s never been more true than with the vast story told by Isabel Wilkerson in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a meticulous chronicle of the successive waves of African-Americans who migrated from the South to the North and West during the first three quarters of the 20th century.  These migrants went everywhere, including my hometown of Omaha, Neb., where the black population surged in the 1910s and ’20s and occasionally peaked again over the next few decades as blacks left the South for the meatpacking and railroad jobs once plentiful here.  By the early ’70s the migration largely came to a halt and in Omaha at least a kind of reverse migration began that’s still going on today as many blacks left here for better opportunities elsewhere and, ironically enough, they often left for the New South, where cities like Atlanta and Birmingham offered far more employment and cultural opportunities for blacks than Omaha.  But the following article is not so much about that as it is about how Omaha once was a secondary but important receiving center for blacks from the South.  I attempt to balance Wilkerson’s work with the lived experience of a couple men who came here from Evergreen, Ala. – Rich Nared and Rev. Frank Likely.   So while Omaha did not get nearly the influx of black migrants that Chicago or Detroit or a lot of other cities did, it got it’s share to sufficiently alter the cultural and socio-economic landscape here and really that’s beside the point anyway, because the migration’s greatest effects were on the people who participated in this great upheaval from one environment and way of life to another.  The piece will appear soon in The Reader as a sort of preview of Wilkerson’s April 12 talk at Countryside Community United Church of Christ in Omaha, a faith community with a long history of social justice work.

NOTE: Rich or more properly Richard Nared has seved as a source, reference, referral, and liaison for me on several stories.  He hails from a big family, he’s highly personable, and he’s a longtime track coach (he was a high school track star), all of which gives him instant entree with a lot of people, which in turn makes him an invaluable resource for someone like me.  On this blog you’ll find several stories that deal with various elements and experiences of his family, including one – The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days – about the reunion his family holds during the city’s biennial black heritage celebration.  Mr. Nared is is also related to a bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, and you can read about the mega reunion she sometimes comes back here for in my piece – A Famil Thing, Bryant-Fisher Reunion.  For that matter, you’ll find numerous stories about Native Omaha Days and other aspects of African-American culture here, past and present.

A sharecropper in the Deep South

 

 

The Great Migration comes home: Deep South exiles living in Omaha participated in the movement Author Isabel Wilkerson writes about in her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The 20th century migration African-Americans made from the South to the North and West expanded black enclaves across the nation. While Omaha didn’t experience a huge influx like Chicago or Los Angeles, it was enough to alter the cultural and socio-economic landscape.

This epoch movement went little examined outside scholarly circles and literary works until Isabel Wilkerson‘s 2010 nonfiction book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist will discuss her book in an April 12 talk at Countryside Community  United Church of Christ, 8787 Pacific Street.

The 7 p.m. program is free.  A free-will donation of $10 is suggested.

Rich Nared and his uncle Rev. Frank Likely migrated here separately from their shared hometown of Evergreen, Ala. The many branches of their large extended family includes the Olivers, Unions, Holts, Butlers, Turners and Ammons, all of whom are a presence in Omaha.

Unorganized, with no discernible leader, the Great Migration played out over generations on backroads and rail lines, by auto, truck, bus and any means necessary. From the 1910s through the 1960s millions pulled up stakes for their chance at self-determination.

A family relation, Clinton Nared, says families like his came North  for “a new freedom” and “a better life.” Different lines of the family settled in different parts of the North and over the generations spread all over the country.

The sheer numbers of those migrating meant a demographic shift whose profound consequences persist. Many receiving cities, says Wilkerson, did not make proper provisions for the new population, with blacks relegated to poor, overcrowded districts abutting immigrants. Limited available employment led to tensions, further flamed by racism. Blacks were refused housing and denied jobs. Outright discrimination, protests, strikes, riots and other acts of violence further isolated blacks.

“That in and of itself is a tragedy because much of this happened as a result of a complete misunderstanding of who the people were,” says Wilkerson. “The people who had arrived in these cities came from different parts of the world but they were all people of the land who had made this great leap of faith that life might be better far from home. They landed in these big, forbidding, anonymous cities where their labor was wanted but there wasn’t clarity as what to do with the people. All of them were struggling, trying to make a way in this alien place.

“One group was pitted against the other as if they were direct competition to one another and what one got the other one was losing. We are still living with that to this day.”

Likely and Nared  did well here. Each married and raised children in designated black northeast neighborhoods. Despite segregation and discrimination, they thrived compared to the conditions they left behind.

They estimate hundreds of relatives and friends ventured North. It’s not by accident or coincidence so many residents of a small, backroads Ala. town uprooted themselves from their sharecropping life for an unfamiliar Midwestern city. Transplants would return with news of better jobs and more opportunities. Expatriates not only extolled the North’s virtues, they often made a show of their improved fortunes.

Likely recalls former Evergreen resident Aaron Samuels coming back in style to tout Omaha’s “booming packing houses.” He was hooked.

“This guy was down there bragging and I decided I would go with him to make some of that big money.”

Likely got on at the Cudahy packing plant. Before long he, too, returned South, strutting his own success, encouraging others to follow.

“I looked successful and I was successful. dressing nice and driving a nice car. I had money in my pocket. Some of them rode back out here with me. Quite a few of them. They just liked what they seen of me.”

Until the ’70s blacks traveling to the South “had to be very careful,” Likely says, to mind lingering Jim Crow attitudes and practices.

He says the motivation to migrate was not to chase some promised land but to pursue a better life. Down South families like his could never get ahead, always in debt to owners. He recalls earning 35 cents an hour as a farm hand and a few dollars for picking 350 pounds of cotton versus making ten times that laboring in Omaha.

Wilkerson says the economic imperative is what drove most black migrants: “They saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom. For the first time in their lives these people were the master of their own fate.”

The South’s cruelty and treachery were added motivations to flee. The man Nared’s named after, Richard “Bud” Nared, began the family’s exodus when he fled for his life. As his nephew tells it, Bud’s mother was riding home in a mule-pulled wagon from the local general store when several white men stopped and harassed her, tearing her blouse. When she got home, Bud extracted the men’s names, grabbed his Winchester and tracked them down, shooting and killing two of them. Under imminent threat of lynching Bud’s family and friends hid him in the woods before secreting him out at night. He went to Omaha, where Evergreen natives preceded him.

“Most of us came here because we had to. We had to leave the South in the middle of the night,” says Rich Nared.

Likely says some met their end or went missing. “I known ’em to get beat up, I known ’em to get killed, and some we don’t know what happened to ’em. Disappeared. Nobody’s seen ’em since. Had an uncle who left. Don’t know where he went.”

Wilkerson often encounters such stories. “I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North,” she says.

Likely himself had reason to fear for his safety. He says he once got into an altercation with a white store owner and rather than be hit with a stick the man brandished Likely clanged a can of beans off his head. When the owner came looking for him, firing a pistol in the direction of his home, Likely got a shotgun and sprayed a buckshot warning towards the man, who fled. Another time, Likely was in his car headed to a dance when he came upon a group of Klansmen barricading the highway. The mob tried pulling him from the vehicle but Lively managed to navigate a ditch and outrace his pursuers to Bruton, Ala., where he was arrested and jailed.

When the North beckoned, he went.

“I was tired of the South. I heard about up North you didn’t have to tolerate the white people as we done there. I had enough of that. I would have been dead now anyway because I just wouldn’t take it.”

The prospect of escaping Jim Crow constraints and Ku Klux Klan dangers and making decent living wages proved a powerful lure. Exiled Bud Nared persuaded family to join him North. Rich Nared came with his family at Bud’s urging.

“He sent for us,” Nared says. “He’s the reason we came up here.”

It’s much the same pattern immigrant families followed.

Picking up and moving was harder for some than others. Strong attachment to family and land is why many stayed put. White bosses could make leaving difficult. Then there was the fear of the unknown.

Other migration patterns saw blacks recruited to fill wartime work shortages. The Omaha Public Schools brought black teachers from the South through a federal program offering new hires graduate studies.

Nared was 4 when he arrived but the South was never far for him and his brothers as they spent every summer in Ala. with their grandparents.

“I loved the South,” says Nared, who walked behind his grandfather as he plowed. “I’m a country boy at heart.”

He’s proudly kept his country ways, too.

Likely notes some blacks who migrated here later returned home for good. Many adult children relocated to the South, where, he says, “They’re doing better than we are. It’s changed a lot.”

The Evergreen exiles are holding a July reunion in Ala. God willing, Nared and Likely will do their elder best to educate the young’uns about what once was.

Wilkerson’s talk is part of an annual lecture series by Countryside’s Center for Faith Studies.

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Part IV of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

March 11, 2012 4 comments

This is the final installment of my four-part Q&A with author Isabel Wilkerson about her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  Here, she explains in more detail some of the things that distinguished the migration of African-Americans from the South to all points North and West and why it was an event of such momentous impact in the nation’s history.  Wilkerson speaks April 12 in my burg, Omaha, Neb., and I for one plan to be there.

Part IV of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Omaha Star

The conclusion of my four-part interview with author Isabel Wilkerson explores some distinguishing features of the the migration experience covered in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Wilkerson will deliver a free talk about her book and sign copies April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street.

LAB: Blacks migrated to the North and West the way immigrants arrived.

IW: “The only way they could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”

LAB: Resistance to black migrants led to segregated enclaves that still exist. 

IW: “That in and of itself is a tragedy because much of this happened as a result of a complete misunderstanding of who the people were. The people who had arrived in these cities came from different parts of the world but they were all people of the land who had made this great leap of faith, the decision of their lives, and left all that they knew to take this great gamble that life might be better far from home. They landed in these big, forbidding, anonymous cities where their labor was wanted but there wasn’t clarity as what to do with the people.

“All of them were struggling, trying to make a way in this alien place. One group was pitted against the other as if they were direct competition to one another and what one got the other one was losing, and that’s one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, and we are still living with that to this day.”

LAB: Black migrants didn’t think in terms of participating in a movement, but they did.

IW: “It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themelves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom

“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me, and where things did not turn out as they hoped there’s a bittersweetness to the outcome for some people because they had made this great leap of faith and basically given up everything in order to take a chance on this place that had become a symbol of freedom for them. When it didn’t work out as they had hoped they then had to sort of regroup within their own minds and figure out how can we make this work in spite of the challenges.”

LAB: What about the black migration do we still not appreciate?

IW: “I came to the conclusion we often ask the wrong questions of any migration.

Was it a success or not a success cannot be answered in totality because each individual family would have a different answer to that question. Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration.

“For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to  plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self determination and an act of courage.”

The Omaha Star and The Reader (www.thereader.com) are collecting migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South email leo32158@cox.net or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

Part III of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

February 29, 2012 5 comments

The most significant book I have read in the past few years is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  I recently interviewed the author in advance of a talk she’s giving in Omaha, where I live.  The Omaha Star newspaper is running the Q&A I did with her in a four-part series, and I am sharing the series here.  If you’re anything like me and you thought you knew what African-Americans faced in the South that compelled so many to leave and migrate North and West, well, you soon find out in her book that there is a great deal about that experience that you didn’t have any clue about or any real undestanding of.  She tells this important story in a way that will capture your mind and your heart and prompt you to ask, “Why have I never heard of this before?”  I highly recommend the book and if you have a chance to hear her speak, I heartily recommend you listen.

Part III of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Omaha Star

Part III of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson describes how she came to focus on three protagonists in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The late Ida Mae Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling represent the major migration streams from the South.

Wilkerson will deliver a free talk about her book and sign copies April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in Omaha.

LAB: These three figures provide an intimate, inspiring prism into the migration.

IW: “I actually get inspired when I hear readers say they feel a connection to them because the goal was to have the reader see themselves in these people and imagine what would I have done had I been in this situation they were in.

“It’s a leap of faith to even settle on one person…that their story will carry forth in this narrative. I interviewed over 1,200 people. I narrowed it down to about 30, any of whom could have been the three, and then I narrowed it down to these three on the basis of multiple things. I needed to have one person to represent each of the migration streams. I needed to have people who left during different decades. And I needed to have people who left for different reasons.

“And I also needed people who would be distinctive on the page, people who you would recognize when you first get to them. I needed to have three beautifully flawed and yet accessible and full human beings through whom to tell the story. And people who were at the point in their lives when they would be willing to tell their story. And finally there had to be this connection between them and me because I was going to be with them for a very long time. It actually ended up being years. So you might call it chemistry.

“They were just delightfully full human beings who had a great sense of humor despite all they had been through.”

LAB: What do you most admire about them and what do you carry from each?

IW: “Each of them had distinctive survival techniques that gave a window for how anyone could survive any challenge they might face, even today. And I think I took something away from each one of them as a result of how they discovered what worked best for them to get through what they were enduring.

“For George it was this stalwart effort to confront and question and deal with the challenge head-on, no matter what the consequences. He chose the path of integrity whenever he was confronted with injustice and I think that is a tremendous lesson for anyone. It takes a great deal of courage to do that, to stand up for what you believe is right and to stand up against what you know in your heart to be wrong, and he did that, and he paid something of a price for it. He ended up having to flee for his life. He knew when to let go of a fight that was not winnable. The gift of perseverance and integrity I take from him.

“From Dr. Foster one learns the importance of excellence in all that you do. His view was it’s not worth doing unless you do it the best. He took it to an extreme.

“And from Ida Mae it’s a completely different message. It’s the one I often find myself turning to. I often hear people say, ‘I love Ida Mae,’ and I think they’re saying that because she’s the one who had the least resources of the three. She was born poor. She was a sharecroppers’ wife. They worked from sun-up to sun-down with very little in the way of renumeration. Her clothes were burlap sacks. She knew poverty beyond what most people can even imagine. The unpredictability and dangers faced on a daily basis would be beyond  the comprehension of modern day Americans

“And in spite of all that she had a way of looking at the world that was without judgment and rancor and bitterness and a sense of shame. She lived every day in the moment. It was second nature to her. She had a way of walling off negative emotions. She always looked at the world as the best it could possibly be in spite of all that she had seen, and I think that’s a lesson for everyone.”

Part II of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

February 19, 2012 6 comments

Part II of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, follows.  Wilkerson, who makes many appearances to speak about her book and its subject of the 20th century’s Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West, will present a free talk and signing April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in my hometown and place of residence, Omaha.  After reading her book and interviewing her there is no way I am going to miss her speak.  She has done a great service to the nation with her work connecting the dots of this epoch movement in history that so changed the face of America.  If you have not read her book, do so.  If you have an opportunity to hear her speak, go.  Her insights into how the migration proceeded and the impact this experience made on the participants and on the cities they left and settled in are fascinating and revelatory.

Building Networks for Leading Change - Day 2 - Isabel Wilkerson Book Signing 2 | by W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Isabel Wilkerson at a book signing

 

 

Part II of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Omaha Star

LAB: What interest in the Great Migration do you note in the wake of your book?

IW: “When I go out and talk about the book, wherever I go, there are people of all    backgrounds who show up. There was a woman who brought her father and they both came up and spoke with me and the daughter said, ‘Now that I’ve heard what you’ve said and I’ve got this book I’m taking him right now to a coffee shop and he’s going to tell me what happened.’ She was determined, and he agreed he would do so. So those are the kinds of things that are happening. Stories that had never been told or shared before people are feeling comfortable enough to talk about them.

“When I was in Columbus, Ohio a woman said after she read the book it made her think about how her family had gotten to Ohio and she immediately called her mother and said, ‘How did we get here?’ It turned out an uncle had been lynched and almost the entire family left as a result. Here she was in middle age and she had never known that, no one had ever sad anything. I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North. They had to get out immediately and they went to Cleveland or Detroit or New York or I’m assuming even to Omaha. The fact that people hadn’t talked about it meant there’s a whole world that has existed but no one knew about it and this book attempts to uncover that.

“This is a universal human story. I like to say black history is truly American history, For one thing much of black history involves white Americans. White abolitionists helped get black americans out of slavery. In the book there’s a case of white southerners who helped ferry a single black person out of Mississippi and it could not have been done without the involvement of white Mississippians and Alabamans who helped in this elaborate effort.”

 

Ida Mae Gladney Ida Mae Gladney Ida Mae Gladney

 

 

 

LAB: Did you grow up knowing about your family’s migration?

“No one in my family talked about the Great Migration in those terms. I knew where my mother and father had come from and I didn’t know why they did what they did or what the circumstances of their lives had been where they were from. In hindsight I am aware their circle of friends were all people from the South. But no one talked about it. It’s only in the course of the research for the book that I came to know things about my own family I didn’t know before.

“My mother was the most difficult interview of all. She did not want to talk about it. Her attitude was, ‘This happened a long time ago, why do you want to dredge up the past? what has this got to do with what were doing now? I left that a long time ago.’ The only reason she began to talk about it was I was working on the book and I told her things I was hearing and I read to her parts of the book, and then it would trigger some memory in her and make mention of something I had never heard of before.”

LAB: I imagine this suppressed history exacerbated the great open wound of race?

IW: “I completely agree with you. I talk to people all the time who have read the book…On my Facebook page I get a chance to see how it’s affected people or how they’re moved by the stories or to maybe do more research in their own family life or they see their grandparents or great grandparents and come to a greater sense of gratitude over what their forbearers did. Regardless of their background, migration is a human universal experience. It’s just a matter of knowing who and how and why they did what they did. The book triggers lots of memories.”

The Star and The Reader (www.thereader.com) are collecting migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South and ended up in Omaha or Greater Nebraska, then please email leo32158@cox.net or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

 
 

Part I of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

February 15, 2012 7 comments

One of the best nonfiction reads of my life is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. A journalist by trade, Wilkerson proves herself a historian of the first order with her exhaustive, compelling, always insightful, and often moving work about the sprawling, decades-long migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, West and points in between.  This epoch movement of people and culture  transformed the nation but went largely unreported in the mainstream media because it was not organized in any formal sense and it played out quietly in countless streams and currents and eddies over such long time and across such a vast expanse.  The Great Migration had no leader or organization.  Instead, each individual, couple, family, and group that made the courageous leap of faith to leave Jim Crow for a strange promised land far away acted independently in  asserting their self-determination. The mere act of leaving was as brave and militant a thing to do as any recognized civil rights action. The book has been out now for more than a year, but it took me awhile to catch up with it.  I am so glad I did.  As Wilkerson will be speaking about her book April 12 in Omaha, where I live, I recently interviewed her.  I am presenting the interview here in a four-part Q & A that will also run in The Omaha Star.  If you haven’t read the book, do so.  It  manages to do the seemingly impossible by taking on this epic story in all its complexity and scope and yet makes it an intimate journey by focusing on three individuals, Ida Mae, Robert, and George, who become the prism through which we experience the migration journey alongside them.  I thought I knew a lot about the black experience until she immersed me in this world, and now I realize how little I really do know and how much more I have yet to learn.

Part I of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the Omaha Star

 Isabel Wilkerson

This is the first of a four-part interview Leo Adam Biga conducted with award-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson about her 2010 best-seller, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Her critically praised book explores the mid-20th century African-American migration from the South to all points North and West.

Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, is giving a free book talk April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street. She’ll sign copies afterwards.

LAB: What were your hopes for the book?

IW: “I have many hopes for the book when it comes to the potential impact on the reader. This migration and demographic experience had been discussed primarily in scholarly terms until recently. My goal was first to try to understand what people who never spoke about what they had endured had actually been through. I really wanted to be able to hear the stories and make it possible for anyone who would listen to know what they had endured so it wouldn’t be lost to history.

“I felt the migration had such magnitude and impact on our country and yet it was not an entire chapter in 20th century history books. It did not command the attention I felt it deserved given how massive it was and how much it affected our culture. I find it surprising even now if you look at a high school history book that it’s just a paragraph if mentioned at all. I felt it needed to take its rightful place in history and that perhaps one way to do that would be to actually go back to the people who lived it and to convert their stories into a narrative people would want to read and live through the journey with them.

“I wanted to hear the stories before it was too late and to in some way validate the experiences of the people who lived it but who had been unwilling or unable or in too much pain to even talk about it.”

LAB: Has the book sparked more migration inquiries?

IW: “I have been reading newspaper stories from around the country where journalists have been inspired to go and interview people in their own communities who were part of this. Every single city in the North, the Midwest and the West was affected by this migration, so there would be people alive in all these cities that have been part of the migration. They’re getting up in years and their stories would need to be captured soon if they’re to be captured at all, and that’s the urgency with which I went about interviewing the 1,200 people I did. Because I was aware with each passing, day, month, year we were losing them, and with each person passing away you’re losing part of the archives before it can even be recorded.

“The interviews were in some ways like a casting call. I was auditioning people for the role of protagonist in the book, but in doing so I was also hearing many stories and building my own understanding and archive of what people endured. Not all of them clearly made it in the book but they all helped to inform the work and provided insight into some aspect I otherwise wouldn’t have understood. Hearing these things many times from different people helped make it a more authentic, richer work.”

LAB: Did the fact your parents were migrants add import for you?

IW: “Yes, my mother was from Georgia and my father from Virginia and they would never have met had there been no Great Migration, which is one of the realities that really inspired me to want to write this book. The majority of African-Americans and Americans on the whole had somebody in their backgrounds do what the people of this book did. Whatever the migration stream, whole new lineages and cultures were created. That’s what happens in a migration.

“I became really inspired by the idea a single decision can literally change certainly a family line but also even a country. I realized this was so much bigger than a simple move and I think perhaps it’s been misunderstood as that.”

NOTE:
The Star and The Reader are collecting African-American migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South email leo32158@cox.net or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

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