An unfortunate blemish in America's past has been the harsh treatment of African-Americans by the white members of the population. Harsh racial prejudices were most rampant in the American south where African-Americans were deprived the right to vote, were forcibly segregated from the white community, and could be beaten, raped, and murdered on the slightest provocation. For all these reasons, many African-Americans fled the south and migrated into the northern states. Although African-Americans were still treated poorly in many parts of the north, it was far better for them than what they had experienced in the southern states. In Isabel Wilkerson's book The Warmth of Others Suns written in 2010, the author explores what it would have been like for African-Americans who left the oppression of the south in order to find relative freedom from persecution in the north. The book features the stories of three of the African-Americans who migrated to the north, including Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, the wife of a sharecropper who left Mississippi in the 1930's and went to Chicago, Illinois to escape financial and social depression.
History of the Great Migration:
During the period known as the Great Migration some six million African-Americans relocated out of rural areas in the southern states and moved to the Northeast, Midwest, and to the West coast of the United States in order to find a better way of life for themselves. To quantify exactly how many people left the south during this time, historians have determined that at the turn of the twentieth century less than 750,000 African-Americans lived outside the southern region of the United States. By 1970, some 10.6 million African-Americans lived outside the south (Gregory 18). The First Migration took place in the two decades preceding the Great Depression and the Second took place between 1940 and 1970 with the majority of African-Americans leaving during the Second phase of the Great Migration, with a ten-year lull occurring between the two.
According to historians, the Great Depression and the loss of jobs opportunities prevented large numbers of migration during the 1930s although some people, like Ida Mae Brandon, did leave the south during this time. Even without the promise of potential work, the circumstances in the south were so bad that many felt it was worth risking starvation in the north if it meant being free of the terror going on in the south. Families and friends were left behind, sometimes never to be seen again. Survival and progress meant taking a train and starting anew in a less restricted part of the country, a place where an African-American still might not be considered an equal but where being darker skinned did not have such major consequences. Primarily those who left the south chose large cities like Chicago and New York City to make their new homes because the expansion of the metropolises would be likely to ensure the chance of employment.
Chicago was the first destination for the earliest travelers of the Great Migration. Although things were considerably better for most African-Americans in the north, there was still a great deal of trouble for those who migrated from the south. Newspapers from the era report that some Chicago residents believed that the migration would mean hardship for the hardworking men and women of Illinois. These aspersions were not limited to members of the Caucasian community. Even E. Franklin Frazier, a distinguished sociologist who also happened to be an African-American condemned the migrants as "ignorant, uncouth and impoverished" (Oshinsky). Interestingly, any violence that broke out between migrants and those already living in Chicago were instigated by Irish and European immigrants who were themselves new to the city. New immigrants tended to fear the African-American migrants because if they were employed in the factories and industrial positions, then there would be fewer jobs for immigrants to fill. In addition to job competition, immigrants and migrants also fought over housing. This created neighborhoods which would either be African-American or predominantly composed of immigrants (Gotham 291). The anger felt between the varying groups led to segregation of ethnicities in what were primarily the worst areas of the large cities. Even so, the north was a better place to be than the south as is made evident in the three biographies shown in The Warmth of Other Suns.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney as a Character:
From as far back as she could remember Ida Mae had been instructed on how to survive in the American south. The first rule was that the white people were always right and that African-Americans were always wrong. Whites had all rights within the society and African-Americans had none. When she was only thirteen years old Ida Mae learned of two young men in the community who were lynched by a mob of angry white people. Their great crime was that "they said something to the white lady" (Wilkerson 35). What exactly they said is unknown but it was probably a compliment which was unwanted or perhaps even a sassy response to a request, something innocuous that most children in the modern era have perpetrated over and over again. They might not even have actually said anything to the woman, but were merely supposed to have said it. No evidence or witnesses were necessary to convict an African-American and to sentence him or her to death.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney travelled to Chicago to escape the life she knew in rural Mississippi. As a sharecropper's wife, all she had known was hard, back-breaking work alongside her husband in the humid and stifling Mississippi sun. It is especially interesting how, in the first few pages of the book, Wilkerson explains that Ida and her family had to leave in secret. "There was no explaining to little James and Velma the stuffed bags and chaos and all that was at stake or why they had to put on their shoes and not cry and bring undue attention from anyone who might happen to see them leaving. Things had to look normal, like any other time they might ride into town" (Wilkerson 4). Despite the fact that the Gladneys were not doing anything illegal by leaving Mississippi, they were still afraid lest someone discover their plan and either attempt to thwart them or punish them unfairly for daring to hope they could move away from white oppression.
In terms of oppression of the rights of African-Americans, Mississippi was one of the worst. Social mobility was nearly impossible for African-Americans living in the state. Those who were born into low class families with little food and no security would likely die in those same circumstances. The actions of the white men in power served to keep African-Americans in poverty as with the case of George Gladney and the white landowner Mr. Edd. Each year despite laboring on the crops and working by the sweat of their backs, the Gladneys would only have a few dollars for themselves. Mr. Edd would use his position to "prove" that the rest of the earnings were his as they would go to such things as repaying Edd for supplies which were purchased on credit. Even if the Gladneys could show that Edd was cheating them, trying to prove so would more than likely lead to violence. This segment of the book shows the reader just how dire the situation was for George and Ida Mae Gladney and how their only chance of survival was to flee their home state lest they wind up like one of their relatives who was beaten nearly to death because of the mere suspicion that he had cheated a white man. The separation between white people and black people in the south is not only palpable, but it is definite and African-Americans dared not cross it often.
In the north, Gladney never became wealthy but she was able to move up the social ladder to a degree, meting out a comfortable living and being able to afford more than just the basic necessities of life. She lives in a low income area with a great deal of crime, including drug sales, prostitution, and shooting of young people. These are all common, but Ida Mae does not seem particularly upset by this. Such violence has been common in the north for some time and what is more, even as rampant as the evil around her is, it pales in comparison to the everyday racism Gladney and her family experienced when they lived in the south. Perhaps the most poignant part of her story is when, as an elderly woman, Ida Mae cast her vote for Barack Obama when he ran for Senator in New York. Whereas seventy years before, Gladney had been effectively forced from her home in order to achieve even a slight measure of equality including the ability to vote which is guaranteed in the Constitution, she now was able to cast her vote for a fellow African-American.