Harrowing accounts like these pepper the book, underscoring the migrants' strength and determination to survive — and thrive — under "the warmth of other suns" (the phrase comes from novelist Richard Wright). Before setting foot on the streets of Chicago, Gladney had never even thought about voting. Indeed, no black person she had known back in Mississippi would have dared to talk openly about such a right. But in the Windy City she was free to vote for the first time — and did so in the 1940 presidential election, casting her ballot for Franklin D. Roosevelt. That positive civic experience proved redemptive, motivating Gladney to go several steps further and volunteer as a poll worker.
And what of Foster? Gregarious and open, he made his way to California, embraced the flashy glamour of Los Angeles and became the personal physician for Ray Charles. Foster also built a thriving medical practice serving L.A.'s burgeoning community of black working people.
The winds of change that blew these 5.5 million migrants up and out of the American South turned out to be a gentle buffeting compared with the gale-force struggles ahead: "These are the stories of the forgotten, aggrieved, wishful generation between the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement," writes Wilkerson, "whose private ambition for something better made a way for those who followed."
The Warmth of Other Suns reveals some thought-provoking particulars about these wayfarers. Though migrants of the 1940s had about two years' less education than the blacks they encountered in the North, all that changed in the 1950s: In many of the cities where black migrants settled — including New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia and St. Louis — their high school graduation rates exceeded those of the established white residents.
Not only that, notes Wilkerson, but migrants were "more likely to be married and remain married, less likely to bear children out of wedlock, and less likely to head single-parent households than the black northerners they encountered at their destinations."
If a sadness overshadows the later years of the three pilgrims we follow throughout the book, Wilkerson draws no larger lessons from their fates, and I’m glad she hasn’t tried: That story — of inner-city black America — would require another book. Starling died Sept. 3, 1998. He had been living in the Harlem brownstone he owned, ruing the toll he believed his lengthy absences as a porter had taken on his children's lives. Gladney was still alive when the book was published in September, trapped in a crime-ridden Chicago neighborhood but managing to live there with dignity and respect. And Foster spent his last years on the staff of a Veterans Affairs hospital, a flashy bon vivant "exiled," he felt, to an office near some dirty bathrooms. Undergoing dialysis and beset with cancer and heart ailments, Foster died Aug. 6, 1997.
True to the book's subtitle, America's great migration makes an epic tale indeed — not just for its size and scale, but also because Wilkerson has accomplished a storytelling feat in the classical tradition of The Odyssey, Beowulf and the tales of Sundiata and Mansa Musa.
I am not a fan of confining black history to a single, officially celebrated month. But as February happens to be that month, I can think of no better access point than The Warmth of Other Suns.
Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a journalist and author. His latest book — On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail — was published by Algonquin Books in 2008.