The Warmth of Other Suns

Milwaukee was a frank and clattering workhouse of a town, a concrete smokestack of a place with trolley cars clanking against a web of power lines and telephone cables filling the sky. Curls of steam rose from the rooftops and factory silos and from the gray hulk of the Schlitz brewery over by the Cherry Street Bridge.

“It was the other side of the world from the wide-open quiet land of the cotton fields.

This was Milwaukee in 1937 as described by Isabel Wilkerson in her wonderful book, The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The book attracted a lot of attention when it appeared in 2010 and it merits continued notice even if newspaper critics and talk show hosts have covered it and moved on.

Its subject is the migration of millions of African-Americans from the states of the old Confederacy to the cities of the Northeast, Midwest and California that began prior to World War I and continued into the 1970s.

They fled from an all-encompassing environment of relentless dehumanization, economic impoverishment, and arbitrary, brutal violence. It wasn’t just segregation on buses, in bathrooms and at water fountains, although that was bad enough. It was impeding, hampering, denying “colored” children access to education. It was keeping their parents enserfed on sharecropped farms or in the lowest-paying, lowest-skilled jobs. It was making a fiction of the constitutional right to equal protection under the law that thousands of Americans, black and white, had fought to preserve,

So they left, by the million. By Wilkerson’s estimate, six million boarded the “colored only” cars of the Seaboard and Illinois Central railroads, crowded into the back seats of Greyhound buses, or set off in autos not knowing if they would find a restaurant where they could eat, a hotel with a room they could rent, or a gas station with a restroom open to them.

Six million is a statistic. One life is a story and Wilkerson focuses on three that add to her work’s power and meaningfulness. Only one touches on Wisconsin, that of Ida Mae Gladney. She came north with her husband George from Mississippi to Milwaukee in 1937 because her sister was already in town. George was unable to find work, so the Gladneys moved to the south side of Chicago, but their lives played out like that of many who settled on the north side of Milwaukee.

They did not strike it rich, raise daughters who sang for Motown, or sons who played for the Bulls. They worked at low-skill, blue collar jobs, skimped and saved for decades until they could afford a modest home of their own in what would prove to be one of the most racially segregated cities in America. It was not the Garden of Eden, but it was better than the Mississippi they had left.

Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities were not major destinations for southern states’ migrants, but the African-American population of Milwaukee increased from less than one thousand to nearly one-quarter million in the 20th Century. Those are statistics. Each life is a story.

We cannot know them all, but Isabel Wilkerson gives us a taste and whets the appetite to learn more.

–Michael Goc

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