Author Isabel Wilkerson.
Author Isabel Wilkerson. - 
Listen To The Story


Kai Ryssdal: The Census bureau released a report on black-owned businesses this week. From 2002 to 2007 -- that's the data set -- the number increased at a rate three times that of non-black owned companies. In places like Atlanta, the increase was more than 90 percent higher. Atlanta may be a hub, but the growth happened all over the country, in particular in the north -- states like New York, New Jersey and Illinois. In that vein, we are having some conversations on the program this month about the African American economic experience.

Today, commentator and author Isabel Wilkerson.

Isabel Wilkerson: My parents were born in this country -- my mother in Georgia, my father in Virginia. Our roots are deep in America. But like the majority of African-Americans you might meet in the North and West, I am descended from people who had to seek a kind of political asylum within the borders of their own country.

From World War I until 1970, some six million African-Americans fled the South with the same dreams as anyone crossing the Atlantic or the Rio Grande. They defected a caste system that made it illegal for a black person and a white person to play checkers together in Birmingham. The movement was called the Great Migration.

Economics played a role. Before the Great Migration, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. They were virtual captives despite the Emancipation Proclamation. An oversupply of black labor held down their wages, and they had few options elsewhere.

But World War I changed everything. The North was suffering a labor shortage and began recruiting black workers. The South resisted this poaching of its cheap labor by arresting blacks from railroad platforms and imposing fees of $25,000 on northern recruiters. But the people kept leaving until the caste system built to confine black labor finally collapsed after the Civil Rights era. By the end of this Great Migration, nearly half of all black Americans were living outside the South in the great arc of the North and West.

It is virtually impossible now to extract the culture that grew out of the Great Migration from American culture. The music of Miles Davis, the literature of Toni Morrison, the plays of August Wilson might never have been written. It was the unsung decisions of their parents, like those of mine, that helped change America and left a legacy of inspiration for all of us.

Ryssdal: Isabel Wilkerson's book on the Great Migration is called "The Warmth of Other Suns." You can read an excerpt at our new book blog.