Throughout Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a common thread emphasized: seeking asylum within the borders of your own country. Generally, one seeks asylum when they are facing prosecution in their home country and leaves that country to find protection and safety in a foreign country. Upon first glance, it seems impossible to seek asylum in the same country that is persecuting you. When you are being oppressed based on your racial identity, moving a few hours away doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to ensure your safety. Yet as Wilkerson explores during the Great Migration, Black Americans sought asylum in the North and West in an effort to escape the ever-present threat of lynching, the lack of access to education and jobs, and constant legal and social mistreatment to escape the racially charged laws of the South.
Leaving the South was not an easy decision, yet it appeared to be a necessary one to obtain better opportunities and safety. Throughout her book, Wilkerson provides vivid descriptions of the disturbingly common lynchings in the South. One of the most traumatic experiences of living in the South during this time was never knowing if you or a close loved one would be lynched based on the whims of the white community. Minor “infractions” such as whistling near a white person and larger “infractions” such as showing romantic interest in someone of a different race could lead to the same outcome: being hunted and tortured by white people. The brutal execution of Claude Neal served as an explicit reminder of the racial animosity and constant threat of death Black people were forced to endure. The racially charged de jure laws of the South that separated water fountains and bus seats held the door open for de facto animosity within the social lives of Black and white communities. In combination, the de jure and de facto laws in the South allowed for the white population to seek undeserved vengeance on Black people without facing legal repercussions. The murderers of Claude Neal were never charged with a crime or even questioned by police. When George Starling was almost lynched for beginning a strike at the orange groves, law enforcement did not try to calm the white mob or make it dissipate. Instead, the white masses who reveled in the torment and agony they inflicted on Black bodies were protected by the racially charged social laws of the South. It took sixty-five years for Emmett Till’s death to find some meaning in the law through the Emmett Till Antilynching Act Emmett Till’s death was both avoidable and unnecessary. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act is a late band-aid solution to a centuries-long problem that brought trauma and destruction to the Black community.
There’s no easy way to determine whether the migrants achieved the freedom or success they were looking for in the North. People such as Robert Pershing Foster were able to find great economic success at the expense of their Southern roots. Ida Mae Gladney may not have found wealth but was able to reconcile her anger at the past and move on without letting go of her roots. While black people living in the North did not have to worry about lynch mobs to the same extent as their counterparts in the South, they had to worry about limited housing and low wages that did not match the cost of living in their cities. The North contained facially neutral laws. These types of laws are ones that are not discriminatory on their face but it is discriminatory in their application or effect. In the North, redlining was a systematic denial of certain communities and neighborhoods. Banks would specifically choose not to invest in certain areas based on the racial makeup of the neighborhoods. Funding for public schools was allocated according to property taxes, resulting in more funding for schools in white suburban neighborhoods where homes were bigger, and less funding for schools in more condensed, Black neighborhoods where homes were smaller. These are some of the ways racism and inequality reared their ugly head in the so-called “freedom land” that was the North.
Ultimately, we do not believe that the individuals who moved found asylum themselves. Instead, they helped pave the way for future generations to have a home in different states around the country. However, future generations found asylum in the opportunities created by the great migration pioneers like Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster.