Black history and America’s Great Migration

Bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson speaks at NAVAIR’s Black History Month event Feb. 21, where she outlined why the Great Migration is ultimately the story of millions of Americans who became immigrants in their own country as they sought to be recognized as citizens.

Freedom. How far are you willing to go to achieve it?

That was the theme of a presentation by bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson, whose book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” details the movement of 6 million African-Americans from the southern U.S. to points north, west and Midwest from 1915 to 1970. Wilkerson spoke as part of NAVAIR’s Black History Month event Feb. 21.

“When we think of the word ‘migration,’” she said, “we get focused on the geography, not why people are doing what they’re doing. The difference with this migration is this was the only time in American history that Americans had to flee the land of their birth to be recognized as the citizens they had always been. This migration was not a move; it was a defection, seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country.”

Wilkerson spent 15 years researching and writing her book. She said many Americans have migration to thank for being where they are today and described how the Great Migration opened doors into areas that had been previously denied to African-Americans in arts, sports, science, technology and politics.

“The Great Migration allowed an unfurling of creativity that had been held back for so long. This was a leaderless revolution; the people individually, assessing their situation and dreaming of something better, were able to do what a president of the United States – Abraham Lincoln – was unable do, what the powers that be, north and south, could not or would not do: They freed themselves of a caste system,” she said.

The caste system was the “strict and ironclad” Jim Crow laws that governed the South and turned simple things, such as an African-American playing checkers with a white person, or an African-American passing a white motorist, into a crime.

“You had to stay in your place, that’s what it means to be in a caste system,” she explained. The consequences could mean death; for example, during a certain period, every three to four days in the American South, there was a lynching.

For Wilkerson, the biggest folly was the loss of talent from slavery to Jim Crow.

“Think of the loss to our country – 12 generations who could not pursue their dreams,” she lamented. “Think of the loss of energy and expenditure of resources – to hold someone down in a ditch, you have to get into the ditch with them. Neither of you are able to be what you could be. What a tremendous waste of energy to our country.”

The Great Migration changed the country, Wilkerson said, bringing jazz, Motown, rhythm and blues, hip-hop music. It brought John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Jimi Hendrix, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Romare Bearden, Malcolm X, Jesse Owens, Bill Russell, Denzel Washington, Michelle Obama — all children or grandchildren of the Great Migration. It changed the cultural and political landscape of the U.S., exerting pressure on the South to change and paving the way toward equal rights.

Wilkerson is the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, and the first African-American to win for individual reporting. During the Great Migration, her parents journeyed from Georgia and southern Virginia to Washington, D.C., where she was born and raised.

John Meyers, an executive champion of NAVAIR’s African-American Pipelines Advisory Team, which co-sponsored the event with the Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Division, thanked Wilkerson for her story.

“You’ve left us with a greater sense of hope and enthusiasm,” he said.

The team focuses on planning and development, recruitment and talent pools for leadership roles among NAVAIR’s African-American employees.