Art Works Blog

Art Works Podcast: The Great Migration

Washington, DC

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, "Panel 1?During World War I, there was a great migration North by Southern African Americans." Image courtesy of Phillips Collection

The Great Migration is a milestone in United States history: the movement of about two million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the first part of the twentieth century. This was not just a change in demographics -- it was a whole-scale change in the country?s culture. Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America?s Great Migration, talks about the transfer of an entire culture in this week?s Art Works podcast. [2:07]

Hear Wilkerson talk about some of the cultural changes inspired by the Great Migration in the full podcast, including discussion on Richard Wright, Jacob Lawrence, and Louis Armstrong.


Transcript of conversation with Isabel Wilkerson

Jo Reed: In the midst of all this struggle, nonetheless, these people who came from the South also brought southern culture with them. And with that migration of culture, there came the transformation of American culture because of the Great Migration.

Isabel Wilkerson: You’re absolutely right. In fact, I think that’s one of the little known aftereffects that is so immense that it’s hard to even put it into context. This Great Migration was, in some ways, a transfer, not just of people, but of an entire culture. And once the people arrived in these northern and western cities by their exposure to the northern rhythms and metabolism, hearing inside their hearts and in their memories the language, the imagery, the music, the food, the culture of the South: there was a marriage of both North and South within the art and the cultural and creative expression of the people, but more importantly, I think just in a larger sense too, of their children, the children who had the opportunity to go to schools where they could actually go to school for an entire school year, as opposed to the few months when they were not needed in the field, where the children had the opportunity to just, say, take music lessons or to take art and to learn how to draw and to paint or to be able to go into a library, which they would not have been permitted to do in the South, to take out a library book something as simple-- that we take for granted now. And so many people come to mind who are the products of this Great Migration, who literally combined, changed the culture as we know it. Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison’s parents migrated from Alabama to Ohio By going to Ohio, she would have had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, be exposed to literature in a way she hadn’t before and just walk into a library and take out a book, which would not have been possible back in Alabama at the time that she was growing up.


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