Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, and George Swanson Starling never knew each other, nor did they live in the same time or place — yet they all had something in common: they each participated in the Great Migration and for parallel reasons. Through this gritty chronicle of their lives, we earn a deeper appreciation for how the Jim Crow south drove millions of black folks northward and westward, in desperate search of freedom and civil rights. We also see how they experienced both successes and failures when they arrived.
This impressive work of non-fiction reads like part novel/part PhD thesis, but as a whole, it works. The parts that tell the story of each of these individuals’ lives are profoundly beautiful and what drive the book forward. The author delivers their stories with such tenderness and detail that she lifts each of them off of the page and brings them into the room with you, bringing with them their hopes and their heartaches. And interwoven with their stories is the historical context in which they are living. The author zooms out to portray the larger picture of what is happening — what wars, economic factors, or local social affairs, sometimes graphic, are impacting our 3 protagonists at the time. This sometimes gets quite dense, but it definitely contributes a great deal to the depth of the story.
The larger question is this: Did those who risked their lives, often sneaking out in the middle of the night, to migrate to the north/west fare better than those who stayed in the south? I believe this is a complex question and one the author was seeking to answer with the writing of this book. Those who left were desperately seeking a chance to be recognized as individuals who deserved their civil rights under the law, to be seen as equal to everyone else. When they arrived in the north and/or west, they were allowed to sit anywhere on the bus and to drink at any water fountain. But they definitely were not treated as equals to everyone else in their their job searches or their housing purchases.
I’d be very interested to hear your opinion about the conclusions drawn in this book. It’s an important discussion.