Over the course of four years in this job, I thought I’d been to just about every venue in the Twin Cities—but invitations to events at the Minneapolis Club don’t come often. It’s the ivy-covered mansion at 8th Street South and 2nd Avenue South, and the interior of the exclusive club is just what you’d expect. A photo hangs inside the door as tribute to a faithful dog who died decades ago. Signs request that members restrict their cell phone use to the first-floor phone booths. There’s a concierge at the front desk, and when you ask him a question, he leans forward with an air of utmost attentiveness and discretion, like you’re President Obama looking for the restroom.
There on Friday morning, after climbing two flights of stairs lined with the portraits of former club officers—all white, all but one male as far as I saw—I attended a breakfast with the writer Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns. The event, sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio, was invite-only for supporters and press, but the public had two chances to hear Wilkerson while she was in town: she spoke at the University of St. Thomas and appeared at a fundraiser for our media partner ThreeSixty Journalism.
The Warmth of Other Suns is an epic history of the Great Migration: the mass exodus of African-Americans from the south to the north and west during the half-century from the 1910s to the 1970s. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning former bureau chief for the New York Times, has been winning acclaim and traveling around the world talking about the book, which tells its story through the eyes of three representative participants interviewed at length by Wilkerson.
It’s an important book, bringing to light the Jim Crow caste system, which Wilkerson says is almost unimaginable to Americans today. On Friday morning she said that she deliberately avoided making mention of segregated bathrooms and water fountains, since those have been so often cited they’ve become iconic rather than illustrative. Instead, she shares other horrendously telling details such as the fact that blacks and whites were forbidden by ordinance in one southern city from playing checkers together, and the fact that in many places black motorists were not allowed to overtake white motorists on roads.
Wilkerson also makes the case that the Great Migration is an event that has received too little historical attention—in part because its participants didn’t want to talk about their painful memories. “They told me things they hadn’t told their own children,” Wilkerson said about her elderly subjects.
Talking about the book now, the stylish and articulate Wilkerson speaks with passion: it’s clear that, even after a year of talking about nothing but The Warmth of Other Suns, she’s not burned out. She’s brought an essential American story to light, and perhaps the best thing about the book—I realized as Wilkerson concluded her remarks and the African-American women at my table started talking about their own family histories—is that it’s inspiring others to share their stories too, and to remember that from recent Somali immigrants to people like me whose ancestors came over from Europe in the 19th century to Native Americans whose ancestors crossed the Bering Strait long before that, we’re all migrants here.
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.