Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

An American Story of Freedom: Nobel Prize Winning Author Explores the Impact of the Great Migration

On Wednesday, Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, spoke to the Salve Regina University community about the historical significance of the Great Migration.

The Great Migration refers to the diaspora of African Americans from the South to the other parts of the United States throughout the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, 90% of African Americans lived in the South. By the 1970s, nearly 50% of the African American population were dispersed across the country.

Wilkerson said the six million African Americans who left the South to break free from what she called the “southern caste system,” because African Americans were “subjected to an artificial hierarchy based upon what they look like.” While driving, African Americans were not allowed to pass white drivers on the road, not matter how slow a white man drove. In court, African Americans and whites had a separate Bible. On the plantations, they worked  without earning real wages–as slaves or sharecroppers, African Americans worked to live on the land.

On average, one lynching of an African American occurred every four days. Wilkerson found the reasons for lynching were trivial, but “acting like a white person” was the common.


What Wilkerson lamented most about the violence committed to African Americans since the 1600s was the fact that there were “generations and generations who did not have the chance to live out their God given talents.” Wilkerson also stressed the nation’s loss of one region holding down an entire people to the detriment of the nation’s well-being.

African Americans who left the South during the Great Migration finally had the chance to choose who they wanted to become. After enduring decades of oppression, African Americans now had the ability to exercise their rights as American citizens they could not before.

The journey to exit the South, however, was not easy. The sacrifices and decisions that had to be made were hard.

Yet, if it were not for the Great Migration–if those sacrifices and decisions were not made–the world would be a very different place. Toni Morrison, Jesse Owens, and the Jacksons were only a few of the talented African Americans mentioned by Wilkerson who would not have existed had their parents not migrated from the South.

Wilkerson learned the stories of African Americans who had journeyed from the South to all over the United States–Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, or even Alaska. By the time Wilkerson finished writing The Warmth of Other Suns, it took her 15 years and roughly 1,200 interviews to complete–she described the process as a “truly defining” journey.

The historical content of the book may focus on the Great Migration and the story of African Americans, but Wilkerson believes “it’s actually about something that touches all of us: freedom.”


“An Evening with Isabel Wilkerson” was made possible by Mosaic, Salve Regina University’s student newspaper; the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy; the Office of Academic Affairs, the Office of Mission Integration and the McKillop Library.

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