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Pulitzer Prize-winner discusses Great Migration

If it weren’t for the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson said the legend of Michael Jackson might have never been.

On Friday night, Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, spoke to about 250 attendees on the cultural effects and historical importance of the migration of black southerners in search of work between World War I and 1970.

Without moving to urban settings, Wilkerson said legends like Diana Ross, the Jackson 5 and Lorraine Hansberry would never have influenced American music and literature with their talent and creativity.

“We wouldn’t even know their names had there been no Great Migration,” she said.

Wilkerson said she gathered the information for her talk through 15 years and more than 1,200 interviews for her newly released book “Warmth of Other Suns.”

“If this were a human being, it would be in high school and dating,” she said.

In order to compile her lengthy work, Wilkerson visited multiple areas across the United States ranging from California to New York. While interviewing, she had challenges of her own.

“I had to find a way to get into the good graces of people,” she said.

She said the Great Migration was molded by the caste system created by Jim Crow laws and a lack of labor in the South.

The hierarchy-based caste system held blacks in an assigned social place by virtue of their birth and the color of their skin, Wilkerson said.

“People were artificially separate,” she noted.

The South had 90 percent of the nation’s blacks leading to an oversupply of cheap labor and an under-supply of work, she said. These problems prompted many to migrate, primarily to the North, Wilkerson added.

Approximately 6 million blacks relocated across the United States, bringing their past with them.

“These people were southern at heart — they may have left the South but the South never left them,” Wilkerson said.

She also talked about the cultural influences migrants and their descendants had on the nation.

While answering questions, Wilkerson said the Great Migration is the greatest under-reported story of the 20th century.

“I believe this is just the beginning of the work,” she said.

Nursing professor Rumay Alexander said Wilkerson’s speech was proof that people need to hear the stories of others.

“That history lives in me,” she said. ““All of us have the same struggles.”

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