The best books on the great Black migration

Mark Whitaker Author Of Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance
By Mark Whitaker

The Books I Picked & Why

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Why this book?

Former New York Times correspondent Isabel Wilkerson spent a decade reporting this exquisitely written book, which traces the broad arc of the migration that brought six million blacks from the rural South to the industrial North between 1915 and 1970, and reconstructs in novelistic detail how it shaped the lives of three migrants. By the end of its more than 600 pages, you come to know her three subjects—former sharecropper Ida Mae Gladney of Chicago, Harlem striver George Starling and Los Angeles surgeon Robert Foster—intimately, and to understood both the dreams that drove their relocation and the poignant personal toll it took.


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The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

By Nicholas Lemann

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

Why this book?

The first journalist and popular historian to devote an entire volume to the Great Migration, Nicholas Lemann is particularly insightful about how the exodus changed the demographics and politics of Northern cities, and by extension the shape of the modern Democratic and Republican parties and the great social policy battles of the post-World War II era. Written a decade before this New Orleans native became the Dean of the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, Lemann’s book provides a master class in explanatory reporting.


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Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man

Why this book?

Long taught in high school and college English classes as the existential tale of one Black man’s search for identity, the odyssey of Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator can also be viewed as an allegory for the collective experience of the Great Migration. In conjuring up his protagonist’s Southern upbringing and education at a revered historically Black college and struggles as a newcomer to the political cauldron of Harlem, Ellison masterfully reframes the stereotypical images of the South as a racist hell, and the North as a welcoming Mecca, for Blacks in the pre-Civil Rights Movement era.


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Black Detroit: A People's History of Self-Determination

By Herb Boyd

Black Detroit: A People's History of Self-Determination

Why this book?

An Alabama native who moved to Detroit as a young child, renowned Black press reporter Herb Boyd paints a lively, knowing portrait of the world that his fellow Southern migrants and their offspring made in his hometown. The sweeping study examines the role that Blacks played in shaping the American car industry and autoworkers union, and fleshes out the backstories of legends who were raised or came of age in Detroit and went on to transform our national culture, from Malcolm X and Aretha Franklin to record mogul Barry Gordy and the young local musicians who became the superstars of Motown Records.


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South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration

By Marcia Chatelain

South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration

Why this book?

Mining contemporaneous news accounts, personal letters and diaries, and dozens of in-depth interviews, scholar Marcia Chatelain explores the impact that the Great Migration had on a generation of young Black Chicago women, who coped with coming of age in the urban North while shouldering the expectations and aspirations of their uprooted parents. Anyone new to Chatelain’s work should also check out her next and equally original book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, a study of the deeply mixed legacy of McDonald’s restaurants in Black neighborhoods that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for History.


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