Required Reading: 

  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, New York City: Random House. [Note: This is a large but astoundingly beautiful & well researched book that interweaves the lives of three people from the Great Migration. The narratives of  Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and  Ida Mae Brandon Gladney will be the most pertinent as they go to Chicago, IL and Los Angeles, CA, but I encourage you to read the entire book]
  • Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. Read Part II [On course iSite]
  • *Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, Excerpts [Intro & Chapter 3 on course iSite. Pay attention to how he frames & introduces his project in terms of thinking about your own research. If you’re interested in structural and political changes leading to gentrification, read this book.]
  • NYPL’s digital database of The Negro Traveler’s Green BookThis annual directory listed the safe / legal hotels, gas stations, stores, and restaurants black travelers could legally use during Jim Crow America.

Visual & Literary Options: 


Blog Prompt: 

  • Free write: Look at the University of South Carolina’s digital map plotting the safe rest points and accommodations listed in the Negro Traveler’s Green Book for black migrants going West (the map can be found here) and theWhat do you notice about this database and map, especially in the U.S. West? How does this map illuminate or counter the migration experience of Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and the aims of the Highway Act? What conclusions can you draw from this database and map in relation to our readings this week? How does your understanding of the role of transportation in either the U.S. West or Civil Rights Movement change?

Los Angeles is not paradise, much as the sight of its lilies and roses might lead one at first to believe. The color line is there and sharply drawn.

–W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Negro in Los Angeles” The Crisis, 6 August 1913

Guided Reading Questions: 

  • Was the North a fertile ground for the civil rights movement or did northern race relations differ radically from the South?
  • What were the cultural, social, economic, and familial pushes and pulls of the Great Migration? Were the pulls incentivized by the federal government or private corporations?
  • What was the relationship between “new migrants” and “old settlers?
  • Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns uses a biographical perspective based off of oral history interviews to frame the historical meaning and experience of the Great Migration.  This is the first book we’ve read that predominantly relies on oral testimony as opposed to archival evidence. What do you consider to be the strengths of this methodological approach? What are the limitations?
  • How is the story of Los Angeles & Oakland different when you take the multiethnic reality of black migrants co-existing with Mexican and Asian Americans into account? What about the suburbs of the West?
  • What are the positive cultural legacies of the Great Migration?
  • According to Self and Flamming, what challenges did the Great Migration create that we, as a nation, are still dealing with today?

Little Known History of Juan Crow: “The Law of the Noose: A History of Latino Lynchings” (Harvard Civil Rights & Liberties Law Review) &  When Americans Lynched Mexicans (New York Times) 


Here is a lecture and reading Isabel Wilkerson gave at the Harvard Book Store when Warmth of Other Suns was first released.

I originally attended to show the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” for our third film screening (which will be replaced by our master class), but I highly recommend this coming of age documentary (which followed two young men trying to make it in basketball for seven years) to anyone interested in issues of urban segregation, education inequality, class, the war on drugs, and Chicago culture in the 80s-90s. It is currently available on Netflix & usually made Roger Ebert’s top 10 film lists.

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Early Great Migration Music (remember when we briefly discussed migrations on trains? Here are the trains…)

Robert Johnson “Sweet Home Chicago”

“‘In Robert Johnson’s line, “I’m going to California, to my sweet home Chicago,’ Johnson’s conflation of the two destinations gives his declaration the character of fantasy. It makes something mythological of the idea of travel in the black experience of the Great Migration through the 1920s and 1930s, and in the blues records that accompanied the migrants and suffused their travels with the presence of fatefulness and the urgency of desire, with the loss and humor of the immigrant, with the poignancy of confusion and the sweetness of arrival. The differences and distance between California and Chicago had little meaning in Johnson’s psychic landscape; the distinction between them was overpowered by the overwhelming impulse to leave. That impulse—its causes and the migrants’ response to it—was so powerful that, along the Mississippi today, its echo still sounds.” –Louis Mazzari, “Key to the Highway: Blues Records & the Great Migration”

Henry Thomas – “Railroadin’ Some – Texas Ragtime”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe “This Train” (Notice the segregated audience)

John Lee Hooker “Train Kept A Rollin'”

Mississippi Fred McDowell “Freight Train Blues”

Duke Ellington “Daybreak Express”

Lead Belly “Midnight Special”

Nina Simone “Mississippi Goddamn” (1964)

The Staples Singers “Freedom Highway” (1965)

Elizabeth Cotten “Freight Train”



Arguably the most successful label of the Great Migration that transformed the entire American cultural landscape was “Motown Records” based in Detroit, MI and then Los Angeles, CA. Motown discovered The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, The Supremes, David Ruffin, Mary Wells, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, and Michael Jackson.

Martha & The Vandella’s “Dancing in the Street” on Motown Records is famous for using tire irons, anvils, and other factory machinery used in Great Migration jobs to create the song’s supporting rhythm.

Marvin Gaye

Want to learn more? Check out these readings: 


  • Richard Wright, Black Boy
  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
  • Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)
  • Dorothy West, The Living Is Easy (1948)

History Texts: 

  • Kurashige, Scott The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multi-ethnic Los Angeles (2008)
  • Taylor, Quintard, “The Civil Rights Movement in the American West: Black Protest in Seattle, 1960-1970,”Journal of Negro History 80 (Winter 1995): 1-14
  • Hansberry v. Lee (1937)
  • Hirsch, Arnold R.“Massive Resistance in the Urban North: Trumbull Park, Chicago, 1953-1966”Journal of American History. 82 (September, 1995)
  • Ralph, James R.Northern Protest, Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago and the Civil Rights Movement (1993)
  • Cohen, LizA Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2004), ch. 5: “Residential Inequality in Mass Suburbia”
  • Lassiter, Matthew D. “De Jure/De Facto, Segregation: The Long Shadow of a National Myth,” in Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, ed. The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (2010(), pp. 25-48
  • Davarian Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

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