Just 24 hours after registration opened for the fourth lecture in the 2016–17 Jepson Leadership Forum speaker series “Reconstruction and the Arc of Racial (In)Justice,” nearly 600 people had registered to hear Isabel Wilkerson discuss The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The event, originally scheduled to take place in the Jepson Alumni Center was moved to Cannon Memorial Chapel to accommodate a larger audience. Even then, when the bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist stepped up to the podium on January 24, the Chapel was packed with standing room only in the back.
“I’m here to talk about not just the importance of history but the necessity of history,” said Wilkerson.
Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of three young African Americans who fled oppression in the South under Jim Crow laws to seek a better life in the North.
Before the lecture, Natalie Dowzicky, ’18, sat down with Wilkerson for the Jepson Leadership Forum Take 5 interview series. She asked the author about her experience interviewing and researching The Warmth of Other Suns.
“I think the goal of what I do, which is narrative nonfiction, is to put the reader or the audience into the hearts and minds of the person I’m writing about,” said Wilkerson. “You get a chance to actually experience what they’re going through, and it’s a way of understanding circumstances or part of history that you wouldn’t really be able to understand or be able to absorb in any other way,” said Wilkerson.
Wilkerson’s lecture focused on the commonalities faced by migrants, as well as the cultural significance of the migration of African Americans to the North.
“This was the first time in our country’s history that the lowest caste signaled that they had choices,” explained Wilkerson.
Wilkerson, acknowledging that she was speaking at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, noted one way in which America’s Great Migration was unique—it was a movement without a clear leader. The migration, which Wilkerson points out became the advance guard to the future civil rights movement, did what Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation could not. “They freed themselves. And in freeing themselves, they also helped to free our country, or get us on the road to freeing our country, from an arcane and feudal caste system that was holding everyone back,” said Wilkerson.
The 2016–17 Forum series will continue with Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate and CBS News political analyst, on February 15 and Thomas F. Jackson, historian at the University of North Carolina and author of From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice, on March 24.