The Great Migration 

In 1937, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, made history — family history and a piece of national history too: She, her husband, and their children moved North, because living conditions in their corner of Mississippi made such a move, for poor blacks in the American South, a means of escape. There were economic opportunities to free the family from the sharecropping system. There was freedom from the white mob violence that directly threatened them as well. And so, Gladney and her family joined what became known as the Great Migration of African Americans to points North and West — a migration that, all told, involved some 6 million individuals from 1915 to 1970.

We know of Gladney, because hers is one of the stories that Isabel Wilkerson follows in The Warmth of Other Suns, which appeared in 2010. The following year, the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. And just this year, according to The New York Times, Wilkerson's book was showing "every indication of becoming a classic." No wonder, then, that it was Wilkerson whom the Times called on to review The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis' new novel of the Great Migration, which Oprah Winfrey immediately picked for her book club.

On February 7th, the University of Memphis hosts Isabel Wilkerson, who will deliver the Belle McWilliams Lecture in American History. Wilkerson's appearance is the first in this season's series of lectures presented by the university's Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities, and Aram Goudsouzian, professor of history at the U of M and director of the Orr Center, called Wilkerson's visit a "signature" event. And it promises to be. Isabel Wilkerson — born in Washington, D.C., the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, and a teacher at Boston University — is herself a product of history. Her parents too made the Great Migration.

Isabel Wilkerson lecture, Rose Theater at the University of Memphis, Thursday, February 7th, 6:30 p.m. Booksigning to follow the lecture. Free. For more information, go to or call Aram Goudsouzian at 678-2520.

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