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February book of the month: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Updated: Feb 5

Every month of 2024 I will post a short review of a book about transportation, land use, conservation, or a related topic. Some are new books and others have been around a while and are worth another read. Have you read any good books lately that I should add to the list? Email me at 

February’s book of the month is The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (2010). Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose more recent book, Caste: the Origins of Our Discontent, is a New York Times bestseller. I chose The Warmth of Other Suns to honor Black History Month and because I think it’s important to learn how historical events have impacted the world we live in today. Many people give little or no thought as to why our cities and transportation networks are designed the way they are. 

Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I think this may be changing with the prominence of writers like Ta-Nhisi Coates, Richard Rothstein, and Isabel Wilkerson herself, who directly address the effects of segregation, redlining, and other discriminatory policies on modern American life. We also have unprecedented investments in federal programs like Justice 40 and Reconnecting Communities. Some of us, me included, are finally catching up to learning the whole, unfiltered history of the United States, and filling the gaping lacuna from my own public education experience decades ago (I grew up in the South).

Like Richard Wright’s Black Boy, from which author Isabel Wilkerson took the title, The Warmth of Other Suns hits you right in the gut. It is difficult for someone in my position to imagine the constant fear and daily horror of life as a Black American in the Jim Crow south. Wilkerson’s explanation of the complexity of hierarchy and oppression within communities foreshadows her 2020 book Caste. I was also struck by the cruel absurdity of the written and unwritten rules of segregation, with signs everywhere demarcating where to sit, where to eat, where to eat, where to look, and devastating consequences for breaking them. Small wonder that so many people left.

The Warmth of Other Suns follows the stories of three individuals interviewed late in their lives: Ida Mae Gladney, who left sharecropping in Mississippi to travel to Milwaukee and eventually landed in Chicago; George Starling, who started off as a fruit picker in Florida’s citrus groves before fleeing to Harlem, and; Robert Foster, a medical doctor from Louisiana who traveled the world as an army surgeon before driving himself to California and establishing a successful practice there.

Each of their stories is at once extraordinary and common, reflecting the experience of millions of Black Americans who traversed the country over the course of the mid-twentieth century in search of a better life. For those who left the South, it was a necessary decision, though not an easy one. Wilkerson says, “...perhaps the greatest single act of family disruption and heartbreak among black Americans in the twentieth century was the result of the hard choices made by those on either side of the Great Migration” (p. 238). 

Given that my work centers around transportation, I took notice of how people moved around and made their journeys north and west. Wilkerson notes that migration patterns often followed established rail and bus lines. She writes:

It would not have occurred to [Ida Mae et al] that they were riding history. They were leaving as a family, not as a movement, on the one thing going north. But as it happened, the Illinois Central, along with the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line railroads, running between Florida and New York, and the Union Pacific, connecting Texas and California, had become the historic means of escape, the Overground Railroad for slavery’s grandchildren. (p.190)

Doctor Foster, on the other hand, went by car to California, and while he did not have to sit in the back of a bus or on a segregated train car, he couldn’t find a hotel that would let him stay overnight for love nor money. 

The Warmth of Other Suns is not primarily about land use or transportation, per se. However, the stories in the book offer deeply personal insights into the effects of public policy on the decisions made by millions of individual people, which in turn had an enormous impact on the built environment we have today. This is apparent in Wisconsin cities that were destinations during the Great Migration, including Beloit, Milwaukee, and other cities in the southeastern part of the state.

I must confess I’m not yet done reading The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s a long book, and I have plenty of other work to do! That said, it is hard to pull myself away from the engrossing narratives Wilkerson has woven together. 

Susan Gaeddert is Community Programs Director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, where she runs Active Wisconsin, facilitates the Community Transportation Academy, and coordinates the Wisconsin Climate Table.

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