Writer Asks, Was the Great Migration So Great?

Author Kim McClarin discusses the Great Migration

McClarin had posed the same question last fall in a piece in the Boston Globe (“The Great Migration and Me,” 10/31/11), which she penned after reading The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s critically-acclaimed history of the movement.

All tenth graders study the Great Migration the U.S. history course, and it is also discussed in the English elective, “Southern Voices.”

While acknowledging that the movement had a positive impact on the economic and political prospects of many African Americans individually, Ms. McLarin wonders if, collectively, blacks might have been better off if they had stayed in the South, owned land and built institutions.

Of course, no one will ever know the answer, but she cited several statistics to support her belief that African Americans are no better off in the North than in the South. For example, she said that the standardized test scores and high school graduation rates of African American boys in Massachusetts are not higher than those of their counterparts in Mississippi.

Ms. McLarin emphasized that she is neither an economist nor a social scientist, and that her role as a writer and teacher is to ask questions, not to answer them. Still, she cannot help but wonder why a politically progressive city like Boston remains “the most segregated city” she has ever lived in? (A Memphis native who first came north on a scholarship to attend Phillips Exeter, she has since lived in Philadelphia, New York and Greensboro.) Now a longtime Boston resident, she said she still doesn’t feel “at home” here because the city’s neighborhoods, schools, churches and social circles remain far less integrated than those she left behind in Tennessee.

Her talk prompted some thoughtful questions from students and gave everyone a different perspective on the roots of America’s civil rights movement and the continuing challenges of achieving racial equality.

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