Books: Non-Fiction

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Book — Non-fiction. By Isabel Wilkerson. 2010. 640 pages.
The story of the great migration told through in-depth descriptions of three families.

Time Periods: 20th Century, 1920
Themes: African American

In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.

With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.

Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9780679444329 | Random House

Author Isabel Wilkerson’s website offers background information on the book and reviews.


I believe this book is completely accessible to high school students. I am going to have a copy in my middle-school classroom for students who become intrigued about the migration hinted at in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred D. Taylor’s autobiographical-historical fiction in which a major character leaves Mississippi for Detroit, and whose visits home are of central importance to his family “back home”). I am going to urge my colleagues who teach this novel to read Wilkerson for context. — Kipp Dawson, Pittsburgh middle school teacher

2 comments on “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

  1. Matt Hay on

    I have also used this in my classroom and would like to exchange activities and assessments you used for it.
    Anyone interested in discussing all the ways to use the book in their curriculum?

  2. Flor Gressel on

    I came across this book during the summer 2013. Immediately, I decided to make it our primary text at my high school. I teach US history to 9 through 12th grade. This is the focus of our study this year. It’s exciting!. Thank you. Isabel Wilkerson

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