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tv   Q A  CSPAN  September 27, 2010 6:00am-7:00am EDT

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>> author of oit warmth of other suns." do you remember the moment you started doing this? >> i can't say the moment
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because i have been living it all my life. my parents migrated from the south to virginia. they met and married there and had me. i was surrounded by the language, the food, the music, the ambitions of the people who had minus greated from the south. a lot of competition about whouz child would go to which school, catholic school, the school across the park. after i had gotten out and been a reporter for the times and talking to people around the country. i would go to chicago and cleveland and detroit and i
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would begin to hear there where similar migration experiences people had. they would talk to you about well this weekend, i have to go back to mississippi for a family reunion. >> give us a brief idea of what the book is about? >> the book is about the defection of 6 million african-americans from the south to the north, mid-west to the west. from 1915-1970 when the south began truly to change. >> i went to a movie last
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weekend. they handed me this as i went in. i'll read it to you. everyday more migrants are coming no the cities to seek a better life for their children. >> i wrote this book thinking of any country. it's a movie about the last train home where they have 150
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million migrant that's live in the city each year. i want to talk to you about what you have written in the front of your book by richard wright. >> who was he and why did you pick him? >> richard wright was one of the greatest novelists of the 20 j century. he was a migrant from mississippi to chicago. he was the son of a share cropper and always wanted to write. i set out in 1927 to get to chicago. he spent almost his entire career. almost everything he wrote had
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to do with understanding the migrant experience he was a part of. >> he moved to paris to die? >> he mult matly was searching for the warmth of other suns. he moved to new york and so on. >> you say you interviewed 1200 people? >> i stopped counting after that. >> where did you find them? jo i set outlooking for three people that would represent these three people. i went to all these places where i might find people who where
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not seenors. they were not hard to find. it was a matter of going in and talking with them and hearing their stories. how did you gather the information? >> i took notes. at that stage, like a casting call for these three people? >> what years was this? >> it was basically 1995 and it took me about 18 months going from city to city, place to place. the prince hall, masons and all these different places in order to find these three. one of the most interesting sources of people were the state clubs that exist in all of these cities. in los angeles, there's a lake charles louisiana club, eamon row louisiana club, multiple texas clubs, new orleans clubs.
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i would have to find a way to get access to them. and begin interviewing them. that's where you would get a group of people. there's the greenville, mississippi club, brook haven mississippi club. and in new york there are churches where everybody is from south carolina. >> i'm going to read a couple of things. you spent about 11 years with the "new york times." 1984-1985. you teach at boston university. you live in atlanta. i commute back and forth. >> you graduated from howard here and taught at harvard some
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and north. why did you leave journalism? >> i don't consider myself as having left journalism? >> why did you leave newspaper writing? >> i wanted to write this book. i wanted to explore the reasons why these people left. i wanted to understand who they were, why they did what they did and capture them before it was too late? it began in 1915 and ended in 1970. they were talking about at least three generations. time was running out. i felt this real press of time. >> you said your mother from georgia, your father from virginia. what's their story.
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>> my mother found work in the government. she was doing filing work for the government. there were many opportunities for people during world war ii. my father was a tusckgee air man. they met after the war. they both enrolled at howard where they met. they would finally realize that they were the right people and married and came me. i'm the only child my mother ever gave birth to. it was late in her life. my father died before the book came out. my mother is alive and basically is an shrine to the book. she lives in atlanta now.
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>> in the home, what did you talk about day-to-day this got you into the journalism world? >> my father was a civil engineer and my mother was a teacher. i just had an affinity for writing. there had never been any journalist in the family. my mother later told me a story about my grandfather, her father about how he had wanted to be a writer but there was no one who had been able to go into this. i remember my father was a huge reader of the newspaper, always had a newspaper.
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it was always important. >> you picked three people, ida mae, george joseph, and mr. foster. tell us about ida mae. >> she was from mississippi, the wife of a share cropper where they were working the land of a planter in that county before the depression. once the depression hit there. she was terrible at picking cotton. i never thought about a person being good or bad at it. she was bad at it and glad to tell you that.
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she was a wonderful way. she never changed her accent. she spent three times more years in chicago than in mississippi. when i met her, i could barely understand her. by the time i met with her three times, i could almost imitate her. >> she left mississippi in her mid 20's. the family left because there had been the beating of a cousin. a cousin of her husband was beaten nearly to death over a theft he did not commit. >> this was the turkey story? >> yes. >> tell us about that story. >> one night, before her husband returned, there was beating at
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the door. she had two young ones and her sister in-law. there were men at the door looking for her husband's cousin. she said he wasn't there. she didn't know anything about what he had done. later on when the husband got home, she told him what occurred. he went out, it was too late. jolie had already been captured. he had been beaten with chains so badly his clothes adhered to his skin. he was thrown in jail instead of the hospital. her husband was the man that went to get him.
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when he saw him, her husband said to her, this is last crop share we are making. they then quietly went to her mother's house to position themselves to leave. as soon as the cotton was picked, they got on the night train landing in chicago. >> when year was that? >> 1937. >> by that time, how many had left the south? >> there would have been a million people that had left by that time. there was about half a million that left the first minus gracio gracious. it really took off during world
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war ii. each decade or each period of time, people studying it were assuming it would be over. they were looking at and thinking that the economics of the north was the main factor. yes that was a factor. but once the door had been opened by the north. world war i was the beginning of it. all of the work force, the workers feeding and the steel mills and foundries of the north had no labor and these north industries began looking to the south and the cheap labor and they went to african-americans and began to recruit them to go north. when was lifelike otherwise in mississippi? what kind of things couldn't she
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do, say, that white people could do? >> she never really ven tured out from where she was. life was so controlled. whenever she would go out, every aspect of life was controlled then. there were no -- access to the physicians were impossible. jim crow had rules and laws that seem so ar cane now. it was illegal for a black person and white person play checkers together. she worked in a field but there were -- blacks and whites corporate walk up the same stair case in places where they might work together.
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in certain courthouses, there was a black bible and white bible to swaer to tell the truth on. >> do you hear that story more than once? >> i have. it become an issue in north carolina because they couldn't find the black bible. they had to halt the court proceedings. the judge said well, we might as well follow what the law is and find a bible. a black person had taken the stand and they had to find the right bible. >> did you ever ask any of the old time white people about why they made these rules? >> i didn't spend a lot of time. there had been a lot writen about that already.
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most of the material about whites is widely circumstance lated. there had many things that give a sense. newspapers wrote end less li. i quote many of those in the chapters. >> i have one here. this is from the macon, georgia telegraph. >> that sounds like a liberal
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editorial in the deep south. >> there was great pain because nothing was done to keep these people from leaving. they were going to loose their great soirs of labor. that cheap labor was the under pinings of the south economy. it depended on that. it is an expensive proposition to plant a crop and notify what would happen to it. i read all about cotton production. it's extremely difficult. there are a lot of thing that's could go wrong. it requires just the right number of days of sunshine but not too much. there's so many factors. any farmer depended upon that the margin for error was so great. they needed the hands available
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in order to pick the cotton, they could not afford to be losing this labor. >> did i read that you and aida mae went back to mississippi? >> yes. in the late 1990s. i wanted to go back with all of them and her and her family were game. we went back. we drove down the mark way. we flew into memphisnd drove down eye way 61 and made it to the trace parkway. as we were driving and drew closer to the county where she lived, we came up on the cotton fields. i wanted to go back the same time she had left which was fall, the high picking season in mississippi. we saw this cotton field wide
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open. there were no cars. she wanted to get out and pick. she said let's stop and pick some. i said are you sure we can do this this land belongs to someone and we are in mississippi, besides. she said, they are not gonna care. i went with her still wary. she seemed to be gitty. she hated picking cotton when they had to. >> what was her lifelike in chicago? >> they had a hard time adjusting. particularly for women. men could find work because strong backs were valued. in any factory or mill, she had
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a harder time. there were many immigrant groups they were competing against. there were poles and sweeds and germans who had newly arrived. they were often further along in the que, working in an office what not something she could do. it took a long time for her husband to find work. at first, he was hauling ice up and down four and five flights. he was willing to do it, he had had haul that much in cotton. it wasn't enough to really take care of the family. they moved a lot from place to place to place as they tried find the right location this they could afford. they had a difficult time making the adjustment. >> how did she feel about making
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the adjustment in the end? >> she was the kind of person who accepted her lot whatever it had been. for a lot of people in the book, there was many mistakes they had made in their lives but moving from the south was not one of them. >> you said she died in 2004. the family has a room laid out. >> it's her bedroom remained untouched. no one could bare to go in. >> why? >> she was the matriarch of the family. she was one of the wisest and most beautiful people i had ever met. doing this book changed me in so many ways. she had a way of accepting what was and recognizing what she couldn't change and moving on and not living in the past. she was be loved by everyone who
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knew her. she was a special person. one of the things we did was look up one of the people. she was being courted by two men, which is where the book started. her decision between the two man would be the deciding point. she didn't know it at that time. the other man decided to stay. when we went back to mississippi, we looked him up and we found him. he instantly recognized her. it had been 60 years. all those decades and the miles meant everything. he saw her, recognized her. he said how are you aida mae. he reached for her arm and then his wife came out. >> where you there?
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>> yes. >> what was it about her when you met her? how did you choose her as one of three out of 1200? >> one of the places i went was the retire ee unions of various trades. i went to the -- people who had been retired from the cta, postal workers and such. i went to the meetings for the cta, i passed around the flier and made my little statement there was a woman there who had signed up. most of them had relatives in the south. a woman said i didn't actually
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make the decision to come from the south to chicago but my mother did. it was her daughter who signed her up. when i met with her, she was wonderful. >> did you know on the spot she would be one of the three? >> i knew i had a connection with her. it took a while before i could narrow it down. i narrowed it down to 30. in the writing of this book, it was essential that each of the characters be distinguishable and important that they be from different backgrounds. i didn't want them all to be middle or working class. at the all become one. it wouldn't have been a situation with almost any of them i said this is absolutely
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one. i looked at the circumstances of all three and where did they begin, where did they land, it was almost like you had to have a board. you say these would be the three together. >> you had one that left in the 30's, 40's, 50's. you had one go to chicago, new york and l.a. the second person george swanson starling went from florida to new york. who was he? >> he was a college student at the time. he had had to drop out of school because at this time, african-americans could not go to the state schools, he couldn't go to them. this was one skaul he could go to.
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it was far from home. his father decided they weren't his father decided they weren't going to keep sending him. he had to go back to primary work for his people in florida which was picking citrus. when he got out in the grove, he realized they were being greatly taken advantage of. working conditions were poor. they were being paid 8 cents to 12 cents a box for the dangerous work of going into 30 foot trees on limbs where people would fall in the process of trying to pick. he began to try to organize the pickers because this was world war ii to make a little more money. he would ask a nickel more a box. this was a time.
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>> how old would he have been when he left? >> 24, 25. >> what made him leave? >> the grove owners began plotting against him. they did not like unions anyway which is what was happening. he had to basically flee for his life. >> how did he go? >> he caught the train. he was careful to not make himself too visible before he
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left. >> when did he leave? >> late in the afternoon. he could only go when the trains were leaving. >> would anybody have tried stop him? >> they did not apparently. he diskreet i will asked a friend of his if he would take him to the train station. they drove carefully as to not attract attention. he didn't let anyone know he was preparing to leave. >> where did he go first? >> he went to harlem. he had previously tried detroit. he found detroit was not going to work for him. he was there at the time there was a riot. that scared him off and he went back to florida. the last time, he went to new york. >> along the way, where were folks getting their money? >> they had been saving. they lived such meeger lives.
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george's father was the owner of a little corner store. george himself was quite frugil. during the days they were winning in the groves, he had been saving money. >> what did you do in harlem? jo he took a job as a railroad porter. he had no trouble finding work because being male gave him something of an advantage. it was during world war ii when he left as opposed to aida mae. he found a job as a railroad porter. i went back and forth, there are a lot of stories of him going back and forth. running into the experience of
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going back south. going from a place that was free and having to adjust ones self? >> what was one of the adjustments? >> conductors, if they were south, they would mistreat some of the porters. he got on the bad side of one of the conductors. there was a moment for him in which the conductor did not like what he thought was an i am peerious dignity george starling had. he thought that was not proper for an african-american male, that he should be a little more humble. george had more education than a lot of the people he had been around. he couldn't help being himself. he didn't like playing the game of being the shuffling side kick. that didn't go over well with
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south conductors. there was a moment when a conductor pushed him while the train was moving. he was between the train and the conductor was hurled over an older white woman to the start willment of both him and the other woman. she was understanding asking why would he do that? he's south and just does those kind of things. if you don't think this is a good thing, i would appreciate if you would write in, there's nothing i can do about it. you use throughout the book language like "colored people," negro, and black and even african-american. >> i wanted readers to be in the
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moment of what was happening. i wanted you to be able to imagine yourself being there. all the signs said colored or white. i thought it would be more consistent to talk that way. >> define jim crow. >> jim crow was a cast system in which african-americans were controlled, their every move was controlled. it hurt white people as well. the word cast can have multiple meanings. it's a fixed thing. it meant whites and blacks could not move freely. i believe it actually hurt both. >> the same came from a 1970 min
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central singer going around the country. he had picked up on that by seeing the most common view that he saw a slaf who had been disabled at the time. he was unable to dance properly or walk well. he was doing this dance called jumping jim crow. the minstral performer, who performed all over the country ended up imitating him and getting quite rich from it. he ended up dying quite young in his 50's. he had been paralyzed at the end of his life. interesting thing that he himself had been disabled. he kind of suffered from the
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very thing he had been making fuven in all those years. jo were the laws different? >> each state had different laws. >> were there jim crow laws in the north? >> there were. it actually began in massachusetts. it wasn't called jim crow at the time. it was actually applied more in the north. >> are there any jim crow laws left anywhere? >> ienl not aware of any. >> when would you say they went away? >> the 1970s. very late, i would say. a sheriff in chicago refused to take down the colored and white signs in his office until the 1970s. he was voted out of office by the people, the demo graphics had changed by then.
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>> george still alive? >> no. >> how did you find him? what was the end of his lifelike? >> he was a deacon in the church which is where he had found a kind of peace for the difficult life he had. he was at the baptist house of prayer in harlem. instantly began to tell stories about his experiences. >> how did you find him? >> at the church. >> you showed up at the church and said here i am, i'm looking for people. >> i had an assistant working with me. she was the first to make contact with him. when i heard about him, i instantly wanted to talk to him. >> by the way, there are no pictures in your book. why not. >> both my editor and i agreed there should be no pictures. we wanted people to lose
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themselves in the narrative. think fw what would i have done in that situation, black or white. we thought photographs would be something of a distraction of people as they tried to absorb themselves. >> can we ever see these? >> on the website. >> i saw a young lady on the website. >> that's my mother. she is standing on 16th street. newly arrived in washington, d.c. she sees a sign on the side walk that says no standing. she's pointing to it. she's so happy and free saying i'm standing here at the no standing sign. i'm not in the south, i'm in washington and i'm free. >> i saw a picture of a man
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sitting down. >> yes. who is that? >> there are several men. there's one man in a flight suit. that's my father. they are not all up loaded. i'm on a book tour. i can assure you they'll all be up there. i have some great favres of them. how did george starling die? he died some what heart broken because his children had in some ways been swallowed up by the north that they fled to. in fact they went back to the south. he sdieed heart broken but still
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strong. he had a stroke. i went to see him in the hospital. he went into a coma. he was in new york. he was hooked up to all kinds of machines. i went in and squeezed my hand. he squeezed it back and never regained consciousness. >> what happened to his kids? >> his son who had been sort of a lost child, had gone up to see him in the hospital too. the son saw him in that state. he himself was diabetic. he was so distraught. he had all kinds of things wrong with him. he essentially gave up.
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he died before his own father died. his father didn't know it. he refused to go to die al sis. so george left this earth notifying that his son had died before him. >> the third person you focus on is robert joseph persing foster. i understand that persing comes from black jack persing. her mother wanted her black baby to have this important name that would be in co-mem operation of the big hero of the day. >> i looked him up to see that he taught african-americans.
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>> i didn't realize that. that's amazing. >> he was so tough that they used the "n" word to define him. that's when they called him black jack. >> i doubt his mother was aware of that. one of the things i write about, the whole naming of a child was a special thing. there was little else they could give their children. they had these i am peerious sounding names. queen, major, affixing greatness. her choosing persing had a great meaning for her. he was born at the end of world war i.
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>> he left louisiana, went to los angeles. >> yes. >> tell us your story about you and your parents in a car -- give us that whole thing. sleeping in a car. >> dr. foster told her the whole story about his minus gracious, which we can get into. after hearing it. i realized to truly understand it, i needed to recreate it myself. i made arrangements to drive out there. my parents were retired and always up for an adventure. they decided they wanted to go with me. we set out on a course to recreate his journey. he went from monroe, louisiana to houston and into mexico because he wanted to taste the
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tequila through texas along drive of texas which is a country in it self and on to mexico and on and on. he was going to have much more trouble finding a place to rest than he had anticipated. >> what year did you drive it? >> i drove that around 1999, maybe. >> did you actually spend overnight in the car? >> this is what happened. we drove to the letter all the places, del rio and on to el paso and to phoenix where he had trouble. we could not stop because i was trying to recall to the letter what he did. it got dark, the roads got mean,
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i was getting sleepy. i told my parents the ground rules are you cannot drive. it got worst the further you drove. settlements were farj apart. we were now in the rocky mount inns. when we got to yuma, arizona i was feeling the feel affects of no sleep, which had been from houston. your fingers get swoelen, your eyes get heavy, everything in your body wants to sleep. at that time there had been no guard rails. we got to yuma, arizona. my parents said for all of our saks, you must stop driving and we are going to find a place to stay. we lived it. it's not necessary, we will
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stop. you must stop. we stopped in yuma where we had no trouble at all because it was no longer 1953. >> had he become a medical doctor yet? >> yes. he was a physician. he had been in the army and korean war. when he got back -- when he was discharged, he found he could not work in a hospital in his own home town. >> why? >> because of the laws of jim crow. hospitals did not permit black people to be doctors and perform any kind of medical work in a hospital. he had a brother who was a physician too and found a way around it. it was understood that he couldn't. the brother tried and won be accepted there. he created a portable --
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basically a portable office in a car he would carry around with him. he had a kind of bed someone could lay on. he had all the supplies in his car. he would go out in the country and serve the people that were share croppers in the country. persing did not want that for himself. he wanted everything he had been exposed to in the army. he had a distinguished career in the army and wanted to live out his life. he set out on this journey and did not expect to run into trouble. that passage is so heart breaking to me and some who read it. he had to question whether he had made the right decision. he was too far. >> what trouble had he run into. >> he found no one would let him
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stay in a hotel for the night. by this time, he was in the state of arizona. no one would take him in. >> no place that he stopped would he take him. >> did they tell him why? >> the first people would not tell him why. he stopped over and over again. the last place he went, he ran into some people who were from illinois originally. the wife saw him first. he had some hope that he might have finally met someone that would let him stay. ultimately, she went back and talked to her husband. she said, we are from illinois and don't share the views of the people around here but if we take you in, we'll be
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>> were you surprised that the west was this way? >> they were seen really as economic competition. dr. foster was a little different because he was a physician. wherever they went, there was a potential for them to drive down the wages of those people around them. many would use strike breakers. there was a lot of resistance to their arrival. they had to put up with a lot as many immigrants do when they arive in this country. i was surprised he ran into as much as he did trying to found a room. >> where did you see him, and spend time with him? >> the way i met him was probably the most interesting of all. i spent a great deal of time in
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los angeles talking to any number of groups that i could find who were connected to the south. connected to louisiana and texas. i ran into all these different clubs, the various clubs. at one point, a woman came up to me and said, you know, i see you at so many places talking to people about this migration. i heard the questions you've been asking, you are still here. she said i know the perfect person for you to talk to. usually it's like someone setting you up on a blind date. you figure there is no way they could possibly know who you want. i met with him in his home in los angeles, a lovely home which was a testment to his achievement and all he had gone
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through. he was quite gracious, presented me with ice cream or cake he sat there and watched me eat it. he said i love to talk and i am my favorite subject. jo was he married? >> he had been married as were all three of the people. >> how old was he then? >> in the 1970s. what's the vegas story? >> he wanted to go to investigate as. so many vegas stories. vegas was off limits to african-americans. at some point, he would find a
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job working in a hospital. the white physicians would come back talking about stories about vegas or palm springs. they would ask him have you been there yet? he began to make some calls and found out from someone that it was beginning to open up to african-americans. this was in the mid 1950's. he got the name of a connection, a man named jimmy gay. he was a go between helping black people get rooms in the hotels. you heard about this man and said we'd like to bring a party of 12 or so. we are so excited. this was always his dream. he ended up being a really big gambler. jimmy said sure, tell me where
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and when. he made arrangements for them to go to the riviera hotel. it was brand new. it was a big deal. there were songs about it. he used to sing songs in anticipation of going. when they got there, they had all this luggage. the women had been packing for weeks. they got there, there was no indication he had a room for him. he began to have recollections of crossing the desert. he had to call this man and make arrangements. eventually they got him to another hotel, the sands. he remembered finally being able to get to the roulet wheel. he had this special suit.
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he had this blood red lining inside of this black suit. he just said he was in heaven. that was where he always wanted to be. we don't have a lot of time. you said earlier this changed your life. in what way? >> it changed my life because it helped to answer so many questions for me about how the country came be, how african-americans made it to the north. the majority of people you might meet who are african-american in the north and west are decedents from this great migration. it reminded me how much we had in common. growing up in washington, may mother went out of her way to send me to the best schools she could find. she arranged for a cab to take me there. i was 5 years old.
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she would tell the cabdriver, don't pick anyone else up. i see your cab number, i'll pay you and you bring her right back home. >> when i got to the school, i would run into all sorts of people. people from napal, finland, even those american born were decedent of people from ireland, scotland or wherever. on certain days, like st. patrick's day, they were all stories or grandparents who had done this or that. i felt at that time that i didn't have any stories to tell. it turned out that actually i did. there were many great story that's came out of this great
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migration. >> along the time, any marriage or family? >> i had been married but i am not now. >> any children? >> no. >> how were you able to make a living during this time? >> publishers were wonderful. i had an advance. i taught, i still wrote for the "new york times." >> what is next? >> los angeles and more talking about the book. this book was a book written to be read. it's done really well. i really want people to read it. we have so much in common and to enjoy it. they are beautiful people. if we see the pictures, will it
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change when we know. >> no, it will confirm what you already know from having read it. isabel, thank you for joining us, "the warmth of other suns." thank you for joining us. >> thank you for having me. >> next, live at 7 a.m., your calls and comments on washington
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