It was a red letter day for Oakwood University when Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Isabel Wilkerson, came to speak on her award-winning novel, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. It was a new day of another kind for Oakwood’s Director of Literature Evangelism, Jason McCracken. Because of what he heard, McCracken embarked on a journey that has its own epic proportions for thousands of African Americans—the search for his roots. Isabel Wilkerson, according to her website, “spent most of her career as a national correspondent and bureau chief atThe New York Times,is the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in the history of American journalism and was the first black American to win for individual reporting.” She spent fifteen years researching and writing this book, interviewed more than 1200 people, and dug through archives. It had all started long before, with her own parents’ stories. Like an estimated six million other African Americans, they left their homes, families, and all they knew in the implacably “Jim Crow” south and sought a new life under a sun that was arguably not as warm, in the north. A full Oakwood sanctuary of students, faculty, and community people listened with fascination as Wilkerson told stories and pointed out that the lives of all Americans, not just this six million “refugees within their own country,” were irrevocably changed by this migration, most of which occurred between World War I and the 1970s. “Music as we know it would simply not be what we listen to had there been no Great Migration. So much of what we listen to grew out of the music that has been transplanted to the North from the hearts, the minds, and the memories of people who left,” said Wilkerson. [http://blog.al.com/breaking/2013/02/pulitzer_prize_winner_isabel_w.html ] She mentioned names such as Toni Morrison, Lorraine Hansberry, John Coltrane, Berry Gordy, and Motown Records itself. She told the story of the Owens family, who gave their youngest son James the middle name of Cleveland, the city they would eventually move to. They called him Jesse, and “he wasn’t fit for the cotton field,” said Wilkerson. “He was fit for track and field!” Today nearly every American of any ethnicity or background has at least heard the name of Jesse Owens, quadruple gold medal running star of the 1936 Olympics. One of her listeners was Jason McCracken, who is from Sao Paulo, Brazil, but now lives and works in Huntsville. He says he was excited that an African American was telling stories no one had heard before. He bought her book and read it on a plane trip out of the country. He had already become interested in the story of his own family, because of a startling event just a few weeks earlier. He had been making a series of presentations concerning Master Guide scouts. After the meeting, “a tall young man in his late 40s called my name and said, ‘I played with you on Chestnut street in Albion, Michigan when you visited your aunt.’ I was shocked!” In the late 70s, McCracken relates, he visited relatives in Michigan and “played in the streets” with this cousin. The cousin later went to Alabama A & M University and never returned to Michigan. McCracken had never had any further contact with him. That evening, they spoke on the phone and re-cemented an old bond. So when McCracken heard Wilkerson speak, he was ripe for the questions of who his family were and where they came from. His grandmother had probably been one of the more desperate seekers of a new life in the north during the Great Migration, leaving Dublin, GA for Albion, MI because her mother was white and her father black. McCracken knows of the stories of this grandmother and her descendants, but nothing of her 11 brothers and sisters. As he talked it over with his brother in Huntsville, they speculated that there might be 4-500 relatives of whom they know nothing. How to begin? Easy—this is not the 20th, but the 21stcentury—you make a Facebook page! McCracken is in the beginning of what may turn out to be a great journey of its own, and it can be traced back, in part, to the stories little Isabel Wilkerson’s mother and father told her. More info: http://www.isabelwilkerson.com And, especially if you are or know a Kurtz or Coates, watch for Jason McCracken’s new page on Facebook. You can find his personal page there now.
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