Of course they were also different from other migrants to this new world, since their slave ancestors had often arrived before most of their white neighbors and even been the first builders of cities that became their new homes.
Wilkerson follows the story of three individuals: Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who escaped rural Louisiana, first to join the Black bourgeoisie in Atlanta as a Morehouse man, then to Los Angeles to play the part of the jaunty high roller he'd aspired to be; George Swanson Starling who escaped lynching in the Florida orange groves to become a railway porter who raised a family in New York City; and Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who left sharecropping in Mississippi to raise a family in industrial segregated slums in Chicago. Wilkerson's telling of the life stories of these representative figures is vivid, personal, and utterly gripping.
That's still how coming into the process works today, now with new arrivals more than internal migrants. I've organized voter registration at new citizen swearing in ceremonies, sent multilingual canvassers out to immigrant neighborhoods, tried to establish the habits of participation that make for full incorporation in our electoral system. I find that older African Americans, the children of the Great Migration that Wilkerson chronicles, still place a special value on their right and duty to vote.
And so their experiences came to seem unrecognizable to too many of each set of people.
Wilkerson repeats several times that, because the war prevented cross-ocean travel, World War I (1914-18) opened industrial jobs to black migrants that previously would have been filled with Europeans. But she never discusses the fact that opportunities in factory labor for poor Europeans might have revived after that war if the United States had not adopted extremely restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s. The demand for industrial labor continued as industries expanded -- the hardest and dirtiest of the new jobs became the domain of southern black migrants. The shape of the Great Migration almost certainly was influenced by restrictionist and nativist policies that (probably inadvertently) benefited African Americans.
But I suspect generations of African Americans will periodically rediscover this book and see in it their own almost forgotten family histories. I certainly hope that is true.