Everyone thinks of wars and the Great Depression, but not often the Great Migration, the movement of black Americans out of the South in search of better lives in the North and West.

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When people talk about the major events of the 20th century, one usually gets left out.

Everyone thinks of wars and the Great Depression, but not often the Great Migration, the movement of black Americans out of the South in search of better lives in the North and West.

Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, hopes to change that.

She spent more than a decade researching and writing “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”

People do know about the migration. It is a common reference point in the art of African Americans, in the plays of August Wilson, the poetry of Langston Hughes, the paintings of Jacob Lawrence.

But what is missing is an appreciation of the depth of its impact on America.

Wilkerson will talk about that Friday in Seattle at the Northwest African American Museum in a reading co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co.

I spoke with Wilkerson by phone, and she said one reason the Great Migration doesn’t stand out is that it happened over such a long period, roughly from 1915 to 1970.

Black Americans have always moved for freedom when the opportunity presented itself. But World War I turned the trickle into a river when it cut off the flow of cheap European immigrant labor to the North.

The mass movement was recognized at the time, but as a wartime phenomenon. The thing is, it didn’t stop; more waves followed.

Her book tells the story through the eyes of three people who made the journey:

• Ida Mae Gladney, who left sharecropping in Mississippi for Chicago in 1937.

• George Starling, who left Florida for Harlem in 1945 to keep from being lynched.

• Robert Foster, a Louisiana doctor who went to California in 1953 so that he could practice medicine without the limitations segregation put on him.

“I chose to focus on the people first,” Wilkerson said, because so many of them are passing away. She interviewed 1,200 people to find the three whose lives she explored in detail.

Each life speaks to a different part of the migration over time and space.

People tended to go where bus or rail lines led and where they would find people from their community. They moved in three main streams to the East Coast, the Midwest, and later to the West Coast.

“The goal is to first put the facts out there in a way that is readable, in a way that people can put themselves in the minds and hearts of the people living this,” she said.

She sprinkles in what she learned from newspaper archives, academic studies and government documents, but always the people’s stories are out front.

She follows them from childhood to death. We see them whole, their relationships, their joys and shortcomings, and their existence in places where a word or look could get them killed. Their stories will help readers understand why they took the huge risk of leaving — not just the uncertainty of starting over in a strange place, but often a risk to their safety if they should be caught leaving.

“Taking the research, taking the voices and converting them into a narrative is one step toward better understanding how we got to where we are.”

Wilkerson said the migration enabled the civil-rights movement. Black people moving into Northern cities sped the creation of suburbs, as whites left neighborhoods when black people moved in.

People who were able to vote for the first time in the North made an impact on politics, giving President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 a winning re-election margin in Illinois, for instance.

The flow of people deprived the South of plentiful cheap labor and drove down wages in the North, where employers could threaten to hire black workers if their white employees asked for higher pay.

It enriched American culture as the blues moved north, and people who might have been field hands created jazz and soul.

The museum has a display on the migration to the Northwest, one of the last places Southern black folks made it to.

The migrants didn’t find nirvana in their new homes, but it was better than virtual slavery in the South. They gained a chance to live free and for their children to grow.

Wilkerson wants their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know the cost of their freedom.

She wants everyone to see there is another great American story to be told.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.