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Award-winning author Isabel Wilkerson to speak at History Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2011 - Before Isabel Wilkerson became the best-selling author of "The Warmth of Other Suns," she was an award-winning reporter who researched and wrote well-told narrative features for The New York Times.

One of those pieces, "Angela Whitiker's Climb" was included in a 2005 Times series that explored the nation's class issues.

Wilkerson chronicled the 12-year path of a Chicago welfare mother of six who clawed her way into the middle class and was struggling to stay there. Here is a passage from the article, published in June 2005, that also explains why Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing (on the 1993 Great Flood) while working as the Times Chicago bureau chief in 1994:

In the hallway, she avoided looking anyone in the eye. She spoke to no one. She didn't want to pick up on anyone's anxiety. She had enough of her own. She took a last drag on a Newport.

The testing room began to fill. The examiner checked her identification and assigned her computer No. 12. She drew in another deep breath as she walked to her place. She was about to sit down to take a $256 pass-or-fail entrance exam into the American middle class.

For most of her 38 years, Angela Whitiker has been on the outside looking in at the seeming perfection of the professional classes, the people who did the college-career-wedding-house-in-the-suburbs-2.5-kids routine. Her life has been so very different from that. She was a child of the working class who, through ill-considered choices and circumstance, slipped into the welfare class and had to fight her way out.

While the rest of the country has fitfully cut back welfare and continues to debate class disparities and the barriers to mobility, Ms. Whitiker has quietly traversed several classes in a single lifetime. She has gone from welfare statistic in the early 1990s to credit-card carrying member of the middle class, a woman for whom there are now few statistics, so rare has her experience been. This is the story of her 12-year slog to the middle class and of how hard it is to stay there.

The Times "Class Matters" series was later published in book form, and Wilkerson's article would make excellent background reading for anyone planning to attend her presentation Saturday as part of the "Class: The Great Divide" series at the Missouri History Museum. She now teaches journalism and narrative nonfiction at Boston University.

In "The Warmth of Other Suns," published last fall by Random House, Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration: the 6 million black Americans who abandoned their homes in the South between World War I and 1950 in search of the American Dream. As Wilkerson points out, this migration transformed not only individual lives and families but also the cities in the North, Midwest and West where they re-settled -- and set in motion the civil rights movement.

The book, which won the 2011 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism, took Wilkerson 15 years to research and write and is based on more than 1,200 interviews. The book also won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction and the NAACP nonfiction award for a debut writer.

Wilkerson has said that she was inspired to tell the story of the Great Migration by her own parents who left Georgia and southern Virginia for the nation's capital, where she was born and reared.

"I didn't grow up hearing about these things,'' Wilkerson said in a February Beacon interview. "In fact every reference to my own family in the book came as a result of my doing research for the book itself. My mother was the most challenging interview of all. She really did not want to talk about these things. Over time, she finally relented. I read every single page of the book to her and she began to open up. It would spark some memory. That was how I was able to find out a lot of things about my own family.''

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.