Much of what Bunny Fisher now knows about her father's life as a child and a young man she learned more than a decade after his death. By reading it in a book. While sitting on the beach, in St. Martin, around the time of what would have been her father’s birthday—Christmas Day—in 2010. Bunny was nervous about reading the book for a number of reasons; most importantly, she had been the secondary source of her father’s story. The author had asked her to give her best recollections, to confirm and verify what he said, after he died August 6, 1997, at the age of 78.
Even though the interviews had taken place years before the book’s publication, they still rattled her. Bunny remembers the conversations as grueling and draining. Even today Bunny carefully recalls “how stressful it became drawing my insights about factual information” the author had already established and digested. “So my anxiety was really real. It was my dirty laundry and I worried how it would be in context and if it might be embellished in any kind of way. So I was very anxious for a couple of weeks,” when she knew it was finally going to come out.
The book was a historical blockbuster, game-changer and a sensation: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction and numerous other prizes. It was on dozens of best-book-of-the-year lists across the country and became a national bestseller. The book was praised by literary luminaries like Nobel-winner Toni Morrison and star journalist and author Gay Talese.
Though The Warmth of Other Suns was Wilkerson’s first book, her work had been winning awards for years. She was the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1994 for Feature Writing in the New York Times) and the first African-American person to win the Pulitzer for individual reporting. She won a George Polk Award for Midwest coverage and received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for research on the Great Migration. When you examine the book, you can easily understand why it took so many years to complete. The statistics: The Warmth of Other Suns is 622 pages long and after the epilogue, there is a 4-page explanation of the author’s methodology, 7 pages of acknowledgments (including Bunny Fisher in the Illinois group), 32 pages with 543 explanatory notes, an index that is another 32 pages long, permissions acknowledgments and an afterword about the death of Ida Mae Gladney, one of the book’s main characters, in Chicago in 2004.
The book is lavish in its attentiveness to detail. As a reader, the notes are as riveting and fascinating as the intertwined stories that move through several generations of the actual history. Obviously the publication and the creation of the book transformed Isabel Wilkerson’s life, but the story she tells of the migration had a profound effect on its subjects and their descendants—the author chose the stories of the families of three principal characters from more than a hundred possible characters interviewed for the narratives.
Bunny Fisher met Isabel Wilkerson at her father Robert Joseph Pershing Foster’s funeral. “Isabel came back to the house for the repast after the memorial service. I remember her saying that she wanted to interview me and how she thought my dad was a really wonderful person. You could tell the affection that she had for him. Eventually I came to the conclusion that she had been his best daughter after all. She saw him as this really heroic person who had done this extraordinary thing.”
The first meeting was pretty formal, as Bunny describes it, at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, and Isabel was trying to make her feel at ease by describing her intentions about the book. Bunny and her sisters were leery when they originally heard from their father that someone was writing a book about him. Isabel impressed Bunny with her carefulness. “She kept saying that one of the critical things is documenting every source and every comment. She sent me some of the clippings of the article she wrote for the Pulitzer Prize and I was impressed with her.” Bunny invited Isabel to her home, where she interviewed her on more than one occasion. “Then there were many years that I never heard anything. Her life changed; my life changed. She would try to keep me informed. So we were very surprised when we heard in September 2010 that this book was coming out.”
The Story of Robert Joseph Pershing Foster
Bunny Fisher’s father went from being known as “Pershing to Robert to Bob,” as Isabel Wilkerson explains in the book. The name changed as part of his transformation from his childhood in the rural South to a young professional and surgeon and later when he adopted a new lifestyle in California as a physician and surgeon in private practice. Bunny says that during the period when her father migrated from Louisiana to Los Angeles she and her sisters called him Daddy Robert. As small children Bunny and her sisters lived with their grandparents for such a long time that in many ways "our grandfather fulfilled the father role," she says. And, of course, a child would not have been able to comprehend what her father was up against during that time.
The outline of the sweeping story begins at the time of the First World War when northern factories began actively recruiting young men—the labor force in the rural South—offering a living wage and a better life in the cities. Suddenly the owners of the plantations and orange groves, whose mistreatment of sharecroppers was a form of enslavement that frequently extended to lynching, found themselves without the cheapest and most desperate workers.
This confounded them, not because they couldn’t see it: As Isabel Wilkerson quotes a white reader writing in the Montgomery, Alabama Advertiser, “Why hunt for the cause when it’s as plain as the noonday sun? He doesn’t want to leave but he knows if he stays here he will starve. They have nothing to eat, no clothes, no shoes . . .” But the plantation owners didn’t know how to stop it. Coercion, blockades and arrests only intensified the efforts of the fugitives. Trainloads of workers crowded station platforms, men hoboed their way north in grain bins and women walked away from cotton fields. In Georgia, a granite quarry had to shut down because all the workers left. Some of the migrants plotted their exit, others didn’t have time.
During her research, Isabel Wilkerson came across a group of migrants from Monroe, Louisiana, who settled in Oakland and Los Angeles, California. Drawing from that group, the author recounted the story of a young man who was on his way to shine shoes in West Monroe, Louisiana, when he “passed a tree with a colored man hanging from it.” He left that day for California. Eventually he became a character actor in Hollywood.
Bunny’s father, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, was one of the best educated and intelligent young men growing up in Monroe. He was born on Christmas Day 1918 and named for General Pershing, a World War I hero. His father was a principal of a high school and both he and his brother Madison would become doctors. Pershing got his medical degree in at Meharry Medical School in Nashville (one of the precious few medical schools for blacks at the time in the United States), got married and served internships and trained as a surgeon in St. Louis and all over the South.
During World War II his military service was deferred and though he entered with the rank of captain and was posted to Austria, he could not be chief of surgery because he was colored. And even though he suffered humiliation at the hands of bigoted white physicians, his charm, good looks and skills did not go unnoticed. Inevitably he got recognition from his patients. For the first time in eight years of marriage, Bunny, her parents and her sister could live together as a family for more than a two-week stretch. “I still remember those days in Austria with my younger sister as a happy time,” Bunny says.
But when his military service was done, Robert—then known as Pershing—found himself starting all over again in the Jim Crow South, in his hometown. He got a job at Fort Polk, an hour’s drive from Monroe, where his brother had a medical practice and was eager for Pershing to join him. But Pershing set his sights higher. He made no secret of his idea that after he saved enough money, he would join the half million people who had already fled Texas, Louisiana and the South for California. Bunny stayed behind with her mother and sisters in waiting for her father to send for them.
Raised as an Aristocrat
Bunny Fisher’s mother was the beloved only daughter of Rufus Early Clement, the president of Atlanta University, graduate school to Morehouse (for men) and Spelman (for women) Colleges, and a powerful and prominent pillar of black society in the South in the late ’30s. As the incarnation of the elite academic African-American aristocracy, her grandfather met regularly with celebrities and government leaders including Paul Robeson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
“My life in Atlanta as a child was just a fairy tale,” Bunny explains. “We had a dressmaker who made our clothes and doll clothes to match. My sister Robin and I would play with our Patty Jo dolls, among the first dolls for African-Americans that were ever manufactured.” Bunny remembers taking a trip to New York with her grandparents and staying at the Waldorf Astoria. There were so many “special things when we were living that life.” When Bunny turned 6, there was a birthday party. "It was in the newspaper,” she says. Her grandmother was a shopper, always “buying china and things,” she says. So Bunny and her sister learned that they could not try on clothes or shoes in the store and they could not drink from the drinking fountain. “But we were so sheltered by the university that we didn’t experience prejudice in the same way” that her contemporaries did.
“When we moved to California, I was in fifth or sixth grade and it was an integrated school,” she says. “We also lived in Europe for two years when my dad was in the Army and the school was integrated. But even in the school experience in California, she says, "You were still aware of who you were and what your color was and there was some tension and separateness.”
"It wasn't until I read the book that I realized that our family had not lived together for the first 8 years of my life and that I really hadn't experienced my father as a parent. It was this realization that made me think back to issues I had as a child, about risky behavior, the chance children take all the time. I didn't really know this person, yet he was setting limits. Clearly I was looking for his love and approval." Even when living together as a family in Los Angeles, Bunny doesn’t remember seeing him much except on weekends. “We would be in the car with him driving from patient to patient and the only way for us to be together was to go.”
“My mother was the daughter of President Clement and the wife of Dr. Foster; she struggled with that. My mother, who was a very talented woman on her own—a brilliant pianist who had studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York—may have lost some of her identity being the daughter of a well-known university president and the wife of a successful surgeon. My mother had tried to cope with issues related to my father's struggles, but one summer after 14 years of marriage they separated and she returned to Atlanta taking us with her. By the end of that summer they had reunited."
“My father could be difficult. He was a perfectionist,” Bunny explains. “But Isabel got to what I wasn’t really privy to, in spite of being a brilliant surgeon and physician—he was terribly insecure. I remember case after case where he did some incredible surgery on someone who was expected to die and that person lived. The book taught me things I didn't know about my own life,” Bunny says. “When I go back and think about the struggles my father had, it saddens me. He made so many hard choices and I had no clue.”
Living in L.A.
Bunny Fisher experienced living in a diverse society in Los Angeles. “When we got there, there was a mix of people. There were people from New Orleans and Monroe, Louisiana. There was a Spelman College group. And these organizations acted as support for each other.” So Bunny and her family suffered no shock from discrimination or being migrants; the difference, she explains, was “the economics of our life living there. We went from living in the president's mansion to living in a small two-bedroom apartment."
Bunny went to public schools once she moved to L.A. But by the time Bunny was 16 years old, her relationship with her father had morphed into that of a typical teenager. Her parents saw her as oppositional enough that they sent her to a shrink because she was talking back. “He was very hard on me and I never thought I was very attractive,” she says.
"I went to Spelman to go to college. My father wanted all his daughters to go away to school. I was anxious—as any teenager would be—to be independent, and going to Spelman was a positive choice." By 1961, her grandparents had long since become world-famous and nationally important. The Rockefellers and other barons of Wall Street were familiar figures at the university and had been on the board of trustees for many years. Now it had been decades since her grandfather started the United Negro College Fund and spoke with Bobby Kennedy on the phone. “Mrs. [Martin Luther] King and my grandmother were members of the same bridge club,” she says.
Of course, Bunny was not allowed to be part of the Civil Rights movement, but she enjoyed Spelman, living on campus her first year and with her grandparents during her sophomore year. As an undergraduate she majored in sociology and minored in speech and drama, and French. "My father had hoped one of us would be a doctor," she says. Bunny chose to go into speech and language pathology instead. She earned her graduate degree (M.A.) at the University of Iowa and then got a fellowship and internship at Kansas University Medical Center, where she worked teaching deaf preschoolers. “I didn’t have a social life at all. I had women friends, but there was no dating at all during those years. Then I moved to Kansas City on the Missouri side,” she says. She was popular enough with doctors and medical technicians, she explains, but she was “living in a white world,” and didn’t see a real future for herself there. So she moved to where her sister was living (and getting her M.A. in psychiatric social work) in Chicago. “I never considered moving back to L.A.”
Bunny’s first job in Chicago in 1971 was working for the city department of mental health. Then she was hired at Children’s Memorial Hospital where she soon was appointed interim head of the department for communicative disorders. “I can’t say any of my decisions or choices were on account of my race.
"I never really wanted to be a doctor, but I chose a profession that was somewhere between being a doctor (medical knowledge required) and being an educator like my grandfather. I felt I was trying to please both worlds. I learned a lot of medical terminology and developed diagnostic skills which allowed me to communicate with my father as he discussed his cases."
And so from 1971 to 1986 Bunny worked in Chicago as a professional clinician. She left her full-time job at the hospital to go into acting and later became a photographer's representative. She lived in Hyde Park at first and then the River North area. She got married and had a son, Woodie, who, in a kind of irony, is now in marketing, heavily connected with the music industry and living in Los Angeles.
The Family Music
Bunny’s father was a passionate man, she says, especially when it came to his patients, his family and his children. He also had a love of music and the arts and an ambition that was only partially realized by living in Los Angeles and frequenting Las Vegas in the ’70s and ’80s.
Her father met a number of musicians and made friends throughout his life with jazz greats, before he met Ray Charles and did surgery on his hand. “But the friendship that resulted with Ray,” Bunny says, “brought even more people into our lives from that world.” Her father’s life became more involved with jazz and entertainers on the West Coast. “I was really lucky, having them in our home and experiencing them,” she says. When Isabel Wilkerson met Robert Foster in the 1990s, he had been in the orbit of West Coast celebrity for 30 years. And they discussed how he once thought of being an entertainer. Of course, the allure of show business was trumped by the more secure future of surgical training, even discounting the effect of racism in most professions at the time.
Bunny may have been in the chorus in high school, but there was no way she could even audition for a leading role in her high school musical. The best her music teacher could do was acknowledge that she had a strong alto voice. She got better roles in theater at Spelman, of course, but after that, Bunny says, “I put singing in my back pocket.”
That changed one night in the spring of 1994. Bunny had moved to Michiana, Indiana, by then. It had not dawned on her that music had been in the back of her mind and she had never done anything with it. “Life happens, and there was no music,” she explains.
“When I moved in Michigan City, I went to dinner at what was then Basil’s restaurant with some friends. And someone was playing the piano in the back of the room, "Some Enchanted Evening." I played the lead in that musical when I was at Spelman. So I said 'excuse me' to my friends and I walked over to the man singing, Basil Cross, my beloved dear friend, and I ended up singing until about two o’clock in the morning. I told my friends that I would take a cab, but I was dropped off by Basil Cross. And he dropped me off and we were friends until the day he died.
“People would urge me to get up and sing,” she says. And then one night the person who urged her to sing was the piano player in a jazz trio. “Why don’t you take this seriously?” he asked, and so she did. She first sang professionally in 2001.
Though she confesses to having performance anxiety for years, she got over it enough to work and sings professionally on an intermittent basis, usually at the Acorn in Three Oaks. (Bunny’s next appearance at the theater is set for July 14th at 7 p.m. Chicago time, 8 p.m. in Michigan. She will be performing with pianist David Lahm, Rich Schneider on bass and drummer David Hilliker. Tickets are $30. For reservations call 269.756.3879 or visit acorntheater.com.)
And Woodie? Well, he started promoting music while he was still in high school and had his own company by the time he was 19. “Soon he was flying all over, promoting Kool Mix parties for marketing agencies in Chicago,” she says. “Right away he positioned himself where he met many of the major hip-hop artists. He embodies so much of me and so much of my father. He moved out to L.A. and ended up in business with one of the fastest-growing companies in the country at the time.”
Everybody in her family is so well-educated, it does seem awkward to Bunny that her son became a successful entrepreneur without college. Woodie has been quiet about the book and though his fiancée has read it, he hasn’t. “He will someday, I’m sure,” Bunny says.
“I had no clue that he wanted to be a performer, as he told Isabel,” Bunny says, in reference to her father. “We would always sing around the piano at home.” Bunny learned through the author that she was living her father’s dream. “I loved performance as much as he did, but I wrapped an academic and professional life around that.
“I was accepted at NYU and received a monetary scholarship to study music, which I could have done in New York. But I chose a more academic career because of my fear of failure and not being good enough to succeed as a performer in New York," she explains.
“He and I made the same sacrifice in choosing a more stable career."