Tagging these two articles to save them for an ongoing project on political/economic analysis of the U.S. South
For New Life, Blacks in City Head to South
By DAN BILEFSKY
In Deborah Brown’s family lore, the American South was a place of whites-only water fountains and lynchings under cover of darkness. It was a place black people like her mother had fled.
But for Ms. Brown, 59, a retired civil servant from Queens, the South now promises salvation.
Three generations of her family — 10 people in all — are moving to Atlanta from New York, seeking to start fresh economically and, in some sense, to reconnect with a bittersweet past. They include Ms. Brown, her 82-year-old mother and her 26-year-old son, who has already landed a job and settled there.
The economic downturn has propelled a striking demographic shift: black New Yorkers, including many who are young and college educated, are heading south.
About 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state, according to census data. Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South, according to a study conducted by the sociology department of Queens College for The New York Times.
The movement is not limited to New York. The percentage of blacks leaving big cities in the East and in the Midwest and heading to the South is now at the highest levels in decades, demographers say.
“I feel a strong spiritual pull to go back to the South,” Ms. Brown said.
Middle-class enclaves, like Jamaica and St. Albans in Queens, are feeding this exodus. Black luminaries — like James Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois and Ella Fitzgerald — once lived in St. Albans, a neighborhood that is now being hit by high unemployment and foreclosures.
The migration of middle-class African-Americans is helping to depress already falling housing prices. It is also depriving the black community of investment and leadership from some of its most educated professionals, black leaders say.
The movement marks an inversion of the so-called Great Migration, which lasted roughly from World War I to the 1970s and saw African-Americans moving to the industrializing North to escape prejudice and find work.
Spencer Crew, a history professor at George Mason University who was the curator of a prominent exhibit on the Great Migration at the Smithsonian Institution, said the current exodus from New York stemmed largely from tough economic times. New York is increasingly unaffordable, and blacks see more opportunities in the South.
The South now represents the potential for achievement for black New Yorkers in a way it had not before, Professor Crew said. At the same time, unionized civil service jobs that once drew thousands of blacks to the city are becoming more scarce.
“New York has lost some of its cachet for black people,” Professor Crew said. “During the Great Migration, blacks went north because you could find work if you were willing to hustle. But today, there is less of a struggle to survive in the South than in New York. Many blacks also have emotional and spiritual roots in the South. It is like returning home.”
Ms. Brown, who spent 35 years investigating welfare fraud for New York State, may have seemed the embodiment of the black American dream in New York City.
In the 1950s, her parents moved to Harlem, and then to Queens, from Atlanta. Her grandmother was a maid; her grandfather was a brick mason. One generation later, her parents were prospering. Her father became a senior tax official for the state; her mother was an executive assistant to the state corrections commissioner.
But Ms. Brown says New York is now less inviting. She plans to join her 26-year-old son, Rashid, who moved to Atlanta from Queens last year after he graduated with a degree in criminology but could not find a job in New York.
In Atlanta, he became a deputy sheriff within weeks. She is hoping to open a restaurant.
“In the South, I can buy a big house with a garden compared with the shoe box my retirement savings will buy me in New York,” she said.
The Rev. Floyd H. Flake, pastor of the 23,000-member Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, said he was losing hundreds of congregants yearly to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
“For decades, Queens has been the place where the African-American middle class went to buy their first home and raise a family,” Mr. Flake said. “But now, we are seeing a reversal of this as African-Americans feel this is no longer as easy to achieve and that the South is more benevolent than New York.”
Some blacks say they are leaving not only to find jobs, but also because they have soured on race relations.
Candace Wilkins, 27, of St. Albans, who remains unemployed despite having a business degree, plans to move to Charlotte, N.C.
She said her decision was prompted by an altercation with the police.
In March 2010, witnesses say, Ms. Wilkins was thrown against a car by a white police officer after she tried to help a black neighbor who was being questioned. She was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, according to the Queens district attorney’s office.
Ms. Wilkins disputes the charges, which are pending, and has filed a complaint against the police. A police spokeswoman said the department was investigating her complaint.
“Life has gone full circle,” said Ms. Wilkins, whose grandmother was born amid the cotton fields of North Carolina and moved to Queens in the 1950s.
“My grandmother’s generation left the South and came to the North to escape segregation and racism,” she said. “Now, I am going back because New York has become like the old South in its racial attitudes.”
Many black New Yorkers who are already in the South say they have little desire to return to the city, even though they get wistful at the mention of the subways or Harlem nights.
Danitta Ross, 39, a real estate broker who used to live in Queens, said she moved to Atlanta four years ago after her company, responding to the surge in black New Yorkers moving south, began offering relocation seminars. She helped organize them, and became intrigued.
Ms. Ross said she had grown up hearing stories at the dinner table about segregation. She said the Atlanta she discovered was a cosmopolitan place of classical music concerts, interracial marriage and opulent houses owned by black people.
A single mother, she said that for $150,000, she was buying a seven-room house, with a three-car garage, on a nice plot of land.
Ms. Ross said she had experienced some culture shock in the South, and had been surprised to find that blacks tended to self-segregate, even in affluent neighborhoods.
She said that the South — not New York — was now home.
“People in Georgia have a different mind-set and life is more relaxed and comfortable here,” she said. “There is just a lot more opportunity.”
This is the first installment in “The Great Return,” an occasional HuffPost BlackVoices series about the shift of African Americans toward the South after the Great Migration to the North.
CHICAGO — Nearly seven decades ago, James Middleton was just a toddler when he watched a white man shoot and kill a black man in the little town of Lambert, Mississippi.
He had tagged along with his father to run errands and, giddy with excitement, sat in his daddy’s Ford as they pulled up to a local restaurant. There was a commotion out front —a family friend arguing with the eatery’s white owner, who had a pistol in his hand.
“You nigger!” Middleton recalls the white man shouting. “I’ll kill you!”
The friend ran. Gunshots followed.
“I looked down and I could see this man, still trying to breathe, and blood was coming out of his chest,” says Middleton. “I don’t like to remember bad things. But it seemed like bad things were always happening to black folks.”
Middleton’s baptism in Southern violence was a consequence of being black at a time and place of cradle-to-grave segregation and senseless death. The specter of violence and inequality that his family endured eventually drove them more than 600 miles north to Chicago, making them a ripple in the wave of millions of blacks who fled the South in search of a better life.
They moved into a little place on Chicago’s West Side with other working-class blacks. (The South Side, he said, was reserved for the more well-to-do and professional set). They joined a network of relatives, friends and other migrants.
The Middletons were among an estimated six million blacks to flee the South between 1915 and 1970, to northern cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, Detroit and Los Angeles in the west. They found work on automobile assembly lines or in manufacturing plants and factories in the industrial North. They laid roots, raised families and gave their children opportunities that many could never have imagined for themselves back home.
But today, generations later, amid higher costs of living, concerns over crime and what many perceive as too few job opportunities in those same cities, African Americans are returning to the South in the largest numbers since the first Great Migration, according to sociologists and those who have studied the new migration. During the 1940s, roughly 1.5 million blacks migrated to the North. Between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 1,336,097 blacks moved to seven major southern cities alone, according to the Brookings Institute, which compiled the most recent data from the U.S. Census.
THE NEW DEMOGRAPHICS
Former magnets for black migrants, including Illinois, Michigan, New York and California, all have had black population declines. Atlanta has even overtaken Chicago as the city with the second-largest black population behind New York City. The black population in Atlanta has grown in the past decade by 473,493. In Dallas it grew by 233,890, and in Houston by 214,928 over the same period. Today, 57 percent of the country’s black population lives in the South, a 50-year high, according to the most recent census data.
Today’s migrants are chasing the same things their forebears sought decades earlier, according to those who have studied the return migration. Others are retiring or returning to familial homesteads, reclaiming land their relatives never let loose.
“There are places like Harlem that no longer have majority black populations because many of the black folks who have lived there for the last 50 or so years have decided to cash in, and they are going to live somewhere more affordable, places that don’t come with the urban baggage that maybe we didn’t ever want but put up with because this was our best chance at a solid economic future,” said Khalil Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library and renowned for its collections of historic artifacts. “Those people are going to places that look just the way they want them to look. They are not going to be shackled by a political nationalism or the segregation of the past.”
Meanwhile, Chicago has lost about 181,000 African Americans over the past decade, a drop of 17 percent. Many have fled to the Chicago suburbs. But to a greater extent, who is leaving and where they’re going is difficult to determine, according to demographers. But Brookings Institute reports that these new migrants tend to be financially stable and more educated. Many are students, professionals or retirees.
James Middleton, who is 72, and his wife of 53 years, Barbara, have a grown son, now living in Houston, and a granddaughter in Chicago who is considering moving to the South or West, they say — an indicator of just how much less promise many see in what was once the “promised land” of the North.
“At that time there wasn’t a lot of differences between there and here, in terms of the way people took care of their families,” Middleton says of Chicago when he first arrived. “It was simple. We stayed with relatives, and other relatives had relatives, so you were always around people that was concerned about you.”
“It was a vast difference between how things are today and how things were then,” he adds. “Then it was like that saying, it took a village to raise a child. Everyone chipped in, whether they were neighbors or not. Now the professionals, the school teachers … they are trying to get away.”
THE END OF EXILE
During the summers of her youth, Sherry Williams and her siblings relished the trips back “home” from Chicago to Inverness, Miss., where they ran free and spent lazy summer days by the local fishing hole, living, if only for a few weeks, an idyllic country life.
Those connections still run deep in Williams’ family and in other families whose roots stretch back to the South.
“For the most part, most of the people who I know that have started to return to the South, their mindset is that they never were Chicagoans,” says Williams, 51, who was born in Chicago but whose mother left Inverness in 1942. “They physically lived here, but really, they truly believe the South is home, and that this is just the place that they moved to seeking work and absolutely for the opportunity to vote, attend better schools and just better themselves.”
She said that many of the children of those migrants found themselves financially strapped. “But back home, the family has always had that land, that ‘heir property’ that many people find themselves going to,” Williams says. Her family still owns a home and some land in Mississippi, which a revolving cast of cousins has occupied off and on.
Williams’ daughter, Joi Tucker, 20, a third-year student at Alcorn State in Lorman, Miss., said she chose to leave Chicago because life is “definitely a lot easier” in the South. She said she plans on staying there after she graduates to attend graduate school and find work there. She says she’s “courting” Alabama, Tennessee and Atlanta.
“It’s kind of like a sci-fi movie,” Tucker says. “You go home and see people just disappearing.”
“AIN’T GOING BACK”
Quinn Chapel A.M.E church is Chicago’s oldest black congregation. During the Civil War era it played a pivotal role in the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad. On a recent afternoon, more than a dozen men and women, many with graying hair, met for Bible study. Many were born in the South, in Mississippi, Georgia or Tennessee.
“Oh, I’ve seen the change, people moving back,” says Dorothy Cunningham, 83, who was raised in Memphis but moved to Chicago with her family when she was 13.
Her church has seen its ranks dwindle amid generational and geographic shifts, as well as the closing of nearby public housing complexes. Cunningham has spoken with family or friends, and she says that they’ve told her that one downside to moving South is culture shock for the younger children and teens unused to the social mores and the slower pace of life there.
Still, while many African Americans have opted to return “home” to the South, there are still some who intend to stay in the North. They say they have left the Old South behind, and they’re unconvinced the New South has much more to offer.
“I left a long time ago,” says Mack Sevier, owner of Uncle John’s Barbecue, a little no-table joint on the south side of the city. Sevier moved from Augusta, Ark., on May 18, 1962, the day he graduated from high school. “I ain’t going back,” he says.
Sevier says he found exactly what he was looking for: the opportunity to be his own boss. He occasionally goes back down South, he says, usually to pick up favorite foods, like the southern-grown sweet potatoes he uses to make his pies.
Bronzeville is a South Side neighborhood in Chicago that historians cite as the city’s first black neighborhood, founded by former and fugitives slaves in the 1840s. On an unseasonably warm evening recently on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Arlander Wade, 63, stood on the sidewalk outside of his recently purchased condo in one of the area’s huge, historic “greystone” homes.
He pointed across the street to a parking lot where the Regal Theater once stood, a place where jazz and blues greats once sang or played. The street, running through the heart of historic Bronzeville, once was Grand Boulevard, a gem in the black community and home to people like Robert S. Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender, Daniel Hale Williams, one of the nation’s first black surgeons, and Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first post-Reconstruction African American elected to Congress.
“It took me 63 years, but I finally made it to Grand Boulevard,” says Wade, a retired postal worker whose mother was born in Georgia, his father in New Jersey. “I don’t know why people are going. All these young people are moving because they don’t know what they have right here. They are hoping for something better, but what they’re running from, they’re running to. Everyone they saw on 43rd Street last week will be waiting for them in Atlanta by the time they get there. They can have that. I finally made it.”
However determined Wade is to stay, he is surrounded by a fast-flowing ebb tide of African-American migrants leaving Chicago behind — people like Joi Tucker, the Alcorn State University student.
“A lot of people are going back to their mother’s home, grandparents’ home and going back to their land,” she says. “People down here show black people love.”