Homecoming

The census confirms a trend that's been decades in the making--the Great Migration is in reverse:


Historically, the South was home to roughly 90 percent of the nation's blacks from 1790 until 1910, when African-Americans began to migrate northward to escape racism and seek jobs in industrial centers such as Detroit, New York and Chicago during World War I. After the decades-long Great Migration, the share of blacks in the South hit a low of about 53 per cent in the 1970s, before civil rights legislation and the passage of time began to improve the social climate in the region. 

The current 57 per cent share of blacks living in the South is the highest level since 1960. The latest estimates show that the Atlanta metropolitan area increased by more than half a million blacks over the last decade to about 1.7million, making it the metro area with the second-largest black population. 

'It's no coincidence that the shift is happening as we encounter economic turmoil that is being felt disproportionately among blacks, such as mortgage foreclosures, loss of jobs and economic devastation in major Northern hubs,' said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau. 'With major changes and less racial devastation in the South, people are finding their way back.' 

The nation's black population grew by roughly 1.7million over the last decade. About 75 per cent of that growth occurred in the South - primarily metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Charlotte, N.C. That's up from 65 per cent in the 1990s, according to the latest census estimates. 

I take Shelton's points about economic turmoil, and a decrease in racism, but I think that it's really important to avoid yet another "what society is doing to black people," discussion. The world is rife with those. Equally important is a "what black people are doing for themselves" conversation. 

It must be remembered that the Great Migration featured an largely poor  (if sometimes educated and more often skilled) population of people fleeing debt-peonage, share-cropping, and racial terrorism. The reverse migration features a significantly less poor, and significantly more educated population of people seeking better paying jobs, and better housing. Essentially, they are behaving like other Americans. 
William Frey, in some of his earlier work on the Reverse Great Migration, sketches out the difference:

The northward migration of blacks over much of the 20th century did not skew high on socioeconomic attributes. Generally, South-to-North black migrants were less educated than their northern counterparts.8 This largely reflected the "push" of eroding agricultural job prospects in the oppressive southern racial climate, as well as heavy demand for manual labor in northern industrial states. 

The new migration of blacks into the South turns this historical trend on its head. Now, more educated blacks are migrating to Southern destinations at higher rates than those with lower education levels. Figure 4 reflects this pattern, showing net rates of black migration per 1,000 black adult residents at each education level.9 The rates are positive for every level of education, indicating that the South gained both less-educated and more-educated blacks through migration in the late 1990s. 

Notably, though, the net rates are highest for those with college degrees and those with at least some college. Thus, black migration to the South over this period tended to raise the overall educational attainment level of southern blacks. This selective migration of "the best and the brightest" is consistent with conventional wisdom on inter-regional and interstate migrant flow across a national job market.10 The pattern is mirrored in white migration to the South during the same period. 

As with the black population, the South gained whites at all education levels, though net gains were larger for higher-educated whites. State-level analysis provides a broader picture of "brain gain" and "brain drain" patterns for college graduate blacks. Table 4 shows net migration gains and losses for adult college graduates by state over the 1995-2000 period. 

Only 16 states show net gains for black college graduates. Georgia, Texas, and Maryland lead all others, and four other southeastern states rank among the top 10 recipients. Arizona and Nevada, drawing some gains from California's out-flow, stand out as two migrant gainers in the West. Beyond these, the remaining states experiencing in-migration of blacks with college degrees attracted relatively small numbers of these individuals.

Much of this educational attainment was built on the backs of black folks who came North with nothing, and worked their lives away so that their kids and grandkids could go off to college. Michelle Obama is the obvious example. Palmer Woods is yet another. I'm sure a number of my peers could offer their own testimony. Surely, I stand on the shoulders of a grandmother who came up from Maryland's rural Eastern Shore, scrubbed white people's floors, raised three daughters in the projects, sent all of them to college, went to night school for nursing, and eventually bought her home. 


It must be said, even with all the problems that have plagued big cities, that the Great Migration was a success, an success made possible through the actions of black people. It was not an unqualified success, but a success all the same. Success almost never means the absence of all problems, so much as it means the creation of better problems. Coping with the mortgage crisis is a much better problem, then coping with the Klan.

I can totally feel the lure to go back home. There's something singularly beautiful about the South, and you'll miss the allure if all you can fulminate about the backwardness of Haley Barbour. Besides, if these figures continue apace, the days of the Haley Barbours will be numbered.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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