Despite the migration of 1.5 million African Americans to northern cities during the Great Migration, on the eve of World War II the black population remained largely southern and rural. Within two decades, however, its demographics changed dramatically. In 1940 only 23 percent of African Americans lived outside the South; by 1970 this figure had more than doubled, rising to 47 percent.
But return migration actually occurred throughout the twentieth century. Even in the 1930s, approximately one African American migrated from north to south for every four heading north. This number slowly evened out: from 1955, each five-year period saw 100,000 black northerners relocating to the South. By 1970 more African Americans were returning to the South than leaving it.
Although many people moving to the South in the 1960s and 1970s had never lived there, overall this movement was indeed a return migration. Approximately two-thirds of the African-American migrants who moved to the South between 1965 and 1970 were going back to the region of their birth. The trend continued in the 1970s: from 1975 to 1980, at least 41 percent of African Americans going south were return migrants whose destinations included large cities as well as a wide range of smaller urban communities and rural regions.
What these figures fail to show, however, is the number of "nonreturn" migrants - northern-born people moving to places in which they had strong and lasting kinship networks. In other words, they were the children and grandchildren of the southerners who had left the South during the Great Migration and World War II.
The patterns of migration back to the South confirm the extent to which African-American migrants - both return and nonreturn - followed familial paths. The geographical patterns that had dominated the first two Great Migrations were shaped in large part by regional railroad routes and chain migration. Many African Americans who migrated north in the first half of the twentieth century chose their destinations according to where they had access via local railroads and where other family members and friends had migrated before them. Dwayne Walls, in Chickenbone Special, recounts an old quote about the African-American residents of a rural community in North Carolina: "These people know only three places to go: Heaven, Hell, and Baltimore."
As migrants returned south, many followed the same paths that their predecessors had carved out when they migrated north. Despite the rise of the automobile, they moved along the old railroad routes: from eastern cities toward the Carolinas; from Ohio and Michigan cities toward Alabama; from Chicago toward Mississippi; and from Los Angeles toward East Texas.
But not all African-American migrants were returning home. Some were actually born in the North and were seeking economic opportunities rather than familial ties. They headed in large numbers for rapidly growing metropolitan areas, and only 16 percent went to less economically promising, more rural areas; by contrast, 45 percent of return migrants ended up in nonmetropolitan areas.
Nevertheless, coming home to family remained one of the most important factors pulling African Americans to the South, especially in the early years. In a 1973 survey of return migrants to Birmingham, Alabama, for example, the majority of respondents (52 percent) cited various kinship and family reasons, the single most important of which (cited by 12 percent of returnees) was to care for an ill or aging parent or relative. In a distant second, respondents mentioned various economic reasons (almost 20 percent) as the impetus for their return. Nonfamily social reasons (16 percent) and health/climate reasons (12 percent) also influenced decisions to return south.