Return Migration to the South
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From the "Rust Belt" to the "Sun Belt"
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Among the most influential factors prompting African Americans to migrate to the South was family. According to a 1973 survey of return migrants to Birmingham, Alabama, more than half of the respondents had moved back for family reasons. Many were returning to take care of aging relatives. Thus it appears that return migration to the South was not just a nostalgic homecoming; it was a family strategy.

Asked why African Americans were returning to the South in 1971, Atlanta businessman Jesse B. Blayton replied, "Grandma is here. ... Most American blacks have roots in the South. The liberation thinking is here. Blacks are more together. With the doors opening wider, this area is the Mecca."

Along with economic opportunities and more hospitable social conditions, many African-American migrants were also drawn to the South to be with "Grandma." Even for those migrants who had never lived in the South and did not have specific family obligations to fulfill, a sense of family history could prove enticing. Author and poet Maya Angelou returned in the early 1980s, settling in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Discussing the phenomenon of African-American return migration, Angelou wrote:

The answer to the question "Why are so many young Black people moving South today?" is that the American South sings a siren song to all Black Americans. The melody may be ignored, despised or ridiculed, but we all hear it. ... They return and find or make their places in the land of their foreparents. They find and make friends under the shade of trees their ancestors left decades earlier. Many find themselves happy, without being able to explain the emotion. I think it is simply that they feel generally important.

Clearly, economic factors and statistical data alone cannot explain the swelling ranks of both African Americans who migrate South and those who never leave; for many, the lure of the region is saturated with complexities, familial and national histories, and personal emotion.

Since the early 1970s, when social scientists began studying African-American return migration, many debates as to the primary causes of the movement have taken shape. While some geographers, economists, and demographers have focused on economic factors, anthropologist Carol Stack, in her book Call to Home, has taken a more ethnographic approach that stresses the importance of kinship networks and long-term, multi-generational family bonds.

Stack found that children often served as a bond between northern and southern branches of a family: some northern-born children moved to the South to be cared for by grandparents; others spent summers and holidays visiting southern relatives; and a substantial number would move South as adults to help care for elderly kin.

Many children moved back and forth between their home community in the North and a southern "homeplace" - a community that was not the birthplace of the migrant, but a place with strong and deep familial roots. These cyclical movements were strategies devised by scattered family members in order to care for dependent relatives.

In light of these family strategies, the migration back to the South in the 1970s is not surprising: individuals who migrated as young adults in the 1940s and 1950s were returning home to care for aging parents.

But there is also something else: the feeling that, by returning south, African Americans are reclaiming their heritage. Actor Morgan Freeman, who was born in Tennessee and grew up in Mississippi before moving north and west, has gone back to the place of his childhood. As he explained, "This is home. This is where my roots are. . . . [W]e built the South, and we know it. What I own in the South isn't because I went and bought it. What I own is my place here, because my mother, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, my great-grandmother . . . all the way back to my great-great-great-grandmother, who happened to be a Virginian - that's where they had the farms."

After the disappointment of the North and West, many African Americans are reclaiming the South as their true home, the place where their roots are deep, the land their ancestors built with much sweat and tears.

Morgan Freeman: HomeAmerica Behind the Color LineMorgan Freeman: Home from America Behind the Color Line by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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