Return Migration to the South


In the early 1970s the migration trend of the previous five decades began to reverse: African Americans were returning to the South. After decades of mounting migration north and west, the rates had actually begun to slow in the 1950s. But it was not until the late 1960s that the number of African Americans moving to the South eclipsed the number leaving. Since then, black migration to the South has continued to grow.

Many migrants - a majority of them college-educated - seek economic opportunities in the reascending southern economy; some want to escape deteriorating conditions in northern cities; others return to be nearer to kin, to care for aging relatives, or to retire in a familiar environment with a better quality of life than that found in the urban North.

All, in some way, reclaim the South as their home, the place that African Americans built and where their roots run deep.

A Changing Tide

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.

The New South: Jim Crow Dismantled

Among the most important factors contributing to the reversal of emigration from the South were the political and social changes that culminated in a number of Supreme Court decisions and federal actions in the 1950s and 1960s. Although African Americans would continue to face discrimination, violence, and other obstacles, actions taken by the federal government to formally dismantle Jim Crow generated change in many southern communities and sparked hope for a brighter future for the region.

Formal and informal segregation, discrimination in employment and housing, denial of civil rights, and outright violence faced by African Americans in southern communities provided a major impetus to leave the region during the first half of the twentieth century. It was not merely custom, but also state and municipal laws that systematically excluded blacks from workplaces, public spaces, voting booths, and schools.

And it is the political awareness and activism among southerners that brought about immense political and social transformations. The swelling ranks of the civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s and 1960s bolstered the assault on segregation with sit-ins, protests, voter-registration drives, and boycotts.

As a result, the Supreme Court reversed the "separate but equal" doctrine in 1954, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that state-sponsored segregation was indeed unconstitutional. Along with this landmark decision, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act signaled an earnest attack by the federal government on Jim Crow.

In the late 1960s, ever increasing numbers of African Americans chose to fight these battles in political arenas. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a total of seventy-two African Americans held elected offices in the states of the old Confederacy. Just five years later, that number increased almost tenfold. In March 1971, 711 African Americans held elected offices in the same states.

Tommy Dortch, a young man with political aspirations, moved back to the South in order to pursue a political career, explaining to the magazine Ebony in 1973: "I left the South like everybody else-looking for my future in the North ... but it did not take me long to realize that, politically, I could get elected easier in the South and be more effective."

The promise of life in the South without the obstacles of the segregationist and discriminatory laws of the past - and the reality that informal but entrenched discrimination existed in the North - made the South an enticing destination for many migrants. Etta Willis, who left San Francisco for Mount Olive, Mississippi, described the improvement in southern conditions in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle:

You don't have the racism here that you used to have; frankly I have experienced less racism here than I did in San Francisco. The racism in San Francisco is very hard to detect, but it's there. It's here too, but not like that. If someone doesn't care for you, they tell you to your face, and I can't think of a time that's happened since I came back.

For many African Americans who had left the South with hopes of escaping discrimination, the North proved to be an illusory "promised land." With the dismantling of Jim Crow many, like Etta Willis, preferred the more familiar social interactions of the South to the less "detectable" racism of the North and West.

Additionally, many of the humiliating social customs that had prevailed in the South decades earlier had begun to fade by the 1970s. Earnest Smith, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1944, recalled the time before he left the South as one filled with discrimination, segregation, violence, and the embarrassment of answering to the term boy.

Smith and his wife moved back to Mississippi in 1970 and found a more hospitable environment. In a 1971 interview with Ebony magazine, Smith observed:

Everybody's been wonderful. ... White folks used to always hurry you up or curse at you when I left [in the 1940s]. Now they stop you on the street to say "Hello" and some of 'em call you "Sir." And they say "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am" to my wife and call her "Miss Smith." Things changed so much, one guy come here from Chicago and brought his white wife.

Similarly, Elijah Davis, who moved back to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1970 after living in Gary, Indiana, for twenty years, remarked: "Before I left here years ago, there were places you couldn't go, places you couldn't eat at, and you couldn't make a decent living. But I can live in peace here. I can walk anywhere in town without fear."

That is not to say that African Americans in the South did not face obstacles, continued discrimination, and violence. Many of the same problems persisted; however, it was clear to all in the 1970s that something had indeed changed forever.

If the civil rights movement had not succeeded in creating a just and harmonious world, it had fostered important, tangible, and lasting changes in the social and political fabric of the nation - particularly in the southern states.

At the same time, conditions in the North were starting to deteriorate.

From the "Rust Belt" to the "Sun Belt"

The economic boom in cities of the Midwest, Northeast, and West - spawned particularly by World War II - had come to a grinding halt by the early 1970s. Many of the factories and plants that had lured African Americans from the South during and after the war were abandoned in the wake of a globalizing economy and the oil crisis of the early 1970s. The new economic order literally destroyed communities and eliminated hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

For instance, in Detroit - the heart of the nation's auto-manufacturing industry - jobs were cut by more than half in the thirty years following the end of World War II. In 1947 the city harbored 3,272 manufacturing firms, which employed approximately 338,400 people; in 1977 the number of firms had withered to 1,954 employing 153,300 people. As manufacturing companies increasingly sought cheaper labor and resources abroad, the region previously known as the heartland of American industry was transformed into America's Rust Belt.

But the Rust Belt was not the only region in the country to experience economic transformation during this period. As manufacturing declined in the Northeast and Midwest during the 1970s, it grew in the states of the South and West. In 1963 the East North Central region (primarily Michigan and Illinois) produced 30 percent of the nation's manufacturing output, while the South produced 21 percent, and the West 14 percent. By 1989, however, the East North Central's manufacturing output had been cut almost in half, while the output in the South and West grew to 29 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Lured by cheaper - and nonunion - labor, less expensive land, temperate weather, tax breaks, and other government incentives, manufacturers were increasingly choosing the Sun Belt states for their new production facilities.

The migration deluge from the South hit Los Angeles late, compared with the big cities of the East Coast and Midwest. But beginning in the 1940s, upwards of 300,000 African Americans poured in, pulled by the industrial boom that accompanied World War II. After the war, they stayed. Now, more than a few migrants and their descendants are packing their bags. Over a five-year period in the early 1990s, spurred in large part by California's sagging economy, some 103,000 African Americans relocated to the South. Between 1995 and 2000, 221,000 left the West.

Thus, for those seeking job opportunities, there was a curious symmetry between the original Great Migration and the return migration. Both often involved compelling reasons for departure at the origin and job prospects at the destination.

The economic attractions of the South extended beyond manufacturing employment. African Americans were also drawn to an overall lower cost of living in the region, as well as thriving middle-class communities and career opportunities. As returnee John Ash told Ebony magazine: "The high cost of land and high property taxes in California made Atlanta very attractive to us. ... It just seemed as if we could get more for our money by settling here."

Dr. Terry Reynolds, a dentist who chose to open his practice in Atlanta in the 1970s, liked the city because "blacks are in businesses here that you would not conceive of them being in anywhere else." Reynolds's business partner, Dr. Walker B. Moore, added, "Atlanta is alive. ... Other cities are dying."

During the 1990s, Atlanta, which some called "the Harlem of the '90s," was a favored destination. It gained close to 160,000 black residents in six years. These returnees saw the city as a new promised land, a city with unlimited opportunity, a great place to raise their children.

Washington, D.C., and the metropolitan areas of Houston, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, Norfolk, and Orlando all saw large gains in their black population during the 1990s.

The Urban Crisis

Deteriorating physical and social conditions of the inner cities of the North and West were as tangible as the economic upturn and growing job opportunities in the South in the 1970s. During the 1960s, the problem of "the ghetto" - urban decay, inner-city poverty, and unrest - appeared urgent. The decade saw a resurgence of urban uprisings in African-American neighborhoods, generally in response to manifestations of discrimination.

Hundreds of disturbances occurred throughout the 1960s in black urban neighborhoods, the most significant of which took place in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, in Newark and Detroit in 1967, and following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 in cities across the country. This inner-city turmoil troubled many, including the residents of affected neighborhoods.

Earnest Smith commented after his move back to the South in 1971: "For the first 20 years, life in Chicago was real nice. ... But the last five years was when I come to gettin' scared. They killed [Dr. Martin Luther] King and the people started tearin' up the place. Crime in Chicago got so bad that I got scared and started carryin' a gun." To many, both the physical and social foundations of many urban African-American communities appeared to be crumbling in the late 1960s.

Issues around urban decay and poverty were of great interest to federal policy makers in the 1960s. Even before the "urban crisis" was on the national radar, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in his State of the Union address in 1964. After the Watts riot, the problem of the ghetto and African-American poverty became the most urgent of domestic issues.

The Johnson Administration created a number of Great Society programs between 1964 and 1967 to address urban poverty, which disproportionately affected African Americans. These programs included the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created the Office of Economic Opportunity to administer community-based antipoverty programs; the establishment of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; the Model Cities Program, which funneled federal money to "blighted" communities; and many others, including Medicare, Job Corps, Head Start, Community Action Programs, and Food Stamps.

Despite all the attention that urban decay, unrest, unemployment, and poverty in the "ghetto" received in the 1960s, the programs spearheaded by the government were largely ineffective and highly criticized. When Richard M. Nixon was elected president in 1968, he dismantled virtually all of Johnson's "war on poverty" programs.

African-American migration from the urban North to the South accelerated in part because of the dismal economic and social conditions faced by inner-city communities, but the South faced comparable problems. Rural poverty, for instance, was (and remains) one of the most entrenched economic problems in the United States. Nevertheless, the future of the urban North grew less and less promising for African Americans.

The Southern Brain Gain

Demographic studies have shown that, in general, migrants tend to have higher levels of education than nonmigrants, and this was the case for African Americans migrating from the South to the North. Often this is not true, however, with return migrations. Return migrants generally have lower education levels than those who stay at their destinations-perhaps because those with lower education levels have fewer employment opportunities.

But this characterization may be relevant only for those who return soon after their departure. Demographers who have specifically studied the return migration to the South have found that the conventional wisdom does not hold: African Americans moving back to the South generally had higher occupational and educational status than nonmigrants. On average, their incomes were higher than those of the overall African-American population of the South. Unlike the previous migration from south to north, which included many agricultural workers, the net migration rates for those African Americans with college degrees or with at least some college were higher than for those with lower education levels.

Today, 50.5 percent of African Americans moving south have a college education. Some southern states have indeed experienced a "brain gain," attracting thousands of black college graduates. Between 1995 and 2000 Georgia (and Atlanta in particular), Texas, and Maryland had a particularly large influx of college-educated African Americans.

New York was the top brain-drain state, losing more than eighteen thousand African-American college graduates over that five-year period. Interestingly, as noted by demographer William H. Frey, "The major black 'brain gain' states are distinct from those gaining the most white college graduates. Although southern states such as Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas are among the largest white gainers, the top 10 list also includes six western states. Comparatively, then, the South appears to exert a stronger 'pull' on highly educated blacks than it does on their white counterparts." Among the top ten "gainers" of black college graduates, only two (Arizona and Nevada) are not southern states.

This specific migration has contributed significantly to the growth of the middle class in many southern cities. In addition, returnees have entered the political life at high levels with great success. Several elected officials, such as Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin and former Houston mayor Lee Brown, migrated south.

While the "collective characteristics" of the migrants can provide a glimpse into the range of factors prompting them to return to the South, the migration itself is distinguished by the diverse backgrounds and motivations of its participants. The personal decisions they make are of great importance in understanding their move; however, there are also several broad social, political, and economic transformations that assured a more promising future for African Americans in the South.

Family Matters

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.

The Legacies: A New Great Migration?

While African-American return migration to the South may have caught social scientists by surprise in the 1970s, it was not merely a blip on the radar. The South continued to register a net gain of African-American migrants through the 1970s and 1980s, and in-migration increased dramatically in the 1990s. In the first half of the decade, the South recorded a net gain of 368,000 African Americans, compared with a gain of 97,000 in the first five years of the previous decade.

In this same period, 65 percent of the nation's black population growth took place in the South. The most recent census data, for the years 1995 to 2000, reveal a continuation of this trend: approximately 680,000 African Americans moved to the South and 330,000 moved out, for a net gain in the region of 350,000.

Enough time has passed since World War I and the great surge in African-American migration from south to north to comprehend the momentous transformations wrought by this demographic shift. It has been barely three decades since the flow of the Great Migrations reversed itself. And the trend is far from over: the net migration to the South continues to grow in the twenty-first century.

While social scientists and the migrants themselves attempt to understand the push-and-pull factors shaping such a demographic shift, the full impact of this movement has yet to be realized. The return of African Americans to the South may come to rank among the nation's great migrations.

Whatever its causes and effects may be, after "generations of separation and decades of forgetfulness," as Maya Angelou observed, many African Americans have found "that they can come home again."


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Web Links

Return and Politics

Reports and articles base on reports by demographer William H. Frey. Interactive tool on Census 2000.

Carolina's Coastal People

Writer Vertamae Grosvenor examines how rapid resort development has altered life for the Gullah people on the Sea Islands. A Return South migrant is featured in this oral documentation.

Going Home To The South

News story about the "southern hospitality" and other lifestyle advantages African Americans are enjoying as they move South.

How the South Changed

Christian Science Monitor news report about African-American migration back to the south (especially South Carolina) after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Demographical data is provided about African-American median household income, voter registration population, college graduates, and congress election compared to that of White Americans over the past 30 years.