Southern People

I’m struck by the fact that although things have been decidedly on the upswing down in these parts for at least two generations, practically every report on apparently positive developments in the South, seems to start from the premise that this is something brand-new.  Hence, the New York Times captions a story thusly: ” Many U.S. Blacks Moving to South, Reversing Trend.” Since this has been going on for roughly forty years, I think it would be more accurate to say that black migrants are “continuing a trend,” but then change seldom comes easily or quickly either to the South, or, so it appears, to the minds of a lot of Yankee journalists where the South is concerned.

Certainly this “reverse migration” is still noteworthy in the historical sense, given that some 10 million black Americans left the South for northern cities between 1910 and 1960. The beginnings of this exodus can be traced to a variety of causes, not the least of which was a continuing reign of racial terror, marked by lynchings and other atrocities.  There was also the impenetrable barrier to opportunity and advancement confronting blacks in the Jim Crow South.  Overwhelmingly consigned to sharecropping or some form of agricultural tenancy, many black southerners pulled up stakes in the face of the boll weevil invasion, which struck the southern cotton belt in the years immediately preceding World War I.  World War I also factored into this Black Diaspora by shutting off the flow of immigrant labor from Europe, making the urban-industrial North seem even more of a “Promised Land” than indicated in reports in black newspapers like the Chicago Defender that were often smuggled South by railroad porters.

The patterns of migration for outbound black southerners were not unlike those established by immigrants from other nations in that reports from relocated blacks tended to attract friends and kin from back home to particular northern cities.  Migrants from South Atlantic states like Georgia gravitated to New York.  Rochester had been a popular destination for blacks in my neck of the North Georgia woods, for example.  Meanwhile, the Illinois Central Railroad and the legendary U.S. Highway 61 so frequently invoked in the blues (“Walked that ‘61 Highway’ till I broke down in my knees….”) offered blacks intent on leaving the Mississippi Delta a straight shot into Chicago, so much so that for writer Anthony Walton, who grew up in a neighborhood full of fellow migrants from his state, Chicago had simply been “the northernmost county of Mississippi.”

Black migration out of the South had an enormous impact on American life.  I’m persuaded that the post-World War I “Harlem Renaissance” in the arts and literature grew in no small part from efforts by relocated black Southerners to better understand themselves and their culture in light of the old way of life that, for all its anxiety and pain, had shaped their identities nonetheless.  The political implications of the movement of several million Americans from states where they could not vote to states where they could were profound as well.  The Democratic Party’s greater attentiveness to black Southerners could be detected even in the 1930s, especially after the majority of black voters supported the party’s presidential candidate for the first time in 1936.  It was glaringly apparent by the end of World War II (which, of course, had siphoned away even more black Southerners) as President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces, appointed the first black federal judge, and pursued other initiatives indicating greater solicitousness toward black voters.  The reaction from white Southerners to all of this manifested itself first in the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948 and then the wholesale desertion of the old “yellow dog” tradition of Democratic voting that began when Barry Goldwater claimed five Deep South states for the GOP in 1964 after racking up more than 90 percent of the white vote in some areas.

Many southern blacks had been unable to vote in that election, of course, but the following year, the Voting Rights Act would change all that, and within a few years the South would actually lead the nation in the number of blacks in elected office.  There had also been a monumental shift in economic momentum away from the old manufacturing states, increasingly referred to as the “Rust Belt,” in favor of the dynamic “Sunbelt,” which had suddenly grown powerfully attractive as a place to invest, work, and live, thanks to a remarkable progress on the racial front, not to mention the blessings of air-conditioning as well.

Although, initially at least, they quite likely harbored more misgivings about joining whites in the southbound exodus, enough northern blacks had done so by the mid-1970s to make the South a net gainer from black migration. This trend built throughout the 1980s and accelerated dramatically in the 1990s. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the number of blacks entering the region exceeded the number leaving by more than 1.2 million. During the 1990s alone, the South’s black population grew by nearly 3.6 million overall, nearly twice the rate of increase for the previous decade. The fact that one of ten African Americans in the South in 2000 was a newcomer clearly reflected the economic dynamism of a South that led the nation in job production in the 1990s.  According to the latest census, not only are there now a million black residents of the South who were actually born in the Northeast but Metro Atlanta, which had added 459,000 African Americans and was home to seven of America’s ten fastest-growing counties for blacks in the 1990s has now supplanted Chicago as the nation’s second largest black population center behind New York.

There is no question that black migrants to Atlanta and other southern metropolitan areas have been pushed as well as pulled. In fact, this indication of the South’s attractiveness for blacks is simply the reverse side of the staggering deterioration of the social fabric in the racially polarized urban North.

Anyone who has been South-watching as long as I have could hardly miss the irony in this snippet from the Times story:

The Rev. Ronald Peters, who moved last year from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, said it was refreshing to be part of a hopeful black middle class that was not weighed down by the stigmas and stereotypes of the past, as he felt it was in the urban Northeast.

“Too often, people turn on TV and all they see are black men in chains,” said Mr. Peters, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, a seminary in Atlanta. “Atlanta is a clear example of a different type of ethos. The black community is not people who have lost their way.”

The Rev.’s comments also point to a very different demographic profile for today’s black migrants as opposed to those in previous generations whose land of opportunity seem to lie North of them.  The black people moving into the South today are far better educated and more economically comfortable than those who left it long ago.  In this sense, the black newcomers are also raising the overall socioeconomic profile of black Southerners, though they are choosing to reside in suburban counties and neighborhoods where blacks had previously been a truly tiny minority if they were present at all.  This has helped to further reduce residential segregation in many southern metro areas that were already more integrated than their northern counterparts.  Although the attractions of suburban life — better schools and public facilities, a safer community, more stable property values, etc.– differ little for them in comparison to their white neighbors, their politics are not so conservative.  On the other hand, the new black suburbanites are to the right of great many inner-city black politicians who still pursue an agenda emphasizing public assistance and uplift.  Hence, Barack Obama can do extremely well among black voters in both the ‘burbs and lower income central city precincts, but there’s certainly no guarantee of a united racial front in state and local politics.

Throw into this mix the dramatic increases in the South’s Hispanic population (which grew by 43 percent overall during the last decade, as compared to 11percent for blacks and 1 percent for whites) in southern metropolitan areas, and you’ll have an even more difficult time trying to envision likely political scenarios and outcomes.

Black returnees, especially older ones, often mention the appeal of being “back home,” although the younger and more ambitious among them tend to choose locations other than those abandoned by their parents or grandparents.  The symbolic or psychological meaning of this phenomenon surely varies from case to case, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to think that there is a real sense of accomplishment or “arrival” that comes with being able to command respect and wield influence in a region where one’s ancestors struggled so mightily simply to survive.  Affirmation and opportunity make for a seductive potion, I’d say, based on the upbeat assessment offered by Cicely Bland, a black businesswoman, who came to metropolitan Atlanta from New Jersey in 2006:“The business and political opportunities are here….You have a lot of African-Americans with a lot of influence, and they’re in my immediate networks.”

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at