WASHINGTON — The Great Migration, the 60-year escape from segregation and racism that brought American blacks to the North, has reversed course. Better jobs and quality of life in the South are beckoning, as is the lure of something more intangible — a sense of home.
"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 1.7 million over the last decade. About 75 percent 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 percent in the 1990s, according to the latest census estimates. The gains came primarily at the expense of Northern metro areas such as New York and Chicago, which posted their first declines in black population since at least 1980.
Illinois had its first decline in the black population in the state's history, with the number of African-Americans decreasing by 1.3 percent since 2000, according to official 2010 census figures released Tuesday.
In all, about 57 percent of U.S. blacks now live in the South, a jump from the 53 percent share in the 1970s, according to an analysis of census data by William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. It was the surest sign yet of a sustained reverse migration to the South following the exodus of millions of blacks to the Midwest, Northeast and West in the Great Migration from 1910 to 1970.
"The Great Migration of millions of disenfranchised blacks from the South to Northern cities has now completely turned around," Frey said. "Blacks now look to states like Georgia, Texas and North Carolina as the places with the most promise in the 21st century — a prospect that would have been unimaginable a generation ago."
The converts include Shelton Haynes, 33, a housing manager in Atlanta. He grew up in New York City and lived in Harlem for many years with his wife and two children before growing weary of the cost of living and hectic pace. After considering other places in the South such as Charlotte, the two settled on Atlanta, where Haynes' brother, sister-in-law and parents now also live.
"We have a great support network of family and friends here, and there is good community involvement, with our kids involved in swimming, tennis and basketball," Haynes said. "In Atlanta, I also see a lot of African-Americans do very well in a variety of professions, so it was good to see things changing."
The findings, based on 2009 data, are expected to be highlighted in official 2010 results that show changes in non-Hispanic black populations in states such as Texas, New York, Georgia and Florida. Illinois' official 2010 data was released Tuesday. The recent census figures for blacks refer to non-Hispanic blacks, which the Census Bureau began calculating separately in 1980.
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 percent in the 1970s, before civil rights legislation and the passage of time began to improve the social climate in the region.
The current 57 percent 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 1.7 million, making it the metro area with the second-largest black population. Despite losing blacks, the New York metro area continued to be home to the largest black population, at roughly 3.2 million.
The Chicago metropolitan area, which previously was ranked No. 2 in black population, slipped to No. 3.
Broken down by state, Georgia was tops in the total number of African-Americans, edging out New York state. It was followed by Texas, Florida and California. California in recent decades has seen its black population slip or remain largely unchanged.
In December, the Census Bureau reported the nation's population was 308.7 million, up from 281.4 million a decade ago. Most of the population growth occurred in the South and West, where some states stand to gain seats in Congress to reflect their increases in population. Texas, for example, will pick up four new House seats, and Florida will gain two, while Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington each gain one seat.
Frey noted that the continued Southern migration of blacks, who tend to vote Democratic, could have political implications as they flow into mostly Republican-leaning states. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama was able to win in traditionally GOP-leaning states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida after a jump in black voter turnout.
"While much attention is currently given to Hispanic and Asian immigration to new parts of the South, the return migration of African-Americans seems to have flown under the radar," Frey said. "It's a factor which should not go unnoticed by politicians and those creating new congressional districts in growing parts of the South."
—Despite a slowing of the black population, the New York metro area could see racial and ethnic minorities become the numerical majority when 2010 results are released. Other metro areas that could tip to "majority-minority" status in 2010 are Memphis, Tenn.; Modesto, Calif.; Jackson, Miss.; Las Vegas; San Diego; Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria, Va.; and Oxnard, Calif.
—Texas will become a majority-minority state for the first time based on official 2010 results; its switch occurred in 2005, according to census estimates. It joins Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Washington, D.C. Eight states, led by Arizona, Maryland, Nevada and Georgia, have shares of non-Hispanic whites nearing the tipping point of 50 percent.
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