Movement and migration is constantly on my mind. And whenever I hear someone claim to know where black people are moving to and why, my ears really perk up. Especially when they do what USA Today did recently and crunch some U.S. Census numbers and make the kind of maps they did in their recent story on what’s been called the reverse migration.
Some background. The Great Migration is the term given to the movement of 6 million African-Americans from southeastern cities to northeastern, midwestern and far western U.S. cities from 1910 to 1970. The Wiki on is comprehensive and legit, especially for our purposes today of getting into why this movement is actually going into reverse.
More background. This panel I served on back in 2012 and this amazing book by Isabel Wilkerson called The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson’s book, which we discuss in the panel, talks to people who actually did the moving and asks them why they moved and what they learned. For three unique people, each who left different corners of the Southeast and each went to the Northeast (Harlem, Manhattan); Midwest (South Side of Chicago); and California (Los Angeles), it gets into their backstories of several years of their lives in the South.
That included: educations and running in high society in the Atlanta black community, then a solo car trip that was much longer than it should have been due to racism; an abusive marriage and fleeing a sharecropping Mississippi experience via the train; and organizing fellow orange grove workers, then needing to flee from the fear of lynching via train. It also gets into their regrets, as their new spouses and children, as well as working conditions and homes often did not meet their dreams and expectations.
Wilkerson recently posted on her very informative Facebook page , that her subjects learned that you unfortunately can’t escape discrimination, outright racism and even bad family trauma, by moving to a different region of the U.S. She encouraged all her followers and their families to find the warmth of the sun in their backyard and combat those issues wherever they are.
Back to our panel. I,myself, warned panelists that moving South doesn’t mean you escape the racism and discrimination that we as black folks often experience. It doesn’t guarantee a home, a good education and that police and other public service officials and fellow neighbors of other backgrounds will see you as human. And I also, having not made my move to Kansas City, was intrigued about why people would want to move back to a place that still had so many issues with how people are seen and treated.
Having now made that move, I now understand better. It really comes down to property, affordability and proximity to services, even if political and social power is not as realized.
Places Journal’s recent article on Memphis and how its black community was developed and treated is a really telling story of how cities can do right and wrong by its black community, such that certain communities develop better reputations for black success and leadership than others. It contrasts Memphis with Atlanta, where black people were encouraged to buy property and to become leaders.
Atlanta still has had issues with housing its poor black populations and there’s still the MARTA issue, but compared to Memphis, it looks like a global city. Whole swaths of Memphis were destroyed and white families continued to move further and further out of the city and the city continued to follow them with annexations.
Yet, at a certain point, much like here in Kansas City, communities annexed themselves and became autonomous suburbs. Recently some of those Memphis suburbs broke their school systems out of the very recently merged county-city system, claiming that they were being asked to fund schools they didn’t want to fund, which sadly is often coded language for racism. Some Charlotte parents are threatening to do the same in the Mecklenburg County system. Kansas City has an extremely high number of municipal school districts, religious schools, traditional independent schools and charter schools. Of course, Kansas City proper also covers three counties, which is another bit of inefficiency, that goes beyond this conversation of migration patterns.
Meanwhile, back in my home county of Guilford, in North Carolina, all public school students, save the ones at the handful of charters and independent schools, go to school in the same municipal district. While there are calls for Title 1 schools, as schools with high percentages of disadvantaged schools are termed throughout the U.S., there aren’t whole, very small, municipal school districts of Title 1 schools. That wasn’t always the case in Guilford County, but since 1993, my second grade year, our district has been merged, and we are now boasting an 85% graduation rate and we now have Say Yes to Education, which will fill in funding gaps for all forms of public or private post-secondary education in the county.
Couple that consistency in school funding and curriculum county-wide with the ability to purchase 3 bedroom/2 bathroom basic starter homes in good condition for less than $200,000 and 4 bed/2.5 bathroom homes for less than $300,000, even in the good school “zones.” In addition, because our county and metro doesn’t sprawl out of control, no services or major national chain stores or restaurants are more than 20 minutes away from any home in the county. Actually, if you live in the Greensboro city limits or any city limits in the metro, you are no more than 15 minutes away from at least a Walmart. We also have seven colleges and universities, including two historically black ones and a very robust community college system.
In my youth, we still had the textile, tobacco and other mill jobs that paid more than average across the South. Office jobs were stable and before all metros began to have stagnant wages and high rents, anyone who had a regular job, even at a department store or as a restaurant manager or regular shift worker could afford a home of the sort I just listed above. Our housing projects were built for both races. Neighborhoods were mostly victims of white flight and not of extreme redlining and complete denial. And the neighborhoods left were still high quality housing stock, and builders cared about making sure that places were up to code. We have slumlords, but they still have a minimum housing standard that has to be met or the home will be seized by the city and torn down, with the bill as the responsibility of the property owner.
Similar situations exist in the Research Triangle region counties and in the North Carolina counties around Charlotte. Politically we’re considered a purple state. All three downtowns are vibrant, so there’s a dense option and a more suburban/rural option in all three cities. Those downtowns have at least a green/organic grocer, a slew or bars and restaurants, and an open space to gather.
All three are connected by 3, soon 5, daily roundtrips on Amtrak, which take just about 3.5 hours now and will take 2.5 when recent track work and expansion along the route is done. The drive between the three is about 3.5 hours now, so soon, there will be a time savings. Already, professors and such who live in Cary, just west of Raleigh ( one of the fastest and wealthiest areas of growth in the state period, not just with Black Americans looking to return to the south) and Carolina Panthers fans who live both there and Greensboro, take the train to their classes and games in Greensboro and Charlotte and points in between. In the meantime I-40 and I-85 are clean, well-lit and well-marked guideways to a trip that if you start in the middle at Greensboro only take you an hour and half tops each way. All three cities have airports and the Charlotte one is a major international and domestic hub, Raleigh can take you to Toronto, Paris and London, plus Atlanta and Washington, without headache. Greensboro has these nice seasonal flights direct to and from Denver and Detroit, which outside of me in KC, house the outer reaches of my black family who have done some form of the classic migration.
Granted, on the USA Today maps, the census shows a net loss of people to Greensboro. To Charlotte and Raleigh though, it’s as if they’ve become the New York and Chicago of today. Atlanta is the poster child for the return migration, and DC, which has always been a source of black migration and wealth generation, even when it’s center city was in decline, is still a magnet for black migration. And then there are the Texas cities, which also offer cheap property, high salaries and in some areas, strong school districts.
I’m often asked this post’s title as a question. It’s been four years since I sat on that panel. I got on that panel because I wanted to challenge cities and also families to consider the benefits of light density on their lives. I want people to have the choice of apartment vs. house with yard. I don’t want them in their cars for 20 minutes just to go to the grocery store or the bank. I don’t want them in their cars at all really, save to go on long road trips or to pick up things that can’t be delivered or to ride with their friend as a groups to fun activities.
And above all, I want them to live in a place that sees them as 100% human and capable of contributing to civic society. I want us to have our own things and have the freedom to come and go as we please. This is why we move. We move for freedom and peace.
NOTE: This piece is very focused on the migration of African-Americans who were slaves or are slave descendant. We also need to discuss and include African immigrants of recent times, a handful who are doing their own return migration to countries that are much more stable and even competitive with some cities in the U.S. as far as housing, jobs and civic power. Also, I don’t see the data properly covering millennial movement, except of those who moved back South to attend colleges, namely historically black serving colleges. Also, the maps U.S. Today created don’t use Census data from the last five years. Oh and KC does have high outmigration. But you can call me an outlier. Sometimes, even “bad” cities can be beacons of opportunity.