Brandon Manning and his wife were both born in the southern United States and were eager to return, but Manning did not want to return to his hometown of Atlanta due to traffic, housing costs and sprawl.
So when offered a teaching job at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, the couple decided to give the small town a chance. They weren’t alone.
The greatest growth in the African-American population in sheer numbers over the past decade has not occurred in Atlanta or Houston, long identified as hubs of black life, but rather in less congested cities with lower profiles: Fort Worth; Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Florida; and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Each gained between 32,000 and 40,000 new black residents from 2010 to 2020, according to 2020 census figures.
Meanwhile, black residents have left the nation’s largest cities, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, by the tens of thousands.
“The sprawl of a Houston or an Atlanta, it’s just huge and the traffic makes it difficult to get around,” said Manning, an assistant professor of black literature and culture, who moved to Fort Worth from Las Vegas. “We wanted something manageable.
The Mannings are part of an emerging pattern of black migration from big cities to smaller ones, mostly in the South, according to Sabrina Pendergrass, assistant professor of African American and African studies at the University of Virginia.
After a decades-long migration of black people to Atlanta, “there’s this sense that … it might be harder to establish yourself economically if you wanted to open a business,” Pendergrass said. “In cities like Charlotte, there’s not as much competition.
From the 1910s through the 1960s, millions of black Americans took part in the Great Migration, moving to northern cities to escape the overt racism of the Jim Crow South.
But many have learned over time that racism is also pervasive in northern cities, in less obvious but equally insidious forms such as restrictions on home loans that reinforce segregated neighborhoods.
Now, in a trend known as “reverse migration,” some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those original migrants have been returning to Southern cities for years.
According to the 2020 census, African Americans make up 14% of the US population, 58% of whom live in the South. Those numbers could vary slightly, as the Census Bureau reported last week that 3.3% of the black population was undercounted in the 2020 census, a higher rate than in 2010.
Returning to the area was important to the Mannings, who have relatives in Jackson, Mississippi.
“We needed to go back to the South to be closer to our family and a way of life that we knew better,” Manning said.
Fort Worth, Columbus, Jacksonville and Charlotte have all seen explosive growth — 15% to 24% — in their overall populations over the past decade. The black population grew at about the same rate in three of the cities and exceeded it in Fort Worth.
For this report, The Associated Press focused on individual cities rather than large metropolitan areas to get a more nuanced idea of where black population growth has taken place.
David Jones recalled that when he visited his grandparents in Columbus in the 1970s and 1980s, the restaurant scene was “Ponderosa after Ponderosa”.
Now, he said, it’s a “real” city with diverse restaurants and a vibrant culture. Jones discovered the change when he moved from Washington in March 2020 to pursue a romance and be closer to his family.
“It’s got that relaxed Midwestern nature. It’s more relaxed than DC, where everything is a little more stressful, definitely more expensive,” he said. “People here are just more authentic. They’re not always looking to get something from someone else. I think that’s refreshing.”
The Ohio State University, a large number of corporate headquarters, a diverse manufacturing base, a relatively low cost of living and a thriving arts community make the city attractive, said Columbus Council member Shayla Favor.
“There are a lot of opportunities for individuals to progress,” Favor said.
City politics reflect the influx: a U.S. congresswoman and city council president, police chief, and superintendent of schools are all African American. Columbus also saw an influx of Somali immigrants, reflecting the fact that approximately 10% of blacks in the United States were born in another country.
Black professionals who have moved from northern cities to Charlotte for banking and tech jobs over the past decade have not only helped North Carolina become more of a purple state politically, they have also brought their culture.
Pendergrass notes that she learned “Chicago steppin,” a popular dance style, not in the Windy City but in Charlotte, where she was doing research.
In many ways, it’s a cultural boomerang, just as black culture in northern cities was shaped by the experiences Great Migration migrants brought from the south, Pendergrass said.
“Now we have people moving South, and they’re almost remixing it in that Southern context,” Pendergrass said. – PA