"They're Never Here More Than a Year": Return Migration in the Southern Exodus, 1940-1970
Alexander, J. Trent, Journal of Social History
Over the course of the twentieth century more than ten million people left the southern United States for the North and West. After five decades of consistent large-scale outmigration, the tide slowly began to shift back to the South in the early 1970s. By the end of the decade, for the first time in more than a century, the South actually showed a net in-migration of both blacks and whites. (1) The late-twentieth century return migration has emerged as a vibrant area of investigation in its own right, but millions of southern out-migrants--particularly southern whites--returned to the South during the Great Migration. (2) We know very little about the return movement that took place during the period primarily associated with the southern out-migration, between World War II and 1970. (3) Understanding these return migrants reveals not only the precursors to the now-dominant southbound stream, but it also has implications for our understanding of southern migrants in the North. As numerous studies of return migration in other contexts have suggested, return migrants have an impact on the places they leave. A highly transient migrant stream can inhibit the development of migrant community, for instance, and short-term migrants almost always draw at least some sort of antipathy from both long-term settlers and other local residents alike.
The study of return moves has emerged as an important subfield in the growing interdisciplinary body of migration studies. Favoring the term "mobility" over "migration," recent scholarship has come to deemphasize the older Point A to Point B framework. A recognition of the importance of "mundane movements," as one seminal article put it, demands that we take into account the variety of short-distance, temporary, and circular moves that often precede and follow highly visible long-distance migrations. (4) The study of return migration has been central to this reorientation. Most scholars now see return migration as a constant part of the migration process. Some studies have found that an ongoing counter-current of return migration can have serious implications for the "primary" migration itself. Michael Hanagan's study of internal mobility in southwestern France, for instance, suggests that a shift from seasonal migration to permanent migration helped explain migrants' changing attitudes towards urban life. As opportunities for seasonal migration ebbed, migrants began to see a future for themselves in the city, which ultimately provided a powerful basis for their integration into urban life and working-class politics. This approach has found fertile ground in studies of international migration as well. Mark Wyman's Round Trip to America draws on a large body of work showing how immigrants hoping to return to Europe often brought a radically different orientation than those who intended to stay in the U.S. permanently. Observers ranging from union organizers to religious leaders identified the flightiness of return migrants as potentially detrimental to the local and national well-being. (5)
In an effort to bring some of the insights of the migration studies literature to bear on our understanding of the Great Migration, this article compares the role of return migration in the southern stream to two northern cities: Cincinnati, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana. Cincinnati and Indianapolis were similar destinations in most respects, yet the migrant communities there developed in fundamentally different ways over the course of the twentieth-century. Drawing mostly from the rapidly declining coalfield region of southeastern Kentucky, Cincinnati's southern white migrants had a reputation for staying in the North. Indianapolis's southern migrants, who largely came from the more prosperous regions of western Kentucky and Tennessee, had a reputation for transience. Together, the different migration streams to these two otherwise similar mid-western cities provide an almost ideal setting for exploring the effects of return migration on migrant adjustment in the North. Ultimately, the comparison suggests that a regular stream of return migration did indeed have a significant impact on all migrants' experiences, both on those who would return to the South and those who remained in the North.
The story of southern white migrants has something to offer back to the larger literature on worldwide migrations as well. Return migration is almost taken to be a constant in the broader migration studies literature. There are certainly known instances of mass migrations with very little return movement, particularly when potential return migrants feared social or political persecution back home, or when the costs of return were simply too great. But southern white out-migrants did not have to cross international borders, they did not have to travel long distances, they did not face discrimination at home, and most were not in extreme poverty. Even in this relatively unencumbered stream, the return migration of southern whites was highly variable from one northern city to another, and with great consequences for the migrants themselves. By investigating the causes and impact of variable rates of return migration within such an apparently homogeneous and fluid migrant stream, this article also brings the experiences of southern whites during the Great Migration to bear on the broader migration studies literature. The experiences of twentieth-century southerners suggest that return migration was vitally important not only when it was present, but also when it was conspicuously absent.
Broad Patterns in Southern White Return Migration
Southern whites certainly had a reputation for transience even during the mid-twentieth century peak of southern out-migration. A joke said to have been popular in Ohio suggested that St. Peter needed to tie heaven-bound southern white migrants to the Pearly Gates--that was the only way he could keep them from driving back to Kentucky for the weekend. (6) Interviewed in the early 1950s, a personnel director from an Indianapolis auto transmission plant identified a pattern that many others would note over the years, stating,
My impression is that the southerners view it as a temporary thing.... We get a much higher turnover of southern whites than any other group. They work for a while and then go back to the farm.... When I get a man from Kentucky and he says that he has a family and that they are staying with a sister or someone, I tell him I'm sorry that I don't have anything for him. I can be pretty sure that he'll get homesick and frustrated and leave after a while. (7)
A resident of an Indianapolis westside neighborhood where many southerners lived put it even more succinctly: "they never stay ... they're never here more than a year." Echoed by numerous employers, neighbors and community leaders, this view of southern whites as in constant motion was pervasive throughout the mid-twentieth century North.
Of course, locals often have unfavorable things to say about migrants, so their comments must always be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of southern whites, however, there is some truth to the stereotype of the highly mobile migrant. From 1935 to the present, the U.S. census offers some broad indication of the rates of return migration during the southern exodus. During each of the 1940-1990 censuses, respondents were asked where they lived 5 years before the census (except in 1950, when the census asked where people lived 1 year before, in 1949). Using this data, it is possible to identify return migrants as southern-born persons who lived outside of the South 5 years prior to the census but lived in the South at the time of the census. Figure 1 gives a sense of the long-term trends in return migration from the North and West. Taking return migrants as a proportion of all southern-born whites living outside the South 5 years prior to each census, Figure 1 shows southern white and black rates of return migration between 1935-1990. (8) In contrast with southern black patterns, southern white rates of return migration were as high at the peak of the out-migration as they were during the reversal of the 1970s and 1980s. Southern white return migration rates were thus not only relatively high, but also they were clearly on the rise long before the southern out-migration came to an end.
It is important to keep in mind that the rates of return displayed in Figure 1 represent not only a crude measure, but a very conservative one. In 1970, for instance, Figure 1 reports that about 12% of southern-born whites living outside the South in 1965 had returned to the South. Southerners who had left the South after 1965 and returned before 1970 are not included in this estimate, even though they were recent return migrants living in the South in 1970. Furthermore, many migrants who lived outside the South in 1965 probably …
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Publication information: Article title: "They're Never Here More Than a Year": Return Migration in the Southern Exodus, 1940-1970. Contributors: Alexander, J. Trent - Author. Journal title: Journal of Social History. Volume: 38. Issue: 3 Publication date: Spring 2005. Page number: 653+. © 2009 Journal of Social History. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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