Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

Black Homeplace Migration to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta: Ambiguous Journeys, Uncertain Outcomes

Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

Black Homeplace Migration to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta: Ambiguous Journeys, Uncertain Outcomes

Article excerpt

Between 1910 and 1970, African Americans moved out of the southeastern U.S. in one of the largest movements in human history. Some estimates hold that more than 9 million black Southerners left the South for new lives in the North and West. The migration reached its peak in the 1950s, and began to slow in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, these black migrants and their descendants began coming home to the South, a trend that continues today. This study looks at one region to which many African Americans have returned, the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Regions like the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta have been largely ignored in black return migration studies. Much of the work that has been done to document the return migration of blacks to the South has focused on the South's urban areas. What has been neglected is the fact that there is also a significant return of African Americans to the rural South, a region of chronic economic stagnation. While the U.S. Census Bureau collects information on its long forms that can lead the researcher to a better understanding of African American migration processes and place attachments, the data are imperfect and can only provide the backbone of understanding. In an attempt to dig beneath the available data, we employ ethnographic methodology in this study. We focus on the geographic life history of Mrs. Dorothy Mae Scott.

KEY WORDS: African American return migration, Mississippi Delta, ethnography

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For more than three decades, there has been a small but steady stream of black individuals and families migrating from northern and western cities to the small towns and rural countryside of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. This migration is an important regional component of an ongoing counter-stream of African Americans moving back into the southeastern U.S. This return migration became significant as the Great Black Migration out of the region waned in the years after 1970 (Robinson 1986; McHugh 1987; Fuguitt, Fulton, and Beale 2000). Black migration to this corner of Mississippi, dominated as it is by natives and their descendents returning to homeplaces, is a story of people coming to terms with a region of intense racial meaning and a troubled history.

Through their migration, African Americans reappraise their understanding of a place that is at once a beloved home and a racial battlefield. The purpose of this paper is to explore the qualities of black return migration to a rural place through empirical analysis and ethnographic narrative. Because accurate data for such migrations are scarce, we believe that ethnography is an ideal path to understanding this complex geographic phenomenon. We hope to show that black return migration to rural places in the South is driven by non-economic factors, a process that stands in contrast to black return migration to the urban South.

Between 1910 and 1970, more than six million African Americans migrated from the South to locations in the North and West (Hamilton 1964; Beale 1971; Kirby 1983). The Great Migration was one of the largest migrations in U.S. history and changed the cultural geography of the country in ways that continue to resonate in popular culture, national policy discussions, and political representation (Walls 1970, Lemann 1991). Before the beginning of this epic migration, to be black in America, in general, was to be southern and rural. Of the total United States black population in 1880, 80.9% lived in the rural South. Including the urban black population of the South at the time, 90.5% of African Americans lived in the region. By 1970, as migration out of the South declined precipitously, only 50% of African Americans in the United States remained in the South (Heinicke 1994; Lemann 1991). These data include the secessionist South and the non-secessionist southern states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

As with all large-scale migration movements, a counter-stream existed throughout the Great Migration, becoming more prominent in economic hard times such as in the 1930s. …

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