When Christopher Dawson returned to South Carolina after a stint
in the Vietnam War, his only options were to pick tomatoes or weed
other people's yards for a few dollars. Little work was available
in the South in the 1960s, especially for a black man with only a
So, in 1968, Mr. Dawson moved to New York, carrying only a small
suitcase and the hope of a steady paycheck. He found a job in a rain
hat factory in Manhattan making $164 a week. "That was the most I'd
ever seen," he says.
Now, after raising eight children in the Bronx and spending the
past 30 years navigating the city in his yellow cab, he is moving
his family back to his hometown of Charleston, S.C. - for the same
reasons he once left.
Dawson's odyssey is part of a reverse migration of African-
Americans to the South in a quest to reestablish roots and improve
their economic lot.
The 2000 census reveals that, for the first time this century,
the black population in the South grew faster than in any other
region in the 1990s.
While the migration southward began as early as the 1970s, it has
accelerated rapidly in recent years. The region gained more than 3.5
million blacks in the 1990s, according to the report Census 2000
Shows Large Black Return to the South. During that time, every
other region of the country reported a net outmigration of African-
Blacks are "more likely to move to the South because of the
history, the pull of tradition, and the comfort level," says
William Frey, author of the report and a demographer at the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The great pilgrimage South reverses a 20th-century trend that
drew millions of blacks to a less racially divided North. During
the 1960s in particular, in an era of racial tension and violence,
blacks fled to northern cities like Detroit, New York, and
Cleveland. Manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and urban
communities, though segregated, offered more opportunities.
Today, fewer factory jobs exist, and many black urban areas have
fallen into disrepair. Moreover, the southern economy is booming,
and many of the region's racial stigmas have diminished.
The result is the emergence of a new black South, one that is
more economically and culturally empowered. It's made of former
self-exiles and native northerners looking to make more money, own
better homes, and live closer to their families and the past.
"At the time I left the South, before the desegregation, you
couldn't eat any place, couldn't go to the bathroom, couldn't go to
a movie," says Mary Hinton, who left her parents' home on a neat
street in Oxford, Miss., for an apartment in Newark, N.J., in the
But just as Ms. Hinton became part of the self-imposed exile of
black Americans to the North, she eventually turned around and came
back, and now lives 50 miles outside of Raleigh - drawn back
because the civil rights era has tempered the racial inequities she
grew up with.
She and Dawson highlight how one region's gain can be another's
loss. Between 1960 and 1970, for instance, when Dawson moved to the
Bronx, New York was the No. 1 metro area in the United States for
blacks to settle in. It gained 751,438 African-Americans in that
By contrast, during the past decade, New York gained half as many
blacks as it did 40 years ago, or 394,000, while states like Florida
and Georgia grew by more than double that number.
One of the biggest draws for blacks is a higher standard of
living. In fact, most of the blacks moving to the South today are
settling in suburbs. According to the 1998 Current Population
Survey, some 88 percent of incoming African-Americans chose to live
in metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Charlotte, and, of those, 81
percent settled in suburban areas.
"Many newcomers are drawn to the suburbs," says Jacqueline
Taylor, president of the Black Newcomer's Network in Atlanta. …