"They're Never Here More Than a Year": Return Migration in the Southern Exodus, 1940-1970

By Alexander, J. Trent | Journal of Social History, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

"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. …

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