AFRICANGLOBE – When Charlie Cox told his friends he was leaving Chicago, no one tried to talk him out of it. After 35 years at General Motors, he was ready to retire. Ready to trade the cold and the crime and the frenetic pace of life for the rivers and fields of his youth. He had grown up in rural West Point, Miss., and he had moved north with his family when he was 9 years old, but somehow his heart had never quite followed. His spirit yearned for the South, and, as the years passed, the memories of his childhood burned brighter until he couldn’t stand it any longer.
There was only one problem: His wife, Darlene, wasn’t so enamored of the idea. She had been born and raised in Chicago and had deep roots in the South as well, but her impressions of the region were far from idyllic. Her ancestors were slaves, working the cotton fields of Tunica, Miss., and she didn’t have fond memories of her family’s trips to Mississippi in the 1960s.
As a result, she and Charlie found themselves at an impasse – he longed to return to a place he had never wanted to leave, but it was a place she had never wanted to live.
Was he sure, she asked?
Yes, he said. I have to do this. Come with me.
She did. Today, as she prepares breakfast in the kitchen of their three-bedroom house in West Point – a town whose entire population would fill only a quarter of the seats at Wrigley Field – she shares his enthusiasm about the move. They recently returned from a trip to Chicago and couldn’t wait to get home.
“I wouldn’t [trade] anything for West Point now,” Ms. Cox says as she slides a thick slice of bacon into a cast-iron skillet.
“It’s quiet here,” Mr. Cox agrees. “You can relax more down here. I don’t worry about my car when I park out here in the yard.”
The Coxes’ decision is one unfolding in Black-American households across the nation. After decades of mass exodus, Blacks are returning to the South in one of the most notable migrations of the new century.
It’s a subtle but significant shift that experts say provides not only a snapshot of the changing economics and sociology of the nation but of an emerging new South and, in some cases, of a growing disillusionment with the urban North.
For most of the 20th century, Blacks were buying one-way tickets out of the Jim Crow South in hopes of a better life. Nearly 6 million African-Americans followed the railroads to places like Detroit and Chicago, never dreaming that their children and grandchildren would someday lead a return migration, chasing the American dream back down the Mississippi and straight across the Mason-Dixon line.
The Great Migration slowly eased in the 1970s as the North’s economic fortunes began to dim and the South’s racial climate began to improve. But it wasn’t until the 2000 Census, when the South posted its first Black population increase in more than a century, that demographers started to really take notice. By 2010, about 57 percent of the nation’s African-Americans were living in the South – a higher percentage than at any time in 50 years.
The South, to be sure, has been a population magnet for people of all races since the end of World War II. The region was the top destination for newcomers between 1997 and 2011, picking up 1.52 million people – the majority from the Midwest – according to the US Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.
Economics is part of the overall draw, notes William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., but for Black-Americans, there’s something else to consider: Even at its lowest points, the South was still home to the majority of the nation’s Black residents, giving it a culturally and sociologically significant role in African-American history and making it, if not always comfortable, at least always familiar.
Some of the return migrants, like the Coxes, are retirees, while others are college-educated young people, driven by economic realities, historical curiosity, and the old-fashioned American drive to explore new frontiers and create new worlds. But there is a universal thread that runs through their narratives – the pull of a cultural homeland.
The South has a way of resonating with people, says John Giggie, associate professor of history and director of graduate studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. For African-Americans, many of whom have maintained their Southern ties through family reunions and church homecomings, it is not so much a homeland to which they are returning as it is a heartland they never left.
It doesn’t surprise Dr. Giggie to hear of people like Mr. Cox, who doesn’t live on the 25-acre homestead his family owns but still pays the property taxes and cuts the grass. On weekends, he can be found there hunting, fishing, or just walking in the fields, enjoying the silence.
“Owning land is a key component of Southern identity,” Giggie says. “Southerners with money invested in slaves and land, and those with land were the ones who came away with the greatest political clout. There’s always been that promise you bequeath to your loved ones. For those able to procure it, land became a prized possession.”
The search for roots, and the urge to explore their African-American heritage, is a key motivator for some of the new migration’s youngest participants. Many are the first, second, or third generations to be born in Northern cities.
Most have visited family in the South, but some have not. Many have never stood in a field of blinding white cotton. Few can imagine a Jim Crow world, where courtrooms used separate Bibles for Blacks and Whites, towns had separate parks, and some businesses wouldn’t allow Black and White employees to walk through the same doors.
And yet, these young people have grown up with the language, the music, the food, the cultural touch points that sustained their ancestors for so long, says Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” a chronicle of the journey north by Blacks between 1915 and 1970. For them, moving back to the South is a way to connect with their heritage on a deeper level and understand their culture in a new way.
Detroit native Aretha Frison had traveled extensively and even attended college at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, but she says she felt most at home when she moved to New Orleans in 2006. Her ancestors were slaves in Tuscaloosa, and her last name is a variant of the plantation owner’s name, “Frierson.” She vividly remembers visiting family in Tuscaloosa and seeing the historical site where slaves were bought and sold.
As an ardent history buff, she was drawn to the South, first by curiosity and later by love. She was thrilled when she received a scholarship to study journalism in Florida, determined to treat the experience as a grand adventure.
But Ms. Frison was homesick. She and other Detroit natives in her program spent a lot of time looking at their high school yearbooks, reminiscing about home. Sometimes, she says, they “trailed” each other from Tallahassee to Detroit, waving as they passed on the Interstate.
Then, in August 2005, hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Intuitively, she felt impelled to help out. After traveling to Louisiana three times with church mission teams, she moved there permanently in August 2006, taking a job as a teacher in a private school. New Orleans became home.
Now Frison works as a news producer at WDSU-TV, and she credits the city with making her the person she is today. Her exuberance is infectious as she talks of the people she has met who grew up elsewhere but came to visit New Orleans – and stayed.
“It’s not just snowbirds,” she says. “People are moving down here and trying to make a better quality of life, trying to make a difference.”
She likes the climate, the beaches, the parks. She likes the diversity and the cultural mélange. She likes the food and the spirit of the city that was battered but refused to break. But mostly, she loves the people.
“My roots are here in the South, even though they went north for a while,” she says.