Randolf Tobias was born in the Bronx, raised in Brooklyn, and spent about a year of his childhood in Queens.
His first experience with the South came as a student at Richmond’s Virginia Union University, where he staged sit-ins to desegregate department stores.
When it came time for retirement, the 66-year-old college professor and his wife left Long Island last year and moved to Charlotte, eventually settling in Huntersville.
“I never looked back,” he said. “The South, for black people today, is more progressive.”
He’s one of the reasons new Census estimates show Mecklenburg County’s African American population rising by more than 20 percent from 2000 to 2005. By comparison, the Hispanic population soared by almost 60 percent, and the white population grew by about 5 percent.
The numbers show the continuation of a trend that has given rise to the “New South” and is literally changing the face of the Charlotte area, strengthening the city’s black middle class and creating more diverse neighborhoods and schools.
While the new Census estimates don’t give socioeconomic details on the newcomers, other studies and interviews suggest many are middle-class residents drawn here by good jobs, family roots and a better quality of life than they experienced in bigger, more congested cities in the North and West.
“There is a very rapidly growing black middle class in Mecklenburg County,” said Bill McCoy, retired director of the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte. “A good portion of that is . . . coming from other places.”
More accepting than before
The trend of African Americans moving to Charlotte and other Southern cities isn’t new.A 2004 report from the Brookings Institution found that North Carolina gained more than 50,000 black residents from 1995 to 2000, ranking second only to Georgia. South Carolina ranked ninth, with a gain of more than 16,000 residents.
That was a big change from 1965 to 1970, when nearly 30,000 blacks left the Tar Heel State and nearly as many left South Carolina.
Many headed North to exchange Southern Jim Crow racism for well-paying manufacturing jobs.
But as that generation reaches retirement age, demographers say they are coming South again, pulled by improved race relations, family ties, good weather and a more affordable lifestyle.
Their children and grandchildren are coming back, too, many of them college-educated professionals who are leaving Northern cities to follow blossoming job markets back to the South. Atlanta has been the biggest draw by far, with the Dallas, Orlando, Fla., and Norfolk, Va., areas also attracting large numbers.
“They’re tired of the cold weather,” said Theautry Green, a Charlotte Realtor who is also African American. “They’re tired of the high cost of living in places like New York.”
The influx could have political ramifications as well.
Democrats hold the majority of seats on both Charlotte City Council and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Although Sen. John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election, he won Mecklenburg County with 52 percent of the vote—the highest percentage for a Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.
The newcomers should further boost the Democratic vote, said Michael Lawson, president of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party’s African American Caucus. He expects it will mean more blacks winning election to public offices.
“As we get closer to 2008, I think we’re going to see a very big change,” said Lawson, himself an ex-New Yorker. “When people come in from other parts of the country where they vote at a higher percentage rate, it’s going to make a difference.”
George Dunlap, who represents the University City area on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, said “not a day goes by” that he doesn’t field calls from African Americans relocating to the South.
“The ones who don’t want to go to Atlanta find Charlotte the happy medium,” he said.
The trend has had ramifications for the school system, contributing to burgeoning student enrollments that stand at 118,600 countywide. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools added about 6,600 African American students from 2002 to 2005, but their share of the total enrollment held steady at about 43 percent.
Dunlap said many of those families moved to the suburbs. “It means naturally integrated schools in areas that would have been primarily one-race schools,” he said.
The new residents are also contributing to the city’s increasingly diverse cultural offerings. For instance, Deon Bradley, the new president and CEO of the Afro-American Cultural Center, is a Chicago native. He moved to Charlotte in 2003, and considers himself a proud part of the reverse migration.
His mother moved to Chicago to escape segregated Mississippi, but he remembers visiting his Southern relatives every summer as a child after the civil rights movement had swept Jim Crow laws away. He remembers playing in cotton fields, slopping hogs and spending time at relatives’ “shotgun” houses.
When friends moved to Atlanta and raved about it, “I absolutely fell in love with this concept of the New South,” he said. “I had to get used to the heat, but it’s a fair trade-off. . . I don’t have to deal with the snow.”