Posted on March 4, 2022

Still Looking for a ‘Black Mecca,’ the New Great Migration

Emmanuel Felton et al., Washington Post, January 14, 2022

In the late 1940s, Thomas Johnson had a choice to make. After a stint in the military, he could either pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, an impossible aspiration for a Black man in Texas at the time, or return to his beloved family in Crockett, a town dripping with history surrounded by the pecan and pine trees of deep East Texas, where thousands were once enslaved on cotton plantations.


He had been a bright student. In 1933, Johnson graduated from high school at 15. By 19, he had a degree from Wiley College, a private historically Black college in nearby Marshall, Tex. African Americans were barred from attending any of the state’s medical schools, however, the doctrine of “separate, but equal” meant the state had to offer Black students something. So the state made Johnson a deal: It would pay for him to go to medical school as long as it wasn’t in Texas. And with that offer in hand, Johnson joined millions of African Americans, who together formed the Great Migration, leaving the South looking for opportunities and hope not afforded to them under Jim Crow.

Johnson settled in the Twin Cities and attended the University of Minnesota. But while he would find success in Minnesota, nearly 70 years later his granddaughter D’Ivoire Johnson looked around her native Minneapolis and, like her grandfather, concluded that there were better opportunities for her elsewhere. In 2007, she made a journey that almost exactly mirrored the one he had made — moving with her two sons from Minneapolis to Dallas. She is part of what some are calling the new Great Migration, African Americans moving out of the cities that their parents and grandparents fled to during Jim Crow and into the South‘s booming metropolises.

The percentage of Black Americans who live in the South has been increasing since 1990, and the biggest gains have been in the region’s large urban areas, according to census data. The Black population of metro Atlanta more than doubled between 1990 and 2020, surpassing 2 million in the most recent census, with the city overtaking Chicago as the second-largest concentration of African Americans in the country after metropolitan New York. The Black population also more than doubled in metro Charlotte while greater Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth both saw their Black populations surpass 1 million for the first time. Several smaller metro areas also saw sizable gains, including San Antonio; Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C.; Orlando and Little Rock.

Meanwhile, the Black population shrank in a number of Northern and Western cities. For the second census in a row, Chicago and its suburbs lost Black population, and has decreased by 130,000 since 1990. In Michigan, both the Detroit and Flint metropolitan areas lost Black population in absolute terms. The metropolitan areas of St. Louis, Cleveland and Milwaukee recorded their first declines in Black population since African Americans started arriving in large numbers during the Great Migration. This trend extended far beyond the Midwest. Metro New York recorded its second consecutive loss in Black population, losing about 110,000 Black residents since 2000. In California, metro Los Angeles has lost 160,000 Black residents since 1990, while metro San Francisco has lost 90,000.

To understand the reasons behind this new Great Migration, The Washington Post interviewed Black Americans across three Southern states — Georgia, North Carolina and Texas — who had moved to the South in recent decades. Like many of those who moved during the original Great Migration, the primary driver of their decisions to leave home was economic. They moved South either with a new job already in hand or with hope that they could find work in some of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. Many also moved in search of affordable housing that could help their families build the kind of generational wealth their parents and grandparents in the North were locked out of because of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies. Some were hesitant about moving South, recalling the horror stories of racial terror told to them by their elders. They all found that racism existed in both the North and South, but for some, the larger concentrations of Black people in the South provided additional safety. In all cases, they moved in search of something better, but looking back, none felt like they’d found the promised land — at least not yet.

The Johnsons of Minneapolis


When D’Ivoire Johnson decided to leave Minneapolis, it was in hopes of not having her two sons grow up in what’s been called the “Minnesota paradox.” The phrase was coined by labor economist Samuel L. Myers Jr. in reference to how while Minnesotans enjoy some of the highest living standards in the country, they also suffer from some of the widest racial gaps in employment and income.

“I wanted my kids to grow up and see Black people thriving,” she said. “Minneapolis is great, but not for Black folks. If you ever really want to participate in the economy in a way that’s going to create growth, you can’t do that in Minneapolis.

“Minneapolis has a nonprofit mind-set, especially for Black people,” Johnson said. “So if you want to be a nonprofit, meaning nonprofitable, live in Minneapolis.”

In 2007, things were going well for Johnson. She owned her own mortgage processing company and was working for a wholesale mortgage company. She also was originating her own mortgages.

“I was in full hustle mode,” Johnson said. “And just knew if I came here to Dallas, I could do even better.”

Her mother and sister had already moved to Dallas for business opportunities, so Johnson was hopeful. But soon, the bottom fell out.


“Here’s the difference: Minneapolis has a wonderful social safety net. So if you fall on hard times you are not going to struggle like you struggle here,” she said. “This struggle here is something I’ve never seen before. I don’t understand it. It is demoralizing. It is dehumanizing. And it really does remind you of modernized slavery.”

Four generations on Chicago’s South Side

As far as Sherri Lucas-Hall, 57, knew, her family had been on Chicago’s South Side forever. {snip}


Lucas-Hall loved her childhood in Chicago. After her parents split up, she and her mom settled not far from Rainbow Beach, on 80th Street and Escanaba Avenue, where she and her friends would play baseball on the corner. She also frequently made trips to Bronzeville to soak up the history her dad was fighting to preserve. But despite coming from three generations of hard-working Chicagoans, Lucas-Hall’s family, like much of the South Side, was still mostly fighting to survive, not thriving.

“On the South Side, everybody’s still in survival mode trying to figure out how to get by,” she said.

After graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1982 and watching the neighborhood’s steady decline, she and her husband moved to the suburbs, but they struggled to afford to live in a neighborhood where they felt safe.

“I had a bachelor’s degree. He hadn’t finished college,” she said. “And it was still a struggle for us financially, always trying to make ends meet.”

In 1999, Lucas-Hall’s then-husband wanted to move to Georgia, following his sister, but she took some convincing.

“I grew up with a historian as a father and … I read a lot, and so I knew about all of the happenings in the South,” Lucas-Hall said. “So my first thought when we were moving here was, ‘They kill Black people down there, I don’t want to go down there.’ ”


“His sister was telling him there were a lot of opportunities,” Lucas-Hall said. “She had her own business and she convinced him that he too could potentially start his own business. It was the Black mecca. That’s what Georgia was. And so for us, we saw opportunity and the hope that things would improve if we came this way.”

At first, life was indeed better. The couple initially lived with her husband’s family. Eventually her husband’s entire family moved to Georgia. Lucas-Hall went back to school, earning a master’s degree and started a 14-year career teaching in the DeKalb County School District. In 2006, they were able to buy a house.


But things started to unravel for Lucas-Hall. First she and her husband divorced, and he got to keep the house. And in 2019, she lost her job.

Lucas-Hall was fired after what she says was an accident involving a first-grader trying to lock himself in a bathroom stall. Lucas-Hall said she was trying to keep the child from locking himself in, when the stall door hit him in the head. Later, she was contacted by an investigator from the district’s department of public safety, and eventually placed on administrative leave. She was among a number of district teachers who say their constitutional rights were violated during hasty district investigations, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It took Lucas-Hall two years to clear her name to be able to return to a classroom. She worked as a Walmart cashier and as an Uber driver. After she was cleared to return to teaching, she worked as a substitute teacher in the local public schools. But she struggled to stay afloat financially. A strong believer in the power of education, she went back to school, this time to learn new and better ways to teach her Black students to read.


Building a New South

When Darren James moved to Dallas in 2002, he was already working as an architect at Kai Enterprises, a national design firm where he is now president. But Dallas was still a breath of fresh air for the St. Louis native.

“St. Louis was just a small, insular city,” he said. “When I was growing up, you didn‘t go south of Forest Park,” he said, referring to the city’s grandest park located just south of Delmar Boulevard, which divides Black and White St. Louis.


“The first question they ask in St. Louis is what high school did you go to,” James said. {snip}

In Dallas, he found people who didn’t care what high school he went to but instead what he knew.


It’s that entrepreneurial spirit that makes Dallas a place of opportunity for Black people, said James, who has been running the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce since 2016. He has spent that time trying to provide information to Black businesses that want to learn how to take advantage of Dallas as a global city. The Black Chamber’s membership shows what is possible for Black people to build in Dallas, James said.


While James is working to change the South economically, Leslie Mac, a Brooklyn-born Black Lives Matter activist and community organizer, is working to change it politically. Before moving to Charlotte last year, Mac lived all over the North. She went to college in Chicago and spent time in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. She lived in Philadelphia for nearly a decade.

Mac started her career working on criminal justice reform legislation, such as getting state legislatures to pass bail reform. She switched to grass-roots organizing after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. When she moved to North Carolina, she started working to support groups like Charlotte Uprising, a coalition of community members and organizers fighting for police accountability and racial equality.

Mac, who is Jamaican, grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where many of New York’s Caribbean immigrants settled.


Her sister is hanging on in Flatbush in the rent-stabilized apartment they grew up in, but they are watching what they loved disappear to gentrification.

“It’s happening in a lot of cities in the North — they are just becoming less inviting for Black people, and less of a place where Black people can thrive and raise their families,” Mac said. “And so they’re looking for places where they can build community and have that same feeling that I had when I grew up in Flatbush. And it just isn’t there anymore.”

For Mac, Charlotte was like a homecoming.

“I love Charlotte as a city,” Mac said. “It‘s been a really great place to live, and it’s a place where I can be what I like to refer to as inconspicuously Black. That’s been a revelation for me, and it’s something that I haven’t really felt since I was growing up in Flatbush, where everybody looked like me.”

Mac says to be inconspicuously Black means that she can count on other Black people being wherever she goes. In a city as Black as Charlotte, she says every business has to cater to Black folks. {snip}

“It just feels freeing. There’s a thing where I feel like my shoulders relax more here,” Mac said. “We go out to a fancy restaurant or like this little speakeasy that you have to have a membership to, and I think, that sounds like a place where there won’t be a lot of Black people. Sure enough, we walk in, and it’s like 70 percent Black people up in there having their fancy drinks. … I can feel comfortable wherever I go here in a way that I’ve never experienced before, even in New York City. There are so many places I would go and be like, I have to really watch myself here. I’ve got to shrink myself a little bit. I’ve got to make sure I’m not too angry or too loud or too whatever. Peeling those pieces away from myself has been really a freeing endeavor.”

“So much of my mind was taken up by thinking about how I needed to interact around White people before I moved here,” Mac said. “It’s a thing you don’t recognize until it’s gone. I really hadn’t realized how much of my psyche was taken up with that constant kind of drone in my head, and moving here really opened me up in a new way.”