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In a Reverse Migration, Blacks Head to New South

Times Staff Writer

In what demographers are calling a “full scale reversal” of the Great Migration in the early part of the 20th century, blacks are leaving California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey and retracing steps to a place their families once fled -- the South.

This population shift of hundreds of thousands of blacks is nowhere near the millions who left the South from 1910 to 1970. But the flow is sustained and large enough, according to a study released today by the Brookings Institution, that a new map of black America must be drawn.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Detroit -- cities blacks once considered the promised land -- have been seeing more blacks moving out than moving in. As part of this shift, the overall black population in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area dropped for the first time in 70 years.

The new migratory pattern reflects the ascendancy of Latinos and Asians and provides another sign that the high-water days of black community power -- when Los Angeles boasted a black mayor for two decades -- may be over.

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“We came out to California to find gold, and many of us found it,” said Noella Buchanan, a pastor at the Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in Corona. “But when it’s time to retire, there’s this desire to go back home. Even the children who grew up in California are feeling the pull. They’re heading off to black colleges in Atlanta and North Carolina and staying there.

“Let’s face it. Everything is crazy here. The traffic is crazy, the housing prices are crazy. They’re finding a slower pace of life in the South. Out here, we’re the forgotten minority. Back there, we’re the chosen minority.”

The migration out of California, a trend that began more than a decade ago, has grown as blacks from every socioeconomic class seek a better life in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Texas and Tennessee.

California ranked just behind New York as the state experiencing the largest net loss -- 63,180 -- in black migration from 1995 to 2000, the study found. More than half of that loss took place in the Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange counties region. The net loss of black migrants in New York was 165,366; in Illinois, 55,238; and in New Jersey, 34,682.

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Although blacks throughout the country are moving to Atlanta; Dallas; Houston; Charlotte, N.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Orlando, Fla., blacks in California are also choosing to relocate to a new western dream: Las Vegas. Transplants from California sit in the pews of three AME churches in Las Vegas and swap golfing and gardening tales with their old neighbors from Watts, Compton and Pomona.

“My wife and I live in a house with 3,000 square feet, a nice yard, nice patio, nice pool, nice neighborhood, right next door to a Mormon bishop,” said Martin Bauchman, a 75-year-old Las Vegas newcomer.

His migration tells the story of black America in the post-World War II years. He left his native Oklahoma in 1950, moved to South-Central Los Angeles and spent the next 50 years working his way up from prison guard to assistant manager in the state Department of Education. Two years ago, he pulled up stakes and moved to the boomtown in the desert.

“My backyard is even big enough that I got some tomatoes and peppers and a few carrots,” he said, chuckling. “I just saw Gladys Knight perform at the Flamingo down the street. It’s a pretty good life.”

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For the better part of a century, California served as a major magnet for black families escaping the despair of the Southern sharecropper system and the recessions of the industrial Midwest and Northeast. And Los Angeles represented the bright star of black life in the West, a center for its literature, entertainment, political power and social progress.

“I think it’s a new day. The population shift and trends are far too great for Los Angeles to remain the western Mecca of black political power and culture,” said James Johnson, a business demographics professor at the University of North Carolina who wrote one of the first studies of blacks leaving Los Angeles in the 1990s. “Los Angeles will still have a strong black community, but it won’t be like it was.”

The reverse population flow has two faces. Young blacks are following job or college opportunities and planting roots in the same Southern soil that their parents and grandparents fled more than half a century ago. At the same time, blacks who spent their working lives in California are looking to retire in a new South, where Atlanta has emerged as the major black metropolis.

For young and old, the push and pull factors are often the same: cheaper housing, slower pace of life, less traffic, fewer gangs and a longing to return to the South, a region no longer seen as supporting the flagrant racism that helped fuel the Great Migration.

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“They are following networks back to the South, but they are also following the job opportunities,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who wrote the report, “The New Great Migration: Black Americans Return to the South.”

“Atlanta is the No. 1 choice, followed by Dallas and Charlotte. The black migration from California to Nevada is an extension of an already eastward movement. They’ve gone from Watts to Riverside, and now they’re jumping over to Las Vegas.”

Richard and Carol Gordon, both schoolteachers, raised their eight children to be Californians through-and-through. The South -- Alabama on his side, Mississippi on hers -- was a piece of lore. He had grown up in Watts, moved to Santa Ana after the 1965 riots and then to Lake Elsinore a decade later.

Out in the suburbs of Riverside County, the children found themselves immersed in white culture. “I think my children made up half of the black population at Elsinore High School,” Carol Gordon said.

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She grew up the daughter of a preacher whose travels took the family from California to Louisiana and back again. It was in New Orleans that she got her first taste of traditional black culture. She wanted the same for her children. So when it came time for them to pick a college -- UCLA or one of the historically black schools -- she practically insisted on the latter.

Daughter April Gordon Dawson was the first to go, boarding a bus to Greensboro, N.C., in 1984 to attend Bennett College, an all-black school for women. She married a native of North Carolina and decided to stay. She and her husband, both attorneys, have their own practice.

Her reverse migration set a path for her siblings. Four brothers and sisters followed in the 1980s and 1990s, graduating from North Carolina A&T;, Florida A&M; and Spelman College in Atlanta.

Mari Gordon Mitchell, the youngest, became the last child to leave California, in 1995. “I had always planned on going to college in California, but when I went to April’s graduation, it was so exciting to be around that many educated black women. I decided right then I was going to do the same.”

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In the end, Mari chose Spelman because it offered more scholarship money and sat amid five other black colleges. “We had so many students from California that we used to have all-California parties,” she said.

She and her husband, DeMarco Mitchell, who grew up in Georgia, are raising their three children in a mostly black neighborhood outside Atlanta. He teaches math at a middle school in the inner city and she teaches science. “The black community and culture is a lot more cohesive in Atlanta and, plus, it’s a lot cheaper here,” she said.

For the first time, U.S. Census figures show, the black population in Los Angeles County waned, dropping from 934,776 in 1990 to 901,472 in 2000. Over the same period, the black population in the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area dropped from 537,753 to 513,561, according to census data analyzed in the Brookings study. The Sacramento-Yolo counties region was the only one in California that showed a modest net gain in black migration.

In the state as a whole, the population rise among blacks dropped from a 50% growth rate in the 1960s to a 2.5% growth rate in the 1990s -- far slower than Asians and Latinos. The loss of young black migrants was a factor in this drop.

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“Los Angeles is still a very vibrant city for all ethnic groups,” said J. Eugene Grigsby, the longtime urban planner at UCLA who now heads the National Health Foundation. “The challenge for African Americans is they have gone from being the No. 1 minority to the No. 3, and that trend will never reverse. Maneuvering through a multiethnic Los Angeles is something they’re going to have to learn.”

Like a lot of black retirees, LaCharles McCoy found nothing holding him to Carson once his job fixing diesel oil tanks was over. He looked at houses in Hemet and Las Vegas, but nothing came close to the bargain he found in his native Texas.

In March, he and his wife, Glenda, moved into a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house along a golf course in the Houston suburbs. Three weeks ago, his daughter and two grandchildren joined them.

“You know the kind of house that people have in Palos Verdes and Newport Beach, well, we’ve got that kind of house -- and more,” he said. “We’re the only blacks in the entire subdivision. The white folks have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. It’s a new Texas.”

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