African-Americans Return to a Changing South

Audrey Jeffries grew up in Pass Christian, a town on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi where her family was relegated to the north side of the railroad tracks. It was where most blacks in Pass Christian lived in the late 1950s.

She attended all-black, segregated schools. Jim Crow was in full bloom and for African-Americans, daily activities were limited by skin color. But like millions of other Southern-born blacks, Mrs. Jeffries eventually decided to leave.

After Hurricane Camille obliterated her family’s home in August, 1969, Audrey and her husband, Fred, headed north. After a brief stay in Chicago, they opted for Toledo, where each worked for - and retired from - the Toledo Public Schools.

The couple was part of the Great Migration, the half-century exodus of 5 million blacks from the South who fled failing crops and legalized racism to seek jobs and a better life in the North.

But here is where Mrs. Jeffries’ story takes a somewhat surprising - yet increasingly common - turn.

After nearly three decades in Toledo, the couple considered a retirement home. They thought about the Carolinas. Then they had a better idea.

"After a while, we were saying, if we’re going back to the South, we ought to go back to our hometown," Audrey said. That meant back to Mississippi and Pass Christian, where they now live a life they could not have dreamed of in 1969: They have a nice home near the beach.

And it is on the south side of the tracks.

Three decades after segregation was struck down and long after sharecropping vanished, more African-Americans are moving to the South than are leaving it. This "reverse migration," which started in the early 1970s, sped to its highest rate from 1995-2000, according to the U.S. Census.

The shift marks a stark reversal. Between 1965 and 1970, 287,440 blacks left the South. But in 1973, demographers estimate the tide was reversed. Over the next 30 years, more and more blacks - retirees and college graduates alike - have been drawn back by the sun and the attraction of the familiar.

Cities such as Atlanta have become magnets for blacks, whose middle class is rising, creating a network that is attracting even more.

"Part of what’s happening is the South is recovering its old kind of cultural mix," said William Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It’s turning back to its traditional black-white landscape."

After years of building wealth, many African-Americans are deciding they want a bigger home, a swimming pool, and better streets. They want to get away from crime-ridden areas consumed by drugs, said Charles Christian, a professor of social and population geography at the University of Maryland.

A move to the South, he said, gives them a chance to write their own future.

"They want out," he said, "and they’re willing to pay to get out."

Blacks are returning to the land that gave rise to the race-blurring music of Elvis Presley and the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. But it is also where Arkansas fought school integration in the 1950s and where police tried to crush Dr. King’s protesters with dogs and water cannon in the 1960s.

Dr. Frey said he expects the reverse migration to persist as blacks continue to put opportunity over history. "They understand the good part as well as the bad."


In the early part of the 20th century, with segregation legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court, the future of many Southern blacks looked bleak. The boll weevil was destroying their crops, making farming an impossible task. They were barred from many economic avenues.
At the same time, northern factories were begging for workers to fill their burgeoning assembly lines. Blacks moved north - and sent letters back encouraging more to follow. The world wars created more jobs and millions of Southern blacks made the choice to leave.
What they found may have been better, but it was not perfect. Racism in the North was not written into law. But it was there - in housing, in employment, and in the schools.

Yvonne Brown grew up in West Toledo and graduated from Rogers High School in 1970. A native of Mississippi, her father, Bennie Rayford, wanted Yvonne to attend a historically black college in the South.

She chose Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., and as a teenager made the trip down to attend band camp. In the weeks before she got there in 1970, there had been student riots protesting racism. It was just days after the Kent State University shootings. At Jackson State, police fired on students, killing one and wounding 15. A local high school student also was killed.

When Ms. Brown arrived on campus, she could still see the bloodstains. "I think I cried every day," she said.

After attending school there briefly, she returned to Toledo, where she married and raised a family. "I never thought living in Mississippi would be part of my future," she said.

Ms. Brown’s husband, who had also attended Jackson State, wanted to get his undergraduate degree before heading to divinity school. So they left Toledo and moved to Mississippi in 1991. They later moved to Dallas, where Robert attended the Dallas Theological Seminary.

After he finished in 1995, they faced a choice: Where do they go?
They chose Tchula, Miss., her parents’ hometown. Robert founded a church and became its pastor. Within five years, Yvonne Brown was elected mayor of the small, predominantly black city of 2,300 in the Delta.

"I think my perspective changed. In the ’70s it was about me and what I wanted," she said.

Now, with roots firmly established in the church and city, she has no intentions of leaving. In fact, she wants to be a leader in another way: Come to Tchula. Come start a business. Join us, she says.

Almost weekly, she said, she meets someone who, like her, has made the trip back to the South. They are always welcome, she said.

"They’re coming back to their homeland."



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