Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new Brookings Institution report shows how black migration patterns have been reshaping the urban landscape, particularly in the South.
The theme of the U.S. Department of Justice’s annual Black History Month event this year was “Black Migrations,” to discuss how African-American migratory patterns have shaped urban policy over the decades. The newly confirmed Attorney General William P. Barr acknowledged in his remarks that the first black migration was a forced one, from Africa to the Americas, and that the post-slavery black migrations of the 20th century—”when millions of African-Americans fled persecution in the South”—fueled the growth of cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York.
“The Great Migration changed American history not just for the migrants but for all of us,” said Barr. “It made possible American cultural milestones like the Harlem Renaissance, Chicago blues, and Motown, just to name a few. Today we see … in the 2010 Census, a higher percentage of the African-American population lived in the South than in any Census in 50 years. I think that these are good signs that much progress has been made.”
Indeed, while the “Great Migration” waves of the early and mid-20th century led to the chocolating of cities such as Chicago and Detroit (Motown’s home), those same two cities today are reporting, for the first time in decades, decreases in their black populations. That may not spell progress for African Americans in the North, but it does appear to be benefitting the South.
According to Brookings Institution fellow Andre Perry, one outcome of black migration trends is that there’s now a growing squadron of black cities emerging across the urban landscape. There are 1,262 majority-black cities as of 2017 compared to 460 in 1970. This tripling in growth has happened despite the fact that the overall black population has been mostly flat over the same time period. A new Brookings report released this week by Perry and David Harshbarger seeks to explain how it’s possible that the number of black cities is climbing while the total black population is not.
“The emergence of black-majority cities reflects more than anything else a changing demographic landscape between and within cities,” reads the report. “A new great migration and intra-metropolitan movement have reshaped urban, suburban, and rural communities, facilitating the rise of today’s black-majority cities.”
The report categorizes the top 100 U.S. cities by their black population distributions, placing them in one of four types divided into quadrants:
Cities in the Boomtowns quadrant gained both black and non-black population from 1970 to 2010.
Cities in the White Flight quadrant gained black population, but experienced a decrease in non-black (largely white) population.
Cities in the Suburbanized quadrant lost both black and non-black population.
Cities in the Gentrified quadrant lost black population, but gained non-black population.
From this grouping we learn that most black cities have been formed as a result of white flight—cities that lost white population over the decades while the black population increased, such that African Americans now constitute a majority in them. Milwaukee is listed as an example of this, but it is an anomaly in its midwest region. Most black cities exist in the South, and that itself is explained by the recent migratory trends of African Americans from the North and Midwest moving to cities below the Mason-Dixon line.
The irony is that African Americans had been relatively better off in the cities outside of the South. A study last year found that the children of African Americans who fled the South during the Great Migration ended up with better income and education levels and were more likely to have risen out of poverty than the children of African Americans who remained in the South. The same results were not found for the children of white people who left the South during the same Great Migration waves.
With that in mind, perhaps the recent reverse migration of African Americans to the South could be explained as black people simply returning to their roots, or to share their new financial and economic bonafides with black family and networks that stuck it out in Southern cities. Perry says that it reflects an increase in choice and mobility for African Americans.
“I want black people to have options and if they’re getting affordable housing and they have a good job, I couldn’t care less where they move,” says Perry. “I don’t necessarily care where they move, I just want them to have a quality of life that propels them to thrive economically, socially, and educationally, and apparently a lot of people think that’s in the South.”
What the return to the former Confederate South has meant for cities such as Atlanta and Memphis is a swelling of African Americans mostly in those cities’ suburbs. This graph created by CityLab data journalist David Montgomery shows how in many—though not all—major metros, black populations are growing much more quickly in suburbs than in central cities:
In metro Atlanta, the African-American share of the suburban population is growing at a much faster clip than the black share of the city population.* In fact, Atlanta’s inner-ring suburbs have taken on so many majority-black areas that it has triggered some white neighborhoods to rope themselves off to start their own majority-white cities. This trend is referred to as the “cityhood movement,” and while it began with white cities they likely won’t have the last word on this matter, as several majority-black cities have now either formed or are attempting to form in Atlanta’s suburbs. While some have been foreshadowing that the city of Atlanta might lose its black-city status in the near future, there’s a strong possibility that a new black city called Greenhaven could soon open up right next to it.
This all lends credence to one of the central ideas of the Brookings report: That despite stagnated black population growth, continued white flight, new white-city formations, and the occasional headlines lamenting the death of Chocolate Cities, black cities don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Not only that, but black cities have been thriving. In January, Troy University public administration professor Leora Waldner released the findings of a study where she tracked four areas that have incorporated into majority-black cities since 1990: Green Level, North Carolina; St. Gabriel, Louisiana; Miami Gardens, Florida; and West Park, Florida. In all four cases, there were concerns, prior to city incorporation, that these areas were too poor—or, in some cases, too black—to succeed as cities. What Waldner found:
None of the cities disincorporated, and archival materials provide evidence of enhanced services such as new parks, transportation, infrastructure enhancements for water lines, and additional police. Moreover, the new cities embraced social justice initiatives in areas ranging from senior healthcare (City of West Park’s 2nd, 2013) to minority youth employment (City partners with Miami Job Corps, 2012). Thus, the case studies confirm the first hypothesis: new cities of color, even those with high poverty rates, can thrive.
The four black-city case studies support the new black political agenda observed across the South, where black voting power has been leveraged not only to elect white Democrats such as Alabama U.S. Senator Doug Jones and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, but also for electing progressive, reform-minded city and county officials in cities such as Memphis, Birmingham, and Jackson, Mississippi. Black voting strength in the South also nearly elected the first black governors in the states of Georgia and Florida.
“Black people in the South are vulnerable in conservative states, that’s no question,” says Perry. “But as we saw in Alabama and Georgia, black people are now mobilizing their strength in ways we haven’t seen before. Cultural protection is real and black people should have the sense that when living in a majority-black place that there’s more cultural protection for them there, regardless of the larger state context.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the city of Atlanta lost black population between 2000 and 2017.