New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are becoming less Black as African Americans leave the cities that drew their elders
By Emmanuel Felton, John D. Harden and Kevin Schaul
DALLAS — 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.
While Crockett’s Black residents largely escaped the worst of the Jim Crow era’s reign of terror, Johnson was raised in a divided town. Black people lived west of Fourth Street, White people east, and what one could achieve in life was defined by that color line, even for a proud military veteran like Johnson.
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.
Dallas-Fort Worth is seeing its Black population surpass 1 million people for the first time. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
The Johnsons of Minneapolis
While Thomas Johnson was free to attend medical school in Minnesota, he quickly learned that the color line he knew so well as a child had not completely disappeared during his 1,000-mile journey North. After graduating from medical school in 1955, the only job he could get was at the nearby Stillwater State Prison. Two years later, he started his own clinic in South Minneapolis, eventually moving to North Minneapolis, which by the 1960s was home to most of the city’s poor Black residents. He set up shop on the corner of Plymouth and Queen avenues North in 1966, opening a medical office and then expanded to take over the entire block, adding a dental office, pharmacy and beauty salon.
“That’s where I grew up,” said D’Ivoire Johnson, 47. “At 10 years old, I had a little punch card where I would clock in, and I would go around all the offices and pick up the files and put them in alphabetical order.” As one of just a few Black doctors, Johnson was able to tap an underserved market, eventually making enough money to buy a home in an affluent and virtually all-White neighborhood along the city’s Lake of the Isles Park. He became a pillar of the city’s Black community and an outspoken advocate for civil rights and Black advancement. D’Ivoire Johnson said that it was only at his funeral that she learned how many Black Minnesotans her grandfather helped pay college tuition. But as fast as the money was coming in, it was going out. And when Minnesota moved toward HMOs and their complex rules and regulation, D’Ivoire Johnson says, her grandfather’s days were numbered. After years of legal fights and audits, Johnson closed his clinic in 1988 and quickly lost his real estate, too. D’Ivoire Johnson thinks her grandfather’s legal problems were part of a much larger issue facing the city’s Black leaders. “My friend Stacey would joke there’s something going on in Minnesota. The moment you make $149,999, there’s some White person somewhere in some office that comes to find you,” she said. “Every Black person in Minnesota that I’ve seen try to have some independence and do very well, I’ve watched them get dismantled for minor technicalities,” she added. “I’ve been working in financial institutions since the foreclosure crisis in audit and compliance positions, so I’ve actually seen the things that they do and Black folks just could never … I now sit in these institutions that are constantly under the consent order and they get to survive. We don’t. If a Black business is audited, it’s going to close.”
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.” [Where America’s developed areas are growing] 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. “I moved here because there was opportunity here and then there wasn‘t,” she said. “But I was already here, and I had my children here. My sister and my mother lived here. So I decided to stay to try to make it work.” Even with her family’s help, her first few years in Dallas were devastating. “It was still really horrible,” she said. “I worked tons of short-term jobs that I was way overqualified for.” Things only stabilized when her dad moved down to help keep a roof over her and her sons’ heads. It wasn’t until 2011 that she found a good job, she said. “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. Her Granny Ida, her dad’s grandmother, didn’t like to talk about what happened to her in the South, but Lucas-Hall got curious after reading Isabel Wilkerson’s tome, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the Great Migration.
“She told everybody about a sister she had, but nobody else knew anything else,” Lucas-Hall said. “But I got curious after I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, so I started doing my homework.” What Lucas-Hall was able to piece together is that Granny Ida was actually one of six children. There had been four boys and two girls. Granny Ida’s parents were enslaved people, and as best Lucas-Hall can work out, her great-grandmother’s parents were sold from Virginia to Tennessee. After emancipation, the family moved to Arkansas. “What we know is my Granny Ida, she was pregnant with my grandfather when she got to Chicago, but we don’t know where she conceived him,” Lucas-Hall said. “What I also found out was that she lost a brother in Arkansas. … All I can figure is something traumatic happened to her.”
When Granny Ida and her husband arrived in Chicago, they quickly got to work, cooking for White families. Ida’s only child, Lucas-Hall’s grandfather, worked as a porter on the railroads. Her grandfather was always working, and he died while working on the railroad in Kentucky. Her dad was raised in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood at the tail end of Chicago’s Black Renaissance, which produced such greats as Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry and Katherine Dunham. Harold Lucas, her dad, spent decades working in the steel mills until they closed. He then tried his hand at running restaurants and clubs, but those didn’t work out, she said. Since then he’s become a self-taught historian and community organizer, fighting to get Bronzeville recognized for its importance and to make sure South Side children know the rich legacy of their community. [Mapping America's racial population shifts over the past decade] 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.