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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

African-Americans increasingly drawn to a changing South

BY MIKE WILKINSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

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.

In Toledo, blacks found that they could be paid less than whites doing the same work. At some of the city s biggest employers, blacks found it difficult to get work.

In the 1960s, it took the federal courts to force the city to hire African-Americans in proportional numbers for the police and fire departments. As late as 1978, Toledo Public Schools avoided court-ordered busing in part by agreeing to transfer black teachers to outlying, mostly white, schools.

Charles Anderson benefited from the local struggles, joining the Toledo fire department in 1974 after the federal courts ordered the city to hire more blacks.

Over time, he reared five daughters and a son, living in the Old West End, just off I-75. By the time he retired in 1997, he had served as an acting lieutenant and worked as an arson investigator.

But now, he relaxes more; the struggles are for someone else. “I did the fight,” Mr. Anderson said. “My time is over.”

These days, he still lives near I-75. But his home is now in Florida, near Fort Myers. His retirement was brief; he now works as a manager for a national floor-covering company. Soon he will retire again.

Mr. Anderson was drawn to the South by the weather. He knew circumstances had changed since he visited his relatives in Alabama as a 9-year-old in 1954. On that trip, he discovered segregated drinking fountains and had to watch The Glenn Miller Story from the balcony of the local theater.

Today, he said he still runs into the occasional bigot. But it is the exception, not the rule. He and his wife, Katherine, have no intentions of leaving.

“I see changes where opportunities are better than in the 1950s,” he said.

Fred and Audrey Jeffries walk along the bear near their home in Pass Christian, Miss. Fred and Audrey Jeffries walk along the bear near their home in Pass Christian, Miss.
DAVID RAE MORRIS Enlarge

The U.S. Census will likely never track Twyla Wheaton s migration. After retiring from Toledo Public Schools in 2001, she was visiting Atlanta in 2002 for her sorority s national convention.

As she strolled through the convention area, she came upon a job fair for the Atlanta Public Schools. They were hiring librarians and asked Ms. Wheaton if she was interested. She was, and they hired her on the spot. Having never left Ohio for long, she decided it was time “for a little adventure.”

But she has a big problem: She s homesick. Her mother is in an Ohio nursing home and her friends are here. Atlanta is a big town where commuting is an irritating and time-consuming chore.

“Down here you can be driving for days,” she said.

Now in her second year as an Atlanta resident, Ms. Wheaton, who grew up in Spencer Township, knows there won t be a third. “Toledo s going to be getting me back real soon,” she said. “I miss Toledo.”

The Rev. Floyd Rose misses Toledo - sometimes. But the former chairman of the local NAACP left the city in 1995 for Valdosta, Ga., where he was born. He founded a church there and quickly became a leader in the black community, forming the People s Tribunal. The organization is considering a boycott of the local tourism bureau because of its hiring practices.

A veteran of the struggles for equality, Mr. Rose knows there are problems everywhere - in Toledo, in Valdosta, everywhere.

“Economically, black folks are doing better in the South than they are doing in the North,” he said. But “when it comes to drugs and police brutality, nothing has changed.”

Mr. Rose has visited Toledo since moving to Valdosta, but people here should expect only short visits. “It s too cold up there,” he said. “I love it down here.”

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.

But things change.

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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