The first in a series
Gail Rayford-Ambeau sits outside of Rosebank Missionary Baptist Church in Tchula, Miss., which her mother attended before moving to Toledo, where Gail was born.
TCHULA, Miss. — Gail Rayford-Ambeau was born a Toledoan, despite the Mississippi blood thick in her veins and the trace of magnolia in her voice.
Her parents left southern oppression for northern opportunities in 1957, during a black exodus that emptied segregated states and filled Midwestern industrial cities.
Hilda and Bennie Rayford’s youngest and only Toledo-born daughter graduated in 1982 from then-predominantly white Rogers High School.
She earned a degree from her parents’ historically black alma mater in Mississippi and later followed them back to the family farmland at the edge of the Delta.
Gail Rayford Ambeau's parents, Hilda and Bennie Rayford, retired from teaching in the Toledo Public School system and moved to Tchula, Miss.
Ms. Rayford-Ambeau, now 52, called the move a culture shock.
“Basically, white-bread America coming down to cornbread,” she said.
Her mom, 85, just called it coming home.
VIDEO: Gail Rayford-Ambeau
PHOTO GALLERY: Southern Revival, Gail Rayford-Ambeau
Many African-Americans are making similar southern returns, a collective reversal reshaping the country after millions left the South from 1910 to 1970 to find better jobs and flee brutal racism.
In the span of two generations, the Rayfords took part in two of the nation’s big demographic shifts: The Great Migration and a slow, steady move back.
Residence: Rural Tchula, Miss.
About: Teaches art appreciation at Alcorn State University, clothing designer, program coordinator for Mississippi Cultural Crossroads
In Toledo: 1982 Rogers High School graduate
Migrated to Mississippi: After college in Mississippi, moved back to Ohio, returned to Mississippi circa 1993
About 90 percent of the nation’s black population lived in southern states in the early 1900s, a number that plummeted to 53 percent by 1970.
Companies such as General Motors ran newspaper ads touting the need for laborers in Ohio and Michigan.
More than 5 million African-Americans abandoned the South. Many who moved to Toledo hailed from Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama.
After establishing themselves, they often helped family and friends join them up North.
The tide began to turn in the late 1970s as northern factory-towns faltered, and the South rebounded.
By 2015, 58 percent of blacks resided in the South, according to the most recent population estimates, said Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.
Majorette Hilda Debro met Bennie Rayford, a clarinet player in the same marching band at Alcorn. Mr. Rayford later became the principal at another school and she a teacher.
courtesy of the family Enlarge
White and black Ohioans have shifted south at nearly the same rate in recent years seeking work and warmer weather. But African-Americans emphasize the cultural and familial links that also drew them southward.
“Now is their chance to go back home, because in many ways those ties are never broken,” said Willie McKether, an anthropology professor and vice president for diversity at the University of Toledo.
A network of black professionals in prosperous places such as Atlanta — a spot Mr. Frey calls a “magnet” for African-Americans — makes the South “more comfortable.”
Young, well-educated blacks are leading the exit out of Ohio and other northern states. They’re flocking to flourishing cities for jobs and chances that their parents and grandparents went the opposite way to find.
Retirees, meanwhile, yearn to return to places they left years ago. Some cite a lower cost of living as a contributing factor. The destinations older blacks choose might be more spread out, Mr. Frey said.
Six percent of black adults who lived in Ohio from 2010 to 2014 moved out of the state, with nearly three fifths choosing to go south, according to the most recent data available from Bowling Green State University’s Center for Family and Demographic Research.
Four of their five top destinations were southern states: Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Michigan. Similar numbers moved south during the five previous years, most often to Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan.
ABOUT THE SERIES
African-Americans are returning to the South in record numbers, reshaping a region millions of blacks abandoned during the Great Migration. Reporter Vanessa McCray and photographer Jetta Fraser spent a week driving through Georgia and Mississippi and visiting former Toledoans.
During Black History Month, The Blade tells their stories.
Coming Monday: Floyd Rose
Tuesday: Anne Brodie
Wednesday: George Armstrong
Thursday: Birdel Jackson
Sunday, Feb. 12: Young, educated blacks are leading the exit south. What can Toledo do to retain these bright minds?
North vs. South
The muddy Delta ends abruptly in the wooded hills of Mississippi. Ms. Rayford-Ambeau on a clear night likes to go out and see the sky stretched above her.
There’s little traffic on the two-lane Rosebank Mt. Olive Road. It winds past the country church where her grandmother played piano, the cemetery where her father is buried, and the house she now shares with her mother. When a pickup does cruise by, she has acquired the friendly southern habit of waving hello.
Her parents moved in 1989 from Toledo to her mother’s birthplace near Tchula. Her mom started a program to teach adults to read, and her dad grew cucumbers, peppers, and greens in retirement. His hopes of starting a family business prompted Ms. Rayford-Ambeau to join her parents a few years after their return.
She later moved to the capital, Jackson, and came back to the countryside about a year ago. Her father died in 2010.
Her first Mississippi memories are of visiting grandparents. Ms. Rayford-Ambeau recalled her parents pulling over to the side of the highway when she needed a bathroom break on those long trips from Toledo. She didn’t understand then why they couldn’t use the toilets in certain businesses.
Sixty years ago, her parents left their native, deeply divided Mississippi after Mr. Rayford was fired from the black school where he was principal and his wife taught. He had asked white farmers to help obtain buses and argued transportation would hasten the children’s return to the fields, according to family accounts.
“My dad was too smart for the superintendent, and they didn’t like what he was trying to do,” Ms. Rayford-Ambeau said.
Migration out of Ohio: 16,720 African-American adults left Ohio from 2010 to 2014, and 58 percent went to southern states.
Her mom describes the situation succinctly but softly: “The school superintendent wasn’t so nice.”
He was dismissed while they were in Toledo visiting a relative. They decided to stay. In September of 1957, Mrs. Rayford began teaching at Lincoln Elementary and Mr. Rayford at Scott High School.
The $137-a-month salary Mrs. Rayford made as a Mississippi teacher more than doubled in Toledo.
“It was very shocking, but exciting when we were working here,” she said. “I felt so rich.”
The family lived on Mackow Drive when Ms. Rayford-Ambeau was small, then moved to a more suburban neighborhood near Bancroft Street and Reynolds Road. In third grade, she enrolled at Hawkins Elementary.
She was one of three black students, a trio she said integrated the school.
“The kids used to chase me home with sticks and rocks,” she said. “They didn’t like me because it was new.”
The trouble stopped after her dad spoke to the school principal, who was black, and to the parents of one of her chief tormentors, she said.
In Toledo, she had as many white friends as she did black friends. Then, she enrolled at Alcorn State University.
Ms. Rayford-Ambeau recalled arriving at the Mississippi campus and marveling aloud at the number of black people. Her reality check came when another student quipped: “Honey, where do you think you are?”
She was at Alcorn, a public university founded six years after the Civil War to educate descendants of former slaves.
The school has an impressive civil rights lineage. Its most prominent alumnus is activist Medgar Evers, killed by a white supremacist outside his Mississippi home in 1963.
A dozen years before, Mr. Evers attended the wedding of two fellow Alcorn students in the college chapel: Hilda Debro and Bennie Rayford.
The couple met in college. Mrs. Rayford was a majorette in the marching band; Mr. Rayford played clarinet.
Bennie Rayford, left, Myrlie Evers, Hilda Rayford, and the late Yvonne Rayford Brown, who was twice elected mayor of Tchula and the first black Republican elected in the state.
COURTESY OF THE FAMILY Enlarge
Despite her legacy status, their daughter stood out as a northern born-and-raised tuba player in the marching band. She was told she was the first woman to play it in the school’s athletic conference.
Her Toledo music teachers trained her to play the notes, but Rogers High’ straight-laced formations didn’t prepare her for southern football halftime shows by black bands.
“It wasn’t the music. It’s all the other stuff that came with it. I knew how to dance. I had almost 12 years of dance experience — that’s a different kind of dancing,” she said. “It was nothing compared to what we did at Alcorn. I mean, you’re pretty much full-fledged dancing in the marching band.”
She also felt ostracized by the male tuba section, men she now calls her brothers.
“Kind of like what I experienced in elementary school, I had to turn around and experience it again,” she said.
Mississippi changed significantly during Mrs. Rayford’s absence.
“They had had integration by the time I got back. People were so nice it was frightening,” she said.
In tiny Tchula, many commute to larger cities or work on farms. She found it odd to see white men in the fields.
“The blacks were no longer chopping cotton or driving the tractor,” she said.
Mrs. Rayford found upon her return to her hometown of Tchula that much had changed since she left 60 years ago. ‘They had had integration by the time I got back,’ she says.
But problems that haunt the rural Deep South have devastated the 2,096 population-town, where 97 percent are African-American.
Two thirds live in poverty, according to recent census estimates. The median household income is $13,273, or 40 percent of Toledo’s median.
A pair of gas stations occupy prime spots on the desolate main drag, as if Tchula expects everyone is on the way to someplace else. Mr. and Mrs. Rayford stopped and tried to make it better.
She cleaned a farm building on the family property and started a learning center. The class initially met under a shade tree, where she served Kool-Aid. Four of her eight students couldn’t write the alphabet or their names, she said.
Her husband held seats on several boards, including as chairman of a local health clinic. Their oldest daughter, Yvonne Rayford Brown, a 1970 Rogers graduate, also moved to Tchula and was twice elected mayor. She died in 2012.
Mrs. Rayford wishes more people who left the South would come back.
“There are so many opportunities for us now,” she said. “I think they still have that stereotype mentality, because they thought when I came back that I would be living like my parents lived. My parents lived in what I would call almost a shack. ... We came back and built a house.”
Ms. Rayford-Ambeau won’t consider returning to Toledo. She likes Mississippi, the warm weather, and teaching art appreciation at Alcorn, designing clothing, and coordinating programs for an arts group.
“If you don’t like me and don’t want me around, down here I tend to find out that they’ll let you know,” she said. “Now, in Ohio it’s the opposite side; I may not know. They’ll smile in your face and just don’t tell you.”
Many who left the Jim Crow-era South didn’t realize “the level of segregation and racism that occurred in northern communities like Toledo,” said Mr. McKether, the UT anthropology professor.
Modern southern life is far from the stifling oppression Ms. Rayford-Ambeau’s ancestors faced. Her family roots go back to South Carolina, where she believes her mother’s great-grandfather was a slave. His history is hard to trace, but he eventually traveled west to Mississippi.
The South, despite its scars, suits mother and daughter.
“That was home,” Mrs. Rayford said.
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