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Erica Baker, a Cincinnati native, found that Atlanta’s diversity, major sports teams, good roads, warm weather, and the chance to be near family made her new city feel like home fast.
ATLANTA — Younger, educated blacks whose parents and grandparents migrated north are reversing that well-traveled route and moving south.
They come for opportunity and stay for familiarity.
It’s often a job that draws Rust Belt expats to southern boomtowns. But the diversity, culture, and family ties soon make their new city feel like home.
“I have done things that I probably would not have done in Toledo,” said Caroline Brackette, who moved to metro Atlanta eight years ago.
Ohio posted net-migration losses among both college-educated blacks and whites from 2010 to 2014, the most recent data available from the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University.
Marlon Gibson, assistant dean for Campus life at Emory University in Atlanta.
A net of 2,290 educated blacks left Ohio, compared with a net of 16,385 educated whites. But the African-American population fell at a greater rate.
That means the number of educated blacks moving out is 21 percent higher than the rate of educated blacks moving in.
In comparison, the number of educated whites moving out is 17 percent higher than the number of educated whites moving in.
A reverse black migration, led by the younger and college-educated, has revived the South. African-Americans are returning in record numbers to a region in which its black population fell by more than five million from 1910 to 1970, when a wave of migrants went north for work and equality. Nearly three-fifths of all black adults who left Ohio from 2010 to 2014 headed south.
Cities in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas are popular destinations for black college graduates, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.
Many of Toledo’s best are finding they can shine a little brighter under a southern sun.
Take Ms. Brackette.
She grew up on Robinwood Avenue in the Old West End, one of seven children. She attended Glenwood Elementary, a now-closed neighborhood junior high, and then graduated in 1989 from Central Catholic High School.
At the University of Toledo, Ms. Brackette racked up undergraduate and graduate degrees and capped off her academic accomplishments with a doctorate in counselor education in 2007.
The first southern fork in the road took her to Memphis, followed by a brief detour to work in Michigan.
She moved to metro Atlanta in 2009, swept south like so many others in their 20s and 30s. Her African-American peers were especially excited when she took a faculty position at Mercer University.
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.
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“There’s always this sense that Atlanta is a black person’s mecca,” said Ms. Brackette, now 45.
Eight years in, she understands the allure.
It’s a city where people are quick to make an introduction, expect others to be involved, and “everybody’s an entrepreneur,” she said.
Atlanta offers diversity, major sports teams, smooth roads, and warm weather.
Plus, many family members moved south and live nearby.
Erica Baker, 30, added Atlanta to her city wish list because it would put her closer to family. Her dad was raised in LaGrange, Ga., and they made frequent trips south while she was growing up in Cincinnati.
After graduating from UT in 2009, Ms. Baker worked in Ohio’s capital city. She landed a job in Atlanta several years later and found it empowering to work with so many African-American women.
“It’s definitely different down here in terms of culture and diversity,” she said.
She met her now-husband while at UT, and his family lives in Whitehouse. They’ve been back to visit, and she’s admired Hensville, the newer restaurants, and trendy rooftop bars.
“We hadn’t been downtown for quite a bit, and I was taken aback quite honestly by how much the city has changed,” she said. “Where was this when I was there?”
Marlon Gibson migrated south and flourished.
Atlanta fits the 37-year-old in a way his hometown of Toledo didn’t.
“When I go back, and I go into a Target I am reminded of being black because I always feel like I’m an ‘other’ when I go back home,” he said.
Blacks make up 54 percent of Atlanta’s city-proper population — double that of Toledo, according to the most-recent census.
Mr. Gibson’s grandfather migrated north from Arkansas. His wife’s family is from Georgia.
He grew up in the Old Orchard area, went to St. John’s Jesuit High School, and graduated in 2001 from UT, where he received his master’s degree in higher education administration.
He now works as assistant dean for campus life at Emory University.
His early impressions of Atlanta came by way of a friend, who planted a seed years ago.
“She said, ‘You have to come to Atlanta because people of color are doing really well,’ ” he recalled. “I completely get it. I am constantly inspired by so many other people living around me.”
Toledo leaders acknowledge more work needs to be done to attract and retain educated professionals.
“I think the biggest barrier that we have is that we are not telling our story and not making the connections so that folks will have opportunities — and not saying to them, ‘Come home,’ ” said Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson, the city’s first African-American female mayor.
Toledo can’t control the cold weather or rival cosmopolitan cities like Atlanta overnight, but it can create another kind of climate and atmosphere.
Making an environment where people can find meaningful work that matches their skills and interests is key, the mayor said.
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The city can help do that by casting a wide net when it has job openings so outsiders hear about local opportunities, she said. She’s also focused on appointing young professionals to city boards and commissions so that their fresh ideas are heard.
Toledo Public Schools recruits teachers from historically black colleges because officials want to boost the number of minority educators.
More than 40 percent of the district’s roughly 22,000 students are black, compared with 19 percent of its 2,889 teachers, and 27 percent of 364 administrators.
Teachers who relate to their students — through a shared upbringing or culture — can inspire a child, said Superintendent Romules Durant.
Embracing an entrepreneurial spirit and providing youth with more leadership opportunities also will help Toledo retain talent.
Mr. Durant, an African-American and East Toledo native, was the district’s youngest superintendent when, at age 37, he was appointed to an interim post in 2013. He stayed because he feels a responsibility to “pay it forward.”
“That’s why I stay here, because local invested in me,” he said.
Diversity efforts also are under way at some of Toledo’s other cornerstone institutions.
The Toledo Museum of Art aims to do its part to create a welcoming city for all ages and groups. It has tried to expand its reach in recent years with exhibits of video game art, sneakers, and a splashy Kehinde Wiley show that opened Friday.
The painter’s huge portraits depict African-Americans in heroic and regal poses against colorful, blooming backdrops.
“I think the museum is a part of something greater,” said spokesman Candice Harrison, describing its push for cultural inclusivity as “a concerted effort to make people want to stay here.”
The born-and-raised Toledoan, who is black, said she’s seen the museum change during her lifetime.
And in May, UT named its first vice president for diversity.
Willie McKether, one of several African-Americans on the university president’s 12-member cabinet, wants to recruit and retain more minority students and faculty. About 10 percent of UT’s 20,648 students are black, compared with 4 percent of its 1,557 faculty members.
Getting professionals to stay or return to Toledo means hearing all voices, especially youthful ones, he said.
The first thing many Atlantans brag about is the city’s numerous black organizations that cater to almost every interest, from groups of vegan professionals to social circles for singles and scientists. Mr. McKether pointed to the recent formation of the Toledo Young Black Professionals networking group as one example of the city’s young adults coming together and supporting each other.
“You’ve got to find a way that whatever we’re doing good in Toledo, we’ve got to keep doing that better and be very intentional about job creation and how we cultivate leaders and create opportunities for leadership,” he said. “The future of Toledo in many ways depends on having a cadre of a younger generation who say, ‘I want to be here.’ ”