Chicago's Shrinking Black Community

Experts say that a reverse migration to the suburbs and the South may be irreversible.

Leaving Cabrini Green in 2010 (Getty Images)

Roderick J. Harrison, a Howard University researcher, said he was not surprised earlier this year when the U.S. Census Bureau reported a dramatic decline in Chicago's black population.

The recession and perception of better economic opportunities in Southern states such as Georgia and Texas -- and even Western states like California, Nevada and Arizona -- have prompted a number of black Chicagoans to pack up their belongings and create new paths in a pattern being called reverse migration. It's similar to the historic journey created by their ancestors decades ago in the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and Midwest.

Even the allure of Chicago being the hometown of the nation's first black president, Barack Obama, may not be enough to draw people back.

"Today's migration trend may be irreversible,'' Harrison, senior research scientist at the Office of Research Regulatory Compliance at Howard University, told The Root. "Industries have changed, and a lot of those jobs aren't coming back to the Midwest." He said it's cheaper for companies to open factories in right-to-work states (those that don't compel employees in unionized workplaces to join the unions) in the South.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau released statistics for 2010 showing that Chicago lost more than 180,000 African-American residents, causing the population to fall to 1.6 million, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Overall, Chicago's population fell 6.9 percent to 2,695,598 people, recording fewer than the 2.7 million people reported back in 1920, according to the Wall Street Journal

"After peaking at 3.62 million people in 1950, Chicago underwent a half century of decline that ended only when the 1990s boom years produced a small gain in the 2000 count," the Journal writes. "At that time, the city loudly celebrated its comeback."

In addition to migrating down South, black Chicagoans are also heading for the suburbs, including Cook County's Dolton, Ill. Over the last decade, blacks who achieved a certain amount of success before the economic decline began moving to the suburbs from the city in search of safer communities and better housing. They also spread to University Park and Orland Park, both in Will County, with Orland Park straddling Cook County. Will County, with a population of 677,560, saw its overall population increase 34.9 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

In its heyday, Chicago's industrial might was impressive. With its railroads, meat-processing factories and teeming sweatshops, it was a popular destination for African Americans during the Great Migration. From about 1915 to 1970, blacks migrated from farming communities in the South to the industrial culture of the North and Midwest. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson recently wrote about the historic journey in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration:

As it was, Chicago was trying to discourage the migration of any more colored people from the South. In 1950, city aldermen and housing officials proposed restricting 13,000 new public housing units to people who had lived in Chicago for two years. The rule would presumably affect colored migrants and foreign immigrants alike. But it was the colored people who were having the most trouble finding housing and most likely to seek out such an alternative. And it was they who were seen as needing to be controlled, as they had only to catch a train rather than cross an ocean to get there.