Chicago's Shrinking Black Community

Leaving Cabrini Green in 2010 (Getty Images)
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.


Racism, cloaked by gentrification, has played a major part in today's reverse-migration trend, Bennett Johnson III — a Chicago historian and vice president of the Chicago-based Third World Press, one of the largest black-owned publishers in the nation — told The Root.

Just like in the 1950s, Johnson said, former Richard M. Daley, who recently stepped down after 21 years in office, led a campaign to remove blacks from the city through housing policies. Over time, the city has razed dozens of housing projects that were racked by violence and poverty.


"Instead of dealing with the displacement, people decided to go back home to the South," Johnson said. "Because there was nothing in Mississippi or Tennessee, where some of them likely had families, they looked to Atlanta, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It's been happening for 20 years, so it's not surprising."

To that end, Harrison said there might be no hope of stanching the flow of reverse migration. It revolves around the economy and where opportunities are going. He also sees more families moving to California and Arizona in search of opportunities, but those states have their own problems.


"Perhaps the collapse of [local] housing values will make California more affordable going forward, but the big [tax] deficits will hurt many of the educational and social services that were once part of the attraction," he said, adding that Phoenix will need more water than it currently gets.

Clearly, many are unsure how reverse migration will play out in the future. Recently, the line for an Atlanta job fair sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus stretched for blocks, evidence that job opportunities are sparse throughout the nation during the recession.


In the epilogue of The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson asks if the Great Migration achieved its goal of improving the lives economically of people who left the South. While social scientists say no, she writes that census records say yes.

"According to a growing body of research, the migrants were, it turns out, better educated than those left behind in the South and, on the whole, had nearly as many years of schooling as those they encountered in the North,'' Wilkerson writes. "The migrants, as a group, managed to earn higher incomes than northern-born blacks even though they were relegated to the lowest-paying positions."


Will a similar benefit come to those making the current exodus? The pages of the stories of Chicago's reverse migration are just beginning to be written.

Lynette Holloway is a frequent contributor to The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine. Follow her on Twitter.

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