Thomas Clark was one of those committed New Yorkers. "For me it was the whole urban dynamic of being in a big city, being in the financial center of the world," said the former New York state banking official and onetime president and CEO of Carver Federal Savings Bank. Commuting into Manhattan from his White Plains, N.Y., home, the self-described "little guy from Lackawanna, N.Y.," took advantage of every social and cultural opportunity and "exposure to so many different people."
Now, Clark is content with a few visits back a year. Drawn by the cost of living, quality of life and the weather, the 67-year-old Clark moved to Charlotte, N.C., when he retired in November 2008. He's not alone. "Most of the people I'm meeting are from somewhere else," he said.
Clark is part of what is being called the "reverse migration" of African Americans from the North to the South, a trend that was starkly reflected in the 2010 U.S. Census data. According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, between 2000 and 2009, most of the big metro areas with the largest growth in the African-American population were in the South. "Economic progress, cultural ties and an emerging black middle class have driven greater numbers of blacks to prosperous Southern metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Raleigh," according to analysis by William Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, with losses in states such as Illinois and Michigan.
Of course, African Americans aren't the only ones heading south. But this trend is a definite shift in the pattern for most of the 20th century, when, from World War I to the 1970s, African Americans left the South for the North, Midwest and West in search of economic opportunity and a relief from racial violence and discrimination. The period is detailed in Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.
It could be the story of Clark's family. His mother was born in Abbeville, S.C., and lived in Atlanta before migrating to Lackawanna when she was a teenager. His father found work in the city's steel mills as a crane operator, and other family members followed.
Clark discovered Charlotte in the 1990s during visits to his mother, who had moved there. He got to know the city through her eyes, and was impressed with the medical care she received before her death in 2008.
Like other transplants, Clark has realized that you don't have to give up New York-style amenities. He is active in church and community, serving on the board of the Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, which this season is offering such fare as Clybourne Park, a Pulitzer Prize-winning response to Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun, and the set-in-a-barbershop Cuttin' Up, from Charles Randolph-Wright, who has never lost touch with his own York, S.C., hometown, despite show-business success. Clark uses his new Southern base to explore "all the rich black history" in the region, from the Outer Banks to New Orleans.
With Charlotte's yearly CIAA basketball tournament, a centennial celebration of native-son artist Romare Bearden and preparations for the 2012 Democratic National Convention under way, Clark said he doesn't have to sell the city's attraction to friends. That's not to ignore the economic downturn that has hit the city's financial institutions and the unemployment rate that is still higher for African Americans in the region.
"Racial progress has been made," he said, though "that's not to say the South still doesn't have a long ways to go. But in certain respects, the South is ahead of the North." (Charlotte and South Carolina's capital city of Columbia are both led by African-American mayors.)
"Of course, you can't walk to the corner bodega and get a sandwich," she said. But after exploring the region, Wilson sees herself settling in Atlanta after she finishes her goal of attending medical school. "I've grown more as a person, and I'm happy that I ended up here."
Wilson and Clark are two of the many New Yorkers who have found the South hospitable. The New York Times reported that according to census data, about 17 percent of the African Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, more than from any other state.
While big cities are draws, some transplants are returning to rural homesteads. Evelent Steele, 77, is back in tiny Morven, N.C., in Anson County, where she grew up. While she often played with white children, she couldn't go to schools with them. "You knew you had to stay in your place," she remembered. Steele left in 1952, and lived in Youngstown, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., where she worked at the Pentagon as a management analyst for 30 years. She moved back to Morven in 2006. But, "I miss the clubs and things I belonged to in Washington," she said. "It's hard to get adjusted."
Mary H. Murphy, 66, has no regrets. Born in Oxford, Miss., and raised in Memphis, Tenn., Murphy headed north once she finished high school. She lived in Detroit and then Buffalo, N.Y., where she met her husband and raised two sons, now in their 40s. She worked at the post office and General Motors, and as a mental-health therapist.
"After my children finished school and went off to college," Murphy said, "I felt the need to come back home. I didn't want to live the rest of my life in the North. I loved the country growing up, loved Mississippi," where she would visit grandparents, aunts and uncles. Tired of shoveling Buffalo snow, she was "looking for some semblance of peace in my life."
Eighteen years ago, she was at the forefront of the trend when she moved to Batesville, Miss. A brother who retired from the military bought their grandparents' property and sold her 10 acres. Another brother moved from Detroit, where he's continued the herbal farming for which her grandfather was known. A soon-to-retire sister in Memphis is headed to Batesville, as well.
Murphy volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club, and with seniors and the disabled. When I spoke with her by phone, she had just returned from special services at Deliverance Tabernacle Pentecostal Church Inc.
"You see a lot of people — black and white — come back and build houses, some who said they would never come to Mississippi. They didn't want to live on top of each other," Murphy said. "I live out in the country, on top of a hill. I see what the Lord had placed in front of me," she said. "I see the peace and joy of it."
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog. She was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.