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The Nation

In a Reverse Migration, Blacks Head to New South

California, other regions lose African Americans feeling the pull of 'home' and a slower pace.

May 24, 2004|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

"They are following networks back to the South, but they are also following the job opportunities," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who wrote the report, "The New Great Migration: Black Americans Return to the South."

"Atlanta is the No. 1 choice, followed by Dallas and Charlotte. The black migration from California to Nevada is an extension of an already eastward movement. They've gone from Watts to Riverside, and now they're jumping over to Las Vegas."

Richard and Carol Gordon, both schoolteachers, raised their eight children to be Californians through-and-through. The South -- Alabama on his side, Mississippi on hers -- was a piece of lore. He had grown up in Watts, moved to Santa Ana after the 1965 riots and then to Lake Elsinore a decade later.

Out in the suburbs of Riverside County, the children found themselves immersed in white culture. "I think my children made up half of the black population at Elsinore High School," Carol Gordon said.

She grew up the daughter of a preacher whose travels took the family from California to Louisiana and back again. It was in New Orleans that she got her first taste of traditional black culture. She wanted the same for her children. So when it came time for them to pick a college -- UCLA or one of the historically black schools -- she practically insisted on the latter.

Daughter April Gordon Dawson was the first to go, boarding a bus to Greensboro, N.C., in 1984 to attend Bennett College, an all-black school for women. She married a native of North Carolina and decided to stay. She and her husband, both attorneys, have their own practice.

Her reverse migration set a path for her siblings. Four brothers and sisters followed in the 1980s and 1990s, graduating from North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M and Spelman College in Atlanta.

Mari Gordon Mitchell, the youngest, became the last child to leave California, in 1995. "I had always planned on going to college in California, but when I went to April's graduation, it was so exciting to be around that many educated black women. I decided right then I was going to do the same."

In the end, Mari chose Spelman because it offered more scholarship money and sat amid five other black colleges. "We had so many students from California that we used to have all-California parties," she said.

She and her husband, DeMarco Mitchell, who grew up in Georgia, are raising their three children in a mostly black neighborhood outside Atlanta. He teaches math at a middle school in the inner city and she teaches science. "The black community and culture is a lot more cohesive in Atlanta and, plus, it's a lot cheaper here," she said.

For the first time, U.S. Census figures show, the black population in Los Angeles County waned, dropping from 934,776 in 1990 to 901,472 in 2000. Over the same period, the black population in the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area dropped from 537,753 to 513,561, according to census data analyzed in the Brookings study. The Sacramento-Yolo counties region was the only one in California that showed a modest net gain in black migration.

In the state as a whole, the population rise among blacks dropped from a 50% growth rate in the 1960s to a 2.5% growth rate in the 1990s -- far slower than Asians and Latinos. The loss of young black migrants was a factor in this drop.

"Los Angeles is still a very vibrant city for all ethnic groups," said J. Eugene Grigsby, the longtime urban planner at UCLA who now heads the National Health Foundation. "The challenge for African Americans is they have gone from being the No. 1 minority to the No. 3, and that trend will never reverse. Maneuvering through a multiethnic Los Angeles is something they're going to have to learn."

Like a lot of black retirees, LaCharles McCoy found nothing holding him to Carson once his job fixing diesel oil tanks was over. He looked at houses in Hemet and Las Vegas, but nothing came close to the bargain he found in his native Texas.

In March, he and his wife, Glenda, moved into a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house along a golf course in the Houston suburbs. Three weeks ago, his daughter and two grandchildren joined them.

"You know the kind of house that people have in Palos Verdes and Newport Beach, well, we've got that kind of house -- and more," he said. "We're the only blacks in the entire subdivision. The white folks have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. It's a new Texas."

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