Heading South

Change Follows as Northern Blacks Return to Old Homes

by Gretchen Kell

In the 1940s and 1950s, one of history's greatest migrations--the exodus of millions of rural black Americans from the South to cities in the North--was at its peak.

But since 1975, that migration has reversed, and more than a million blacks have returned, and continue to return, to their Southern home places, according to "Call to Home" (BasicBooks, 1996), a new book by anthropologist Carol Stack.

"Many people tend to think of migration to America and within America as one-way, that people do not reverse their migration," said Stack, a professor of education and women's studies.

"But my study shows that many of the African-Americans who migrated north in the Great Migration never really left the South. They never broke their ties to their rural families."

While this trend has been identified before, the personal stories of the migrants have not been told--until now.

For eight years, mainly in the 1980s, Stack crisscrossed the South, talking to blacks in nine counties in the Carolinas. The broad cross-section of people she interviewed all had left the rural South for industrial jobs in northern cities.

But they eventually returned home, said Stack, whose 1974 book, "All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community," was a bestseller.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that this return migration will continue into the next century.

"People moving south are leaving cities where the economy has stagnated and are returning to worse places," said Stack, "places the Department of Agriculture calls 'persistent poverty counties,' which are way below the national and even state averages for income."

By and large, said Stack, the reverse migration is not based on economic factors, since most of the migrants are moving back to rural places where the economy has all but disintegrated.

Many have traded their city apartments for trailers, old cabins or brick houses along Southern back roads. Sometimes they sent their children ahead of them--more than 100,000 black children moved to the South from the North between 1975 and 1980--either to be cared for or to help elderly relatives.

"Some are returning home to take care of ailing grandparents," said Stack.

"Made stronger by the demands of urban life, some are returning with skills and confidence that they can change the opportunities for African-Americans in these rural communities. Some are pulled to the land that has been a part of their family for generations."

In novelistic style, Stack introduces readers to people who left the South for jobs in the North but later returned home.

One of them is Eula Grant, the oldest of five children, who moved back to the South after working in Brooklyn, N.Y.

While Grant said the North offered better jobs, housing and income, she told Stack she headed home because of "basic needs--to provide for our family, and a drive to make real changes in our own lifetime. It all pushes you to wake up one day and say, 'I need to go back home.'"

Grant told Stack, "You can definitely go home again. But you don't start from where you left--to fit in you have to create another place in that place you left behind."

In impoverished Chestnut County, Grant became vice president of Holding Hands, a non-profit organization established to provide poor families with basic necessities--wood to burn, food, furniture, toys.

Another migrant, Billie, told Stack she'd saved money for 16 years working in a beauty shop in the North to buy five acres in the South, in Chowan Springs, where she grew up. The acreage was covered with sharp briars that had to be removed with machinery.

"The land was within sight of the sharecropper's cabin where she grew up," said Stack. "Billie moved each log, piece by piece, to make them a part of her new house. These were memories, reminders, that she wanted to keep alive."

Other migrants that Stack gives voice to in her book include Vietnam veterans Donald Hardy and Earl Henry; three girlhood friends who returned to the South and struggled for government funding to set up day care centers; and the extended family of Pearl and Samuel Bishop.

She points out through their tales how people who return home are tested in many ways.

"The story of this return migration is one of hardships--of starting over, of poverty, of rural life in the South, scene of grief and suffering for black Americans--but it's also the story of how people came back intent on applying hard lessons learned up North to build new lives," said Stack.

She writes especially about the struggle returnees have had with white government officials while trying to establish "institutions for community action," such as Holding Hands.

"For years, it turns out, officials in these hardscrabble rural counties withheld federal entitlements for their intended recipients," she said.

The problem that remains, said Stack, is that the same public officials who would administer block grants in poor, rural counties are trying to thwart the return migrants' efforts at setting up self-help groups.

"In these localities," she said, "the people who proclaim most loudly the urgency and legitimacy of self-help--bureaucrats and politicians--are the same people who work to thwart it."

Fortunately, said Stack, the returnees "are not retreating from engagement.... Like new immigrants everywhere, they seek one another out, form organizations, build coalitions and...start to shake things up." n


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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