MEMPHIS, TENN. — The South, especially a river city like Memphis, Tenn., did not intrigue Elizabeth Little in the least. A middle-aged African-American woman from Peoria, Ill., she wasn't sure she wanted to stay in her hometown, but she certainly wasn't considering any city south of the Mason-Dixon line.
"I really had all of these preconceived notions of the South," says Mrs. Little.
Her husband, James, however, often traveled to Memphis during the winter to play golf in the warm sunshine. And he knew that, regardless of the memories from the civil rights era, Memphis offered opportunities - especially for African-Americans. In the end, Elizabeth finally agreed to move to Tennessee, and the couple settled here earlier this year.
"Now I am truly glad I came," says Little, an administrative assistant at a Memphis architectural firm. "The southern hospitality is incredible, and I really feel as an African-American that I have a chance to make a better life here. In fact, I can see owning my own business someday."
Little isn't alone in her perceptions. The South is rapidly becoming an oasis for African-Americans who are seeking new lifestyles in a changing region. After years of despair, the South is finally finding itself booming both economically and culturally. African-Americans are migrating to the South in amazing numbers, especially to bustling metropolitan areas like Memphis, Atlanta, and Charlotte, N.C., where last year 18,628 new jobs were created and African-Americans make up 30 percent of the population.
"A lot of African-Americans want to leave dysfunctional communities and hostile environments in the North and come south," explains David Moltke-Hansen, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "There are dramatic shifts in employment patterns at the moment. North Carolina and Mississippi are currently two of the most industrialized states in the country. The manufacturing jobs that once lured many northward just aren't as prevalent as they once were."
The South is rising again, and African-Americans want to be a part of it. Once considered a desolate land where its residents lived in the shadow of slavery and cotton, Dixie lost more than 5 million African-Americans between 1940 and 1970 when work stopped in the wake of mechanical cotton pickers and Jim Crow laws created a racial caste system. This exodus was the largest internal ethnic migration in American history.
Statistics show that in the 620 counties that make up the Southern "black belt" from Delaware to Texas, African-Americans make up a larger percentage of the total population than they do in the country as a whole, which is about 12 percent. And while census officials can't yet pin down definite numbers, they say more are coming.
The reasons for the reverse migration vary. Some move to the region for the climate and economic opportunities as well as a cheaper cost of living. Others return to the region after years in the North to be with elderly family members or to retire.
"I came back to Arkansas after my mother died," says Daisy McBeth, who returned to Little Rock in the early 1990s after living in Chicago for many years. "I always thought I would come back because of the warmer climate and because of my roots. I wouldn't leave now for anything. It's home."
A sense of home lures many middle-class African-Americans to the area where the majority of their ancestors originated in the 1700s. Surprisingly, instead of facing racial tension, most African-Americans are greeted with laid-back hospitality and a sense of belonging in a culture that continues to be primarily dominated by two races: white and black.
"Everyone here wants to be your friend," says Little, who still has a hard time getting over Southerners' openness toward most everyone. "In Illinois, I was just a face in a crowd. No one cared. Here it seems in stores it doesn't matter if you are black or white, people are just nice. There is a glow in people's eyes here. A genuine care for others."
This Southern charm also translates into big money. Cities are courting African-Americans with gusto, especially in the tourism industry. In Charlotte, the Afro-American Cultural Center focuses on preserving the artistic heritage of African-Americans. Memphis continues to emphasize the life of Martin Luther King Jr., with the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was slain.
In Greensboro, N.C., the city turned the Woolworth store, where the sit-in movement of the 1960s began, into a civil-rights museum. In Little Rock,a gas station on the street corner where the segregationist mob gathered to hassle the Little Rock Nine has been turned into the Central High Museum and Visitor Center.
A more positive future
The link between the past and future offers the South a chance to end the century in a completely different - and positive - light than when it started. From brutal segregation laws in the early 1900s to African-Americans owning businesses and running for public office in 1998, the South has come a long way. Although racism still exists and the region is far from perfect, the fact that reverse migration is occurring shows an immense amount of promise for this once-rebel land.
"I don't feel stifled here in Memphis," says Little. "There is a blossoming culture and opportunity for African-Americans throughout the South."
"I actually feel more of a part of this city than I even did up North," she adds. "Sure, there is racism. It's everywhere. You learn to deal, and it's easier to deal with if you live someplace with hope."