Reversing 100 years of history, young blacks with skills head South

For the first time in a century, the South is not losing blacks.

In fact, from 1975 to 1980, the region actually gained 195,000 blacks aged five and older, partly because fewer left. But there has also been a migration of young, educated, skilled blacks looking for better job opportunities. The migration to the North has ebbed. During the last decade, the number of jobs in the South has increased at twice the national rate.

''It's a terribly important event in black history,'' says Larry Long of the Center for Demographic Studies in Washington, D.C. ''It means that a 100-year migration pattern has reversed itself. And migration streams don't often change like that.''

According to a government survey of blacks who migrated South from 1970-75, 58 percent were employed, 43 percent had attended college, and 38 percent were 25- to 44-years-old.

Typical is Leon Williams, 31, who moved two years ago from Washington to Lubbock, Texas, to study for a masters in psychology from Texas Technical University. His wife, Elise, has since gotten a top management job with the state health department. That would have been a political appointment in Washington, Mr. Williams says.

''I figured I'd come down here and get some good things on my resume and then go back home,'' he says. ''It's hard to get chances in Washington. This move hasn't hurt us, that's for sure.''

They have had trouble fitting into the country-western style of the area, says Williams, and difficulty making friends with natives who consider them ''outsiders.''

''You don't have a big, black middle class here,'' he says. ''But we've been able to build a network of friends. There are people here doing what we're doing - using it as a stepping stone.''

Tom Burrell just wanted to come home. He moved from Detroit to Memphis in 1975, leaving a comfortable job with General Motors to be a farmer.

''I used to be ashamed of the fact that I lived on a farm and had to work in the fields,'' says Mr. Burrell, who now operates 2,000 acres of farmland with three other migrants from Detroit. ''I realized the same energy I used to refute my heritage, I could use to dignify it. Most people think farmers are too dumb to do anything else. I wanted to get an education first and then farm, when people knew I had the option to work in the corporate world.

''And I love the South, the weather and the people. I wouldn't move back to Michigan unless you made me governor, and then my mansion would be down south somewhere.''

Most migrants, 61 percent, relocate in large metropolitan areas, a trend some observers feel may increase black political clout in the region.

Currently, the 11 Southern states contribute half of all black elected officials in the country. It's estimated that by 2000, 53 of the country's largest central cities will be dominated by blacks, 38 of those in the South.

By then, however, the cities may be an empty prize, says Bill O'Hair of the Joint Center for Political Studies. Whites and industry are moving to the suburbs and beyond and so are middle-class blacks. ''All the power, clout of the cities is leaving,'' he says.

There is concern migration may bring in large numbers of ''economic refugees, '' people who have exhausted welfare benefits elsewhere and will drain the economy.

''There will come a time,'' says Dr. Long, ''when the South's ability to guarantee new jobs will dwindle.''

If that time comes, it's doubtful blacks will feel trapped. Says Williams: ''I'm going where the jobs are.''

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