When Christopher Dawson returned to South Carolina after a stint in the Vietnam War, his only options were to pick tomatoes or weed other people's yards for a few dollars. Little work was available in the South in the 1960s, especially for a black man with only a high-school education.
So, in 1968, Mr. Dawson moved to New York, carrying only a small suitcase and the hope of a steady paycheck. He found a job in a rain hat factory in Manhattan making $164 a week. "That was the most I'd ever seen," he says.
Now, after raising eight children in the Bronx and spending the past 30 years navigating the city in his yellow cab, he is moving his family back to his hometown of Charleston, S.C. - for the same reasons he once left.
Dawson's odyssey is part of a reverse migration of African-Americans to the South in a quest to reestablish roots and improve their economic lot.
The 2000 census reveals that, for the first time this century, the black population in the South grew faster than in any other region in the 1990s.
While the migration southward began as early as the 1970s, it has accelerated rapidly in recent years. The region gained more than 3.5 million blacks in the 1990s, according to the report Census 2000 Shows Large Black Return to the South. During that time, every other region of the country reported a net outmigration of African-Americans.
Blacks are "more likely to move to the South because of the history, the pull of tradition, and the comfort level," says William Frey, author of the report and a demographer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The great pilgrimage South reverses a 20th-century trend that drew millions of blacks to a less racially divided North. During the 1960s in particular, in an era of racial tension and violence, blacks fled to northern cities like Detroit, New York, and Cleveland. Manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and urban communities, though segregated, offered more opportunities.
Today, fewer factory jobs exist, and many black urban areas have fallen into disrepair. Moreover, the southern economy is booming, and many of the region's racial stigmas have diminished.
The result is the emergence of a new black South, one that is more economically and culturally empowered. It's made of former self-exiles and native northerners looking to make more money, own better homes, and live closer to their families and the past.
"At the time I left the South, before the desegregation, you couldn't eat any place, couldn't go to the bathroom, couldn't go to a movie," says Mary Hinton, who left her parents' home on a neat street in Oxford, Miss., for an apartment in Newark, N.J., in the 1950s.
But just as Ms. Hinton became part of the self-imposed exile of black Americans to the North, she eventually turned around and came back, and now lives 50 miles outside of Raleigh - drawn back because the civil rights era has tempered the racial inequities she grew up with.
She and Dawson highlight how one region's gain can be another's loss. Between 1960 and 1970, for instance, when Dawson moved to the Bronx, New York was the No. 1 metro area in the United States for blacks to settle in. It gained 751,438 African-Americans in that decade.
By contrast, during the past decade, New York gained half as many blacks as it did 40 years ago, or 394,000, while states like Florida and Georgia grew by more than double that number.
One of the biggest draws for blacks is a higher standard of living. In fact, most of the blacks moving to the South today are settling in suburbs. According to the 1998 Current Population Survey, some 88 percent of incoming African-Americans chose to live in metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Charlotte, and, of those, 81 percent settled in suburban areas.
"Many newcomers are drawn to the suburbs," says Jacqueline Taylor, president of the Black Newcomer's Network in Atlanta. "They can live in upscale communities with other African-Americans, with all of the amenities."
K-Shae Harris was born in Harlem, but within the next two years plans to move to Greensboro, N.C. That's where her father was born and where several aunts, uncles, and cousins have begun to relocate in the past year. She says the Harlem of her childhood, the city that offered her father a job and helped raise their family, has changed in the past 30 years.
"Back then, I could go to the playground without hearing gunshots or seeing drugs on the ground," says Ms. Harris, a security guard at a local grocery store. Harris says she feels her neighborhood is crumbling. She yearns for good schools, safe streets, and fresh air. "The only way to make it is to get out of this city," she says.
While other parts of the country offer plenty of amenities, many African-Americans are choosing the South because of tradition and familiarity. Mike Brown, a native of Chicago, moved to Atlanta last spring for a variety of reasons: entrepreneurial opportunities, the weather, family ties. But he appreciates being in the middle of the rich history of civil rights and of old black money, too.
Indeed, the South - where the first African-Americans were brought in bondage - is also where they built their American history, with its own pantheon of folk heroes, hymns, and social graces.
That history is part of what Hinton wants to impart to her three adopted daughters, who are now attending a private high school outside Raleigh. Most of all, she wants them to remember their roots. "Living here keeps them abreast of what it is and [teaches them] all about their ancestors," she says.
Of course, prejudice is still pervasive in the South. The white supremacist movement is experiencing a resurgence, and many neighborhoods remain segregated. But sometimes returnees find pleasant surprises. After moving this spring into a weathered brick-stone house outside Durham, N.C., Christine Piggee, a researcher at the Sigma Xi Scientific Society, worried about the elderly white woman living next door. Ms. Piggee, an African-American, thought she might bear grudges left over from the civil rights era.
She was wrong. In fact, the treatment she received from the neighbor has made her reexamine her own assumptions. "She's embraced me with open arms," says Piggee.
Despite the presence of many racially mixed neighborhoods in the South, one of the magnets pulling northerners to the region, ironically, is that many communities are all-black, experts say. As more blacks congregate in neighborhoods, their voting power and voices are increasing. As Frey sees it, the region where blacks were once considered second-class citizens may end up being where they show the "greatest political prominence and power."
For many, like Dawson, the hope is that a move South will lead to greater clout, economic and political.
In his more than 30 years in New York, Dawson has tried to open restaurants and stores. Each time he has failed because of high rents and lack of support, he says. So he has worked 15 hour days in his taxicab. In South Carolina, he hopes to make another try as a restaurateur. His wife would like to open up a daycare center.
Freedom has a far different meaning today for Dawson than it did in the 1960s. Freedom is his children being able to ride their bikes to the beach. It's being able to play on grass, not the sidewalk. It's being able to spend time with them and still provide. "They gotta understand what life is all about," he says.
Patrik Jonsson in North Carolina contributed to this article.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor