Going Home To The South

The Migration Back To The South

Children of many blacks who once fled the South and segregation are now returning to find better lives than they had in the North

Reporters who covered the civil rights revolution of the 1960s know the
bitterness felt by those who were back then known as Negroes - bitterness at the humiliation inflicted on them by Southern whites.

As a result, millions fled North in search of jobs, education, dignity.

But now, millions of their children are finding out that their best chance of living the American Dream is in the South, in places like the suburbs around Charlotte, North Carolina; Orlando, Florida; Houston, Texas; and especially Atlanta, Georgia.

And ironically, while their parents and grandparents may have fought
for integration, many of them have chosen to live in all-black communities. Correspondent Mike Wallace first reported this story on October 27, 2002.

Black suburban Atlanta may look like Beverly Hills, but it's Mecca for many new migrants who are buying homes worth from $200,000 to more than $2 million. And new subdivisions keep sprouting, marketed especially to blacks.

Jeff Moten and his wife, Wanda, were in the first wave of this new migration. Ten years ago, they moved here from outside New York City. Most of their neighbors are also former Northerners.

"I blazed a trail to get out of New York," says Moten. "I just wanted a better way for my kids."

That better way includes a lower crime rate than up North, easy access to athletic facilities and to the arts, and several performances a week at Atlanta's Chastain Park – which includes champagne, Chopin and Nancy Wilson.

It's a marvelous life, one that more blacks can now afford. Black buying power nationwide has doubled in the last decade. Half of all black households are now middle and upper income. And more blacks are graduating from high school and college so they're able to land better jobs and buy better homes.

Moten's neighbors, Eduard and Shari Weathers, and Keith and Detra Burrell said moving South brought them the promised land.

"My father used to always say, 'Stop asking for a piece of the pie. Make your own damn pie.' And this is us making our own pie," says Detra Burrell.

"This is what we have. This is what we want. We're no different from anybody else.We want nice homes. All of us have college degrees here. All of us have white-collar jobs. Why should we have to settle for anything less than what we have?"

Their white-collar jobs include financial consultant, school principal, Xerox executive and computer programmer. Plus, high-tech jobs are attracting blacks and whites to the South. But for blacks, it's coming back to their roots. Many who've moved South say they feel they've come home. And more than 3.5 million came home in the '90s - twice as many as came in the '80s.

They can also find good black public schools, and trendy bars and cafes, where the only whites are behind the bar.

"My younger brother's in the Navy, in San Diego, and he was here for about a week," says Eduard Weathers. "And I rode him around the neighborhood, and I said, 'Yeah, and it's just about all black out here.' And he looked at me, he
said, 'You're kidding? Those houses we saw, black people live in those houses?' I said, 'Yeah.'"


Renee Thomas found it hard to be black in a white neighborhood, so her family left Philadelphia and moved to a black community outside Atlanta. Up north, they'd been the only African-Americans in a neighborhood of 100 white families.

"We were the first blacks that our neighbors' children had ever seen," says Thomas. "You often feel like you don't fit in."

But this is what really shocked her. Their son, Shay, the only black on his school football team, was scared because he was about to play a team that was all black.

"It really bothered me," says Thomas. "Because here my son, who's African-American himself, was very afraid of the other team."

The football incident convinced Shay's parents they had a problem.

"Our children really identified with Caucasian children, but were very uncomfortable around African-American children," says Thomas. "I hate to say it, but yes. But I really wanted an African-American boy. I didn't want a white child."

Three months after that football game, the Thomas family moved south. Now, Shay's in a black public school making new friends.

Laurie Beard also grew up in a white neighborhood, in Milwaukee. But her parents sent her to an all-black college, Spelman, in Atlanta, to learn more about her own culture.

"It was just unbelievable because being from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you know, you're one of, you know, a few," says Beard. "And then when I got off the flight, it was like, 'Oh, my God.' I just never realized there were so many black people in one setting."

But Beard says she'd never move back north. In Atlanta, she got her college degree, got married, and convinced her parents to leave Milwaukee and come live nearby. Her parents, Israel and Gwen Beard needed convincing because they had been part of the original migration north, and had bad memories of the South.

Back in the '50s, Israel Beard had been a teacher in Tennessee, but he got fed up when his white supervisor kept calling him and the school's other black teacher "boy" in front of their students.

"I thought that that was a little debasing," remembers Israel, who says without question that it was better in the North at that time. "The overtness of the racism, the bigotry was not present."

He says he never expected to come back, but visiting his daughter and seeing the change made him change his mind. Now, he says the new South has won him over.

The South that he left was segregated effectively by force, but in the new South, blacks can have segregation by choice.

"When we first moved here, we had the opportunity to pretty much
move on any side of town," says Moten. "And it was important to me for my kids to see black families, mothers and fathers, households, you know, doing well. I want them to think, 'Well, this is the norm.' I've arrived here in my lovely black neighborhood."

"Why even move to a white neighborhood when you have a nice black
neighborhood you can move into," adds Keith Burrell, who says that white families are welcome to move into his neighborhood.

"Everybody's welcome to move here. Wouldn't have a black power sign on their door or their yard. No. Wouldn't bother us at all."

"I think that's the misconception, and I think that's because when we move into their neighborhoods, it's like, 'Oh, my God. Put the house on the market. Lock the doors.' And I hate to say it, but if they came in, I would wonder … One of the things you'd say, 'Well, what's up your sleeve?' 'What is it that you want? Are you selling drugs?'"


Now, there are a lot of grown black people who wear braces on their teeth.

"That's our badge of courage. We've arrived," says Burrell. "Growing up, the only kids that had braces were those kids that had money. Everybody we grew up with had the little bent-up teeth, going in different directions. And now, we're 40 years old. I have arrived. Look at my braces."

But not everyone can afford them. Nationwide, one in five blacks still lives in poverty - one in five, even in Atlanta. But that's a dramatic improvement from 10 years ago when the poverty rate was one in three.

"You understand that you are middle class, so that you might help somebody," says Cynthia Hale, who launched her church 16 years ago with just four people. Now, she preaches to more than 6,000 people, and most of them live in all-black, middle and upper class neighborhoods.

"I was so excited about being at a place where I could just kind of be myself and let my hair down," remembers Hale. "I didn't have to prove anything to anybody. And I think that's what causes people of any race, any culture, to self-segregate."

Alex Wilkerson agrees. He says he was the last person who ever expected to move back south. During World War II, he trained combat pilots in Tuskegee, Ala. But after the war, he couldn't land a decent job in the South.

" I realized that there were no opportunities, regardless of what skills I could have acquired," says Wilkerson.

He moved north in disgust. But last year, he and his wife moved back south to be near their daughter, Isabella Wilkerson, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter for The New York Times who moved to Atlanta to research a book on the original migration north.

She told us that now many northern blacks are drawn to the South because this is their mother country, the cradle of their culture.

"There's always a searching to find out what—where did this begin, and why do we eat the food that we eat? Why do we listen to the music that we listen to? Why do we speak the way that we do? And this is a way to find that out," says Isabella Wilkerson, who admits she really didn't want to come back.

Isabella Wilkerson says she got a scare recently when she came out of an Atlanta bagel shop. It was raining so hard she couldn't make it back to her car.

"While I was waiting, a man came towards me. He was a gaunt, tall man who had a white goatee, and he looked as if he might have been in another time and place -- a Confederate general," she says. "And I immediately had this visceral reaction to him, just at how he looked."

The man, who had an umbrella, offered to walk her to her car in the pouring rain. "I was amazed that this was happening. I had sized him up as a Southerner that I should probably steer clear of, and he showed this Southern hospitality that you hear so much about but don't believe exists," says Isabella Wilkerson. "It had never happened to me in all the years I've lived in the north."

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive, what would he say about what was going on in Atlanta today?

"Even he might be speechless," says Isabella Wilkerson.

  • Rebecca Leung

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