"...a strong spiritual pull to go back to the South”
In Deborah Brown’s family lore, the American South was a place of whites-only water fountains and lynchings under cover of darkness. It was a place black people like her mother had fled.
But for Ms. Brown, 59, a retired civil servant from Queens, the South now promises salvation.
Three generations of her family — 10 people in all — are moving to Atlanta from New York, seeking to start fresh economically and, in some sense, to reconnect with a bittersweet past. They include Ms. Brown, her 82-year-old mother and her 26-year-old son, who has already landed a job and settled there.
The economic downturn has propelled a striking demographic shift: black New Yorkers, including many who are young and college educated, are heading south.
About 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state, according to census data. Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South, according to a study conducted by the sociology department of Queens College for The New York Times.
The movement is not limited to New York. The percentage of blacks leaving big cities in the East and in the Midwest and heading to the South is now at the highest levels in decades, demographers say.
“I feel a strong spiritual pull to go back to the South,” Ms. Brown said.
Middle-class enclaves, like Jamaica and St. Albans in Queens, are feeding this exodus. Black luminaries — like James Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois and Ella Fitzgerald — once lived in St. Albans, a neighborhood that is now being hit by high unemployment and foreclosures.
The migration of middle-class African-Americans is helping to depress already falling housing prices. It is also depriving the black community of investment and leadership from some of its most educated professionals, black leaders say.
The movement marks an inversion of the so-called Great Migration, which lasted roughly from World War I to the 1970s and saw African-Americans moving to the industrializing North to escape prejudice and find work.
Spencer Crew, a history professor at George Mason University who was the curator of a prominent exhibit on the Great Migration at the Smithsonian Institution, said the current exodus from New York stemmed largely from tough economic times. New York is increasingly unaffordable, and blacks see more opportunities in the South.
The South now represents the potential for achievement for black New Yorkers in a way it had not before, Professor Crew said. At the same time, unionized civil service jobs that once drew thousands of blacks to the city are becoming more scarce.
“New York has lost some of its cachet for black people,” Professor Crew said. “During the Great Migration, blacks went north because you could find work if you were willing to hustle. But today, there is less of a struggle to survive in the South than in New York. Many blacks also have emotional and spiritual roots in the South. It is like returning home.”
Ms. Brown, who spent 35 years investigating welfare fraud for New York State, may have seemed the embodiment of the black American dream in New York City.
In the 1950s, her parents moved to Harlem, and then to Queens, from Atlanta. Her grandmother was a maid; her grandfather was a brick mason. One generation later, her parents were prospering. Her father became a senior tax official for the state; her mother was an executive assistant to the state corrections commissioner.
But Ms. Brown says New York is now less inviting. She plans to join her 26-year-old son, Rashid, who moved to Atlanta from Queens last year after he graduated with a degree in criminology but could not find a job in New York.
In Atlanta, he became a deputy sheriff within weeks. She is hoping to open a restaurant.
“In the South, I can buy a big house with a garden compared with the shoe box my retirement savings will buy me in New York,” she said.
The Rev. Floyd H. Flake, pastor of the 23,000-member Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, said he was losing hundreds of congregants yearly to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
“For decades, Queens has been the place where the African-American middle class went to buy their first home and raise a family,” Mr. Flake said. “But now, we are seeing a reversal of this as African-Americans feel this is no longer as easy to achieve and that the South is more benevolent than New York.”
Some blacks say they are leaving not only to find jobs, but also because they have soured on race relations.
Candace Wilkins, 27, of St. Albans, who remains unemployed despite having a business degree, plans to move to Charlotte, N.C.
She said her decision was prompted by an altercation with the police.
In March 2010, witnesses say, Ms. Wilkins was thrown against a car by a white police officer after she tried to help a black neighbor who was being questioned. She was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, according to the Queens district attorney’s office.
Ms. Wilkins disputes the charges, which are pending, and has filed a complaint against the police. A police spokeswoman said the department was investigating her complaint.
“Life has gone full circle,” said Ms. Wilkins, whose grandmother was born amid the cotton fields of North Carolina and moved to Queens in the 1950s.
“My grandmother’s generation left the South and came to the North to escape segregation and racism,” she said. “Now, I am going back because New York has become like the old South in its racial attitudes.”
Many black New Yorkers who are already in the South say they have little desire to return to the city, even though they get wistful at the mention of the subways or Harlem nights.
Danitta Ross, 39, a real estate broker who used to live in Queens, said she moved to Atlanta four years ago after her company, responding to the surge in black New Yorkers moving south, began offering relocation seminars. She helped organize them, and became intrigued.
Ms. Ross said she had grown up hearing stories at the dinner table about segregation. She said the Atlanta she discovered was a cosmopolitan place of classical music concerts, interracial marriage and opulent houses owned by black people.
A single mother, she said that for $150,000, she was buying a seven-room house, with a three-car garage, on a nice plot of land.
Ms. Ross said she had experienced some culture shock in the South, and had been surprised to find that blacks tended to self-segregate, even in affluent neighborhoods.
She said that the South — not New York — was now home.
“People in Georgia have a different mind-set and life is more relaxed and comfortable here,” she said. “There is just a lot more opportunity.”