Economic Development

The New Black South

After nearly a century of moving north, African-Americans are reshaping cities and suburbs in the South.
by | June 2012

When Mark Wells moved to the Dallas area last year, he had plenty of company -- and not just because his three sisters had settled there ahead of him. The Kansas native had lived for nearly 20 years in Southern California, building up his career in technology. But the state’s long run of double-digit unemployment finally convinced him to listen to his sisters and move to Texas.

He has no regrets. “I told my friends in California, ‘You got to get out of there,’” he says. “There are no jobs and the cost of living is outrageous.”

Whether or not Wells can convince his friends, he’s already part of a much larger trend. Plenty of other African-Americans have decided to move to the South in recent years. The 2010 Census was the first one in decades that showed more blacks living in the South than in the North. For most of the 20th century, blacks migrated out of the South en masse, finding new jobs and new lives in places like Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago. Now, the Great Migration has reversed. In the first decade of the 21st century, 75 percent of African-American population growth occurred south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the highest that number has been in decades. Meanwhile, states such as Michigan and Illinois saw absolute declines in their black populations.

The movement from north to south is only part of the story, however. African-Americans have also been leaving central cities for the suburbs. For decades, the terms “black” and “urban” were practically synonymous. But that’s no longer the case. As more and more African-Americans have joined the professional and middle classes, they have followed the path long taken by whites in similar circumstances, moving out of the central city and into the suburbs in pursuit of better schools, more plentiful jobs and more expansive housing. “One of the stories in the Census was the decline of urbanization among blacks, the movement of blacks to the suburbs,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “The city of Atlanta actually had a net decline in blacks from 2000 to 2010, even though the metro area led all others in black population gain.”

As in Atlanta, the north-to-south and city-to-suburb trends among blacks have been reshaping the face of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, which gained some 233,000 African-American residents between 2000 and 2010 -- the most of any metro area in the country, aside from Atlanta. Many of the former “white flight” suburbs south of Dallas now have populations that are majority black, or close to it. The faster-growing suburbs to the north are still predominantly white, but black populations there have more than doubled. Throughout the area, there are numerous “firsts” in government office -- first African-American mayors and district attorneys and assistant police chiefs. Aside from the political changes these population shifts are starting to bring about, there have been implications for a broad range of policy areas, including housing, education, transportation and public safety. While the suburbs may be turning into a mecca for the black middle class, parts of the city remain bleak centers of African-American life, racked by poverty and poor schools. Some of those parts are losing black population.

African-American growth around the Dallas area as a whole in recent years has been dwarfed by that of the Hispanic population. More than a decade ago, there was heated competition between the minority groups as they fought for representation on the Dallas City Council, which switched from white-dominated citywide elections to a district system. But for the most part, the two largest minority groups have been able to pursue their courses in Dallas without the kind of racial and political tensions that have arisen in other cities. Instead, they have managed in many locales to form coalitions to address issues of shared concern and to elect more politicians from both constituencies.

That’s symbolized perhaps most strongly by the partnership between Craig Watkins, the African-American who is the criminal district attorney for Dallas County, and Lupe Valdez, the Hispanic sheriff. Their alliance has led to a wave of exoneration for individuals -- most of them black -- who’d essentially been railroaded by previous generations of white DAs and sheriffs. “You used to have people of color who would have to go to the Anglo community and acquiesce,” says Watkins. “Now, you see Anglos coming to the Hispanic and African-American communities to get the support they need in order to win elections.”

The story is not just political. Part of the power of African-Americans in the Dallas area comes not from their rising numbers but their growing prosperity. The Dallas black middle class has entered its virtuous cycle phase. Success is breeding more success, with newcomers not only emulating well established residents but also using them as a base for networking.

For African-Americans in Dallas, more of those professional networks are spreading out into the suburbs. “The fact that we’ve got majority-minority suburbs now has been sort of phenomenal,” says Rick Loessberg, Dallas County’s planning and development director. “It’s happened without the horror stories you heard 20 years ago in other places, where there’s been animosity and distrust. It’s the American dream as you would envision it to be.”

Like many other American cities, Dallas has a racial history that was often shameful. Between 1840 and 1860, every free person of color had been driven out of Dallas County, for fear they might fan insurrectionist flames among the local slaves. When an actual fire broke out in 1860, three slaves were framed and chosen to be hanged as punishment, while each one of the 1,071 slaves in the county was whipped.

A century later, things remained grim. During the 1950s, blacks who moved into white neighborhoods in South Dallas were met with bombs. The mayor himself, Robert L. Thornton, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. (One of the city’s major freeways is named after him.) In 1960, African-Americans and Hispanics earned roughly one-fourth the wages of Anglos in Dallas and were twice as likely to be unemployed, according to White Metropolis, Michael Phillips’ history of race in the city.

But Dallas was able to take at least symbolic steps toward desegregation more rapidly than much of the Deep South. A mix of industries -- cotton, oil, banking, technology and aviation -- experienced postwar booms that brought in executives from around the country who lacked Southern ties and attitudes. The continuing influx of people from the North and Midwest, along with the region’s deepening ties to the global economy, led Dallas to take a more conciliatory approach to race relations than some of its regional neighbors.

Today, younger African-Americans, a generation or two removed from the civil rights era, have built on the educational and professional opportunities that have long since opened up to them. Many have been able to share in the prosperity that comes with an area playing host to 19 of the nation’s 500 largest companies. The Dallas-Fort Worth area -- pockets of which saw growth even during the trough of the recession -- has been good to entrepreneurs, too. According to Census data released last year, the number of black-owned businesses doubled between 2002 and 2007, with sales increasing 38 percent to $3 billion.

“Dallas is the only place I’ve been in my life where, if you have a skill and a strong work ethic and don’t think you know everything, you can really make it,” says Terry K. Ray, an attorney who lived in several Northern and Midwestern cities before moving to a Dallas suburb. “You can really make it here, without regard, in my opinion, to race or where you’ve been or where you’re from.”

Ray lives in DeSoto, a suburb just south of Dallas that used to be where white people went when they wanted to leave the city and its black residents behind. In recent years, it’s become a magnet for the aspiring African-American middle class that is leaving Dallas proper. “Nationally we’re seeing a strong growth in middle class African-Americans, and coming with increased economic resources comes the desire to have more space you can call your own,” says Steve Murdock, a former Census director who now runs the Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University.

The properties in Ray’s section of DeSoto are so large that some of his neighbors use golf carts to take their trash out to the curb. Not all the city is so grand. But the wave of wealthy athletes and business owners who were among the first African-Americans to break down the color barriers in DeSoto have since been followed by doctors, police officers and teachers.

Roughly half the city’s residents are black, and DeSoto has its first African-American mayor, Carl Sherman. Race remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Sherman himself concedes that there are still some people in what others describe as “the lighter-skinned community” who fail to grant him the same authority that his predecessors received as a matter of course. One locally produced video linked him to Hitler.

Conversely, many African-Americans express some impatience with the rate of political change in a city where the demographic shift has been so rapid. “There are expectations that my fellow African-Americans have that are unrealistic,” Sherman says. “They expect that all injustices or unfair practices will just be eradicated or eliminated overnight.”

But in DeSoto and some other Dallas suburbs such as Garland, segregation is occurring not along racial lines but according to class, says B.F. Williams, a former official with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who gave up his post to run for the Garland City Council. “We don’t have an enclave of professional class African-Americans,” he says. “African-Americans in Garland are spread out among the city.”

A generation ago, less than 10 percent of Garland’s population was made up of minorities. Today, blacks alone make up about 15 percent of the population, while Asians account for another 11 percent. Roughly 40 percent of the suburb, which is just east of Dallas, is now Hispanic. On a recent Saturday night, an upscale African-American bride and groom posed for pictures along with their orange-clad bridesmaids at an atrium directly across from City Hall, while in the theater next door an equally colorfully clad Indian dance troupe performed for a full house.

Consultation between City Hall and Garland’s various ethnic groups has been formal and constant. Together, they’ve helped diffuse tensions following controversial incidents involving police, while putting continued pressure on the school district to try to erase achievement gaps that are a lingering reminder of its segregated past.

With 15 percent of the population, blacks in Garland recognized that they couldn’t elect citywide officials on their own, Williams says. But blacks and Hispanics together helped elect Ronald Jones as Garland’s first African-American mayor in 2007. “Back then, this was front-page news,” says Jones.

He won re-election last year without opposition. “People understand where there’s political power by those who sit in the seat of government, there’s probably going to be greater opportunity,” he says.

Changes in demographics have changed politics throughout Dallas County. In 2010, Democrats won their first majority on the County Commissioners Court in nearly 30 years, while Gov. Rick Perry lost the county by 12 percentage points even while winning re-election handily. “Of 254 counties in this state, Dallas County is the only blue county,” says John Wiley Price, a longtime county commissioner. (Travis County around Austin, as well as some Houston suburbs, also vote reliably Democratic.) “The rest of the state is beet red.”

As African-Americans are moving to the suburbs around Dallas, whites are moving farther out. Dallas County lost about 200,000 white residents in the last Census, or 20 percent of the total. Other groups made up for the loss in sheer numbers, but much of the growth, not just in population but in terms of jobs and tax base, has shifted to exurbs and the old cotton counties to the north.

Prosperous blacks are heading north of the city, too. While Collin County’s white population grew by 32 percent in the last Census, its African-American population skyrocketed by 178 percent. “If you look at Collin County and other areas that have traditionally not been recipients of African-American migrants, that certainly has changed this past decade,” says Murdock, the Rice sociologist.

Many who celebrate the success African-Americans are enjoying in the area nonetheless worry that there’s a price being paid in the center city. Even as the gleaming Dallas arts district has provided a showcase for renowned architects such as I.M. Pei and Renzo Piano, the city has neglected its neighborhood streets, parks and pools. The city as a whole has a backlog of $10 billion worth of infrastructure needs, says Price, the county commissioner. And, as in most big cities, the schools are a mess. Over the course of the past decade, African-Americans have voted with their feet, with the Dallas Independent School District losing one-third of its black enrollment.

In Dallas and elsewhere, a smaller percentage of African-Americans live in poverty today than a generation ago. But poor blacks tend to be worse off than low-income people in other racial groups. A recent Center for American Progress report found that blacks are still twice as likely as whites to be unemployed (the number for Hispanics is 50 percent higher than for Anglos), while those who are working earn considerably less than whites or Asians.

Some suburban African-Americans around Dallas will admit that they’ve left the city for all the same reasons that whites left a generation ago. It’s a list that includes not just better schools and housing and proximity to job markets, but the desire to get away from inner-city crime and to enjoy the amenities that come with living among lighter-skinned people.

On a blue-sky afternoon in Irving, which lies between Dallas and Fort Worth, most of the people enjoying the park in an upscale neighborhood called Valley Ranch are African-American, pushing their kids on the swings or hosting a cowboy-themed birthday party in a pavilion. At nearby Riverchase Golf Club, about a fifth of the golfers waiting their turn at the first tee are black.

“A lot of people of color, just like anyone else who has the resources, they move to where the schools are,” says Watkins, the district attorney who grew up in Dallas but now lives in DeSoto. “When you have kids, you want a yard and safety and peace and quiet and a good school system and a grocery store where you can shop without being panhandled.”

For African-Americans who dream of a safe, suburban life, the Dallas area has become a prime destination. Individuals who are educated and looking for a place to use their skills find a strong structure already in place, Watkins says. African-Americans who are ensconced in the corporate and civic culture are able to hire more African-Americans, while banks have grown increasingly willing to invest in black entrepreneurs looking to do business in largely black areas. “There’s a community feeling even if you aren’t from the area,” says Alicia Newburn, a loan counselor who decided to move to suburban Irving after graduating last year from the University of Missouri. “Through networking, I found a job really quickly. People are definitely willing to help.”

While Atlanta remains the destination of choice for many African-Americans moving south out of cities such as New York and Philadelphia, Dallas is attracting more than its share of transplants from California, parts of the Midwest and Southern states such as Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. The attractions are obvious -- a diverse job base, an economy that weathered the recession better than nearly anywhere else in the country and plentiful, comparatively cheap housing. “This is the land of land,” says Meredith Capleton, a management consultant who recently moved to DeSoto. “We have a lot to offer people, and there’s a lot of social networking.”

It’s not hard to find transplants nostalgic for places they’ve left behind. Some miss the smell of the ocean or the cuisine back home or weather that’s not almost constantly set on broil. Many admit longing for livelier street cultures, living now in an area of endless corridors of glass office towers and interstate overpasses.

But you don’t hear many newcomers talk about moving back. “No neighborhood is perfect,” says Ray, the attorney with the big brick house in DeSoto. “But if I had all the money in the world and you asked me where I wanted to live, I would say this place.”

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