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Better attitudes, jobs court blacks back to the South - 01/01/03

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  • James Grant
    When Highland Park native Yvonne Pratt moved to a suburb of Georgia s capital eight years ago, she sought a quiet lifestyle and weather that sprouted daffodils
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2003
      When Highland Park native Yvonne Pratt moved to a suburb of Georgia's capital eight years ago, she sought a
      quiet lifestyle and weather that sprouted daffodils in February. Undeterred by a legacy of slavery, lynchings
      and segregation, Pratt fell in love with the South when she visited Atlanta as a teen- ager. "I knew then that
      I would move south and I would live in Atlanta," said Pratt, 48, a graphics artist and graduate of Eastern
      Michigan University. Following in her footsteps is a groundswell of African-American Northerners who are
      increasingly inclined to make the emotion- laden choice to move to the South, the homeland of their
      grandparents and great-grandparents. Slowly, the movement has begun to reverse one of the most significant
      social trends in American history -- the Great Migration of Southern blacks to jobs in the North during the
      20th century. The reasons for the reversal, like the original movement, are largely economic, experts say.
      More than 210,000 blacks moved to southern states from the Midwest alone from 1995 to 2000, University of
      Michigan demographer William Frey said. "These are new hubs of places creating new jobs, (and) these are areas
      that have a growing black middle class," Frey said. The population of blacks in the South grew faster between
      1990 and 2000 than in any other region in the country, according to the U.S. census. African-Americans sought
      better jobs, safer neighborhoods and welcoming weather in relocating to cities like Atlanta, Memphis, Tenn.,
      and Dallas. Atlanta, however, which calls itself the cosmopolitan center of the Old South, was the top
      destination. Similar movements can be charted for white Northerners who fled to the so-called Sun Belt
      beginning in the 1970s. That's one of the major reasons why Michigan for years has grown more slowly than the
      nation overall. Michigan's population grew by nearly 7 percent in the 1990s, compared with Georgia's 26
      percent. Blacks who return to the South, sometimes to ancestral homesteads, are finding it increasingly easier
      to confront the region's legacy of racism. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, African-Americans leaving the North
      say racial attitudes in the South have softened despite recent battles, such as the fight by civil rights
      groups to remove the Confederate flag from some state houses in the South. In fact, many say burgeoning
      residential segregation in northern cities is even more problematic. "There's no more racism here than
      elsewhere," Pratt said. "In the North, it's more insidious. (Whites) smile in your face, and then stab you in
      the back. Racism is no more outstanding here than when I was living in California and in Detroit." The
      migration north Racism was only one factor in the Great Migration, which began just before World War I. Work
      in northern factories, mills and slaughterhouses beckoned at a time when mechanization of agriculture and
      infestations like the cotton boll weevil threatened traditional small-plot sharecropping. From 1915-60, more
      than 6 million blacks left the South and moved to northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and
      Cleveland. Generations later, Howard and Tremetrice Wheeler are too young to have experienced racial
      segregation first-hand. But they have heard their grandparents and parents talk about the Jim Crow laws of the
      1950s. "My father still has negative feelings about the South, about the prejudice he experienced," Tremetrice
      Wheeler said. The couple, however, are leaving Detroit for Atlanta. Howard Wheeler, 38, left in November to
      start a new job as a data- storage manager. His wife and the couple's son and daughter will join him next
      month. For the family, it's a fresh start and a new adventure. "I've always wanted to go to Atlanta since I
      graduated from college," says Tremetrice, a 33-year-old social studies teacher at Renaissance High School in
      Detroit. "(Atlanta) is still the small town, but with big-city amenities." Comfortable moving back Like other
      African-Americans who have moved to the South in recent years, Dondi Brown, a 35-year-old former Detroiter who
      moved to Atlanta six years ago, grew up in the South and remembers the region's racist past. Brown knows about
      the separate drinking-water fountains for whites and blacks, and Brown is keenly aware of the civil rights
      battles of the late 1950s and 1960s. Still, "I feel comfortable here," said Brown, who lives in the Atlanta
      suburb of Lawrenceville. "I don't venture outside the Atlanta area because there have been incidents of
      people's houses being spray-painted with swastikas. But I've only heard of three incidents like that." But
      blacks like Pratt say while there is still a sense that bigotry lies deep within some southern cities, the
      North is not without its own racial problems. More and more, blacks are finding that segregation is a problem
      facing northern cities like Detroit and Chicago. In a series of articles published earlier this year, The
      Detroit News found Metro Detroit is the most racially segregated city of its size in the country. South
      becomes attractive One of the reasons that the South has become more attractive to Northern blacks is that
      "they've gotten over the myth that the North and northeastern (areas) are less racist," said University of
      Detroit Mercy professor Lyn Lewis. "They now understand the damage that covert racism can do to one mentally
      and physically," she said. Most blacks are Southerners in culture and only abandoned the South because they
      were forced to do so, Lewis said. "They left for a better life," Lewis said. "If they had gotten the better
      pay in the South with less overt racism, they would have stayed." Demographer Frey said his analysis supports
      that feeling. "The economic reason far outweighs the racial issue," Frey said. "It's not the controlling issue
      any more. Black people say, 'At least I know what I'm going into.' " Twelve years ago, job counselor Louise
      Alexander, 52, moved to the Atlanta area from Philadelphia because she sought a different environment for her
      sons, then 9 and 15. "I was influenced by what I heard about it being a black mecca and about black people
      being able to move around," Alexander said. Like other Northern African-Americans, she said she wasn't
      prepared to find that many white Southerners were friendly toward blacks. "I was shocked that the (whites)
      were polite," said Alexander, founder of the Black Newcomers Network, a sort of "Welcome Wagon" organization.
      "The racism in the North is much more subtle You can reach Oralandar Brand-Williams at (313) 222- 2690 or

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