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Why African Americans left the South in droves — and what’s bringing them back

A watershed moment in American history, mapped.

The Great Migration is a modern movement that, in many ways, is still unfolding. More than 40 percent of black Americans left Southern states to go north or west between 1915 and 1970, and the effects of that exodus continue to reverberate.

While the biggest changes took place decades ago, data shows that America’s black population has continued to move again. These days, however, census findings from the past 40 years indicate a new pattern of black migration back to the South and away from cities. America simply looks different than it did a century ago, and this new phase of migration is characterized by very different motivations than the last.

With the help of historian Isabel Wilkerson and demographer William Frey, this video maps the progression of black Americans from the Reconstruction era until today.

Emerging industries spurred Southern blacks to head north

In the 1910s, about 92 percent of colored people (as they were then categorized by the government) lived in the rural South. It was common for these Southerners to work as sharecroppers on plantations, or in other low-skill trades.

When America engaged in World War I, production in developing manufacturing hubs increased. Northern industries needed workers.

Two pieces of legislation — the 1917 Literacy Act and 1921 Emergency Quota Act — further limited the pool of immigrant workers available to fill labor shortages. As a result, manufacturers began to recruit low-skilled workers from the South.

Historians estimate roughly 6 million to 8 million black people left the South to take up work in the North. The demographic shift catalyzed many progressions in American society. Several families who moved to cities went on to produce children who made vast contributions to American pop culture. The list is virtually endless, but they include James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Michelle Obama, Diana Ross, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Lorraine Hansberry, and Jackie Robinson.

So does this new migration pattern look like the old ones?

Not exactly. There are demographic insights indicating a shift in black communities from segregated inner-city neighborhoods to more integrated suburban enclaves. But the pacing of flight from 1970 to 2010 pales in comparison to the movements of the earlier 20th century.

Still, the trend is of note to demographic experts like Frey. His analysis of census data indicates that black populations in cities such as Detroit and Chicago are experiencing decline. Southern cities like Atlanta, on the other hand, seem to be experiencing a cultural renaissance afforded, in part, by the smaller shifts illustrated in the census.

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