The nation's blacks are leaving big cities in the Northeast and Midwest at the highest levels in decades, returning to fast-growing states in the once-segregated South in search of better job opportunities and quality of life.
The Southern U.S. region — primarily metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Charlotte, N.C. — accounted for roughly 75 percent of the population gains among blacks since 2000, up from 65 percent in the 1990s, according to the latest census estimates. The gains came primarily at the expense of Northern metro areas such as New York and Chicago, which posted their first declines in black population since at least 1980.
The findings are based on 2009 census population estimates, with official 2010 results released Tuesday for Illinois reflecting much of that change. Illinois had a 1.3 percent drop in the number of African-Americans since 2000, the first decade-long decline in the state's history.
The recent census figures for blacks refer to non-Hispanic blacks, which the Census Bureau began calculating separately in 1980.
In all, about 57 percent of U.S. blacks now live in the South, a jump from the 53 percent share in the 1970s, according to an analysis of census data by William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. It was the surest sign yet of a sustained reverse migration to the South following the exodus of millions of blacks to the Midwest, Northeast and West in the Great Migration from 1910 to 1970.
"African-Americans are acting as other Americans would — searching for better economic opportunity in the Sun Belt," said Isabel Wilkerson, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns," a detailed history of the Great Migration.
"But there is also a special connection. As the South becomes more in line with the rest of the country in social and political equality, many are wanting to connect with their ancestral homeland."
The converts include Shelton Haynes, 33, a housing manager in Atlanta. He grew up in New York City and lived in Harlem for many years with his wife and two children before growing weary of the cost of living and hectic pace. After considering other places in the South such as Charlotte, N.C., the two settled on Atlanta, where Haynes' brother, sister-in-law and parents now also live.
"We have a great support network of family and friends here, and there is good community involvement, with our kids involved in swimming, tennis and basketball," Haynes said. "In Atlanta, I also see a lot of African-Americans do very well in a variety of professions, so it was good to see things changing."
The findings, based on 2009 data, are expected to be highlighted in official 2010 results being released that show changes in non-Hispanic black populations in states such as Illinois, Texas, New York, Georgia and Florida.
Historically, the South was home to roughly 90 percent of the nation's blacks from 1790 until 1910, when African-Americans began to migrate northward to escape racism and seek jobs in industrial centers such as Detroit, New York and Chicago during World War I. After the decades-long Great Migration, the share of blacks in the South hit a low of about 53 percent in the 1970s, before civil rights legislation and the passage of time began to improve the social climate in the region.
The current 57 percent share of blacks now living in the South is the highest level since 1960.
The latest estimates show that the Atlanta metropolitan area added more than half a million blacks over the last decade, making it the metro area with the second largest black population. Despite losing blacks, the New York metro area continued to be home to the largest black population, at roughly 3.2 million.
The Chicago metropolitan area, which previously was ranked No. 2 in black population, slipped to No. 3.
Broken down by state, Georgia was tops in the total number of African-Americans, edging out New York state. It was followed by Texas, Florida and California. California in recent decades has seen its black population slip or remain largely unchanged.
In December, the Census Bureau officially reported the nation's population was 308.7 million, up from 281.4 million a decade ago. Most of the population growth occurred in the South and West, where some states stand to gain seats in Congress to reflect their increases in population. Texas, for example, will pick up four new House seats, and Florida will gain two, while Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington each gain one seat.
Frey noted that the continued Southern migration of blacks, who tend to vote Democratic, could have political implications as they flow into mostly Republican-leaning states. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama was able to win in traditionally GOP-leaning states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida after a jump in black voter turnout.
"While much attention is currently given to Hispanic and Asian immigration to new parts of the South, the return migration of African-Americans seems to have flown under the radar," Frey said. "It's a factor which should not go unnoticed by politicians and those creating new congressional districts in growing parts of the South."
—Despite a slowing of the black population, the New York metro area could see racial and ethnic minorities become the numerical majority when 2010 results are released. Other metro areas which could officially tip to "majority-minority" status in 2010 are Memphis, Tenn.; Modesto, Calif.; Jackson, Miss.; Las Vegas; San Diego; Washington, D.C.-Arlington, Alexandria, Va., and Oxnard, Calif.
—Texas will officially become a majority-minority state for the first time based on official 2010 results; its switch occurred in 2005, according to census estimates. It joins Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Washington, D.C. Eight states, led by Arizona, Maryland, Nevada and Georgia, have shares of non-Hispanic whites nearing the tipping point of 50 percent.
Source: The Associated Press.