When you think of places with the greatest Black concentration in America, you might think of places like Atlanta, Chicago, New York, LA, and Detroit. What all these places have in common are they are cities. Black people are associated with cities so much that the word urban has come to symbolize Black culture. But why do Black people live in inner cities and how has that trend changed in recent years?
When we think of Black people and inner cities, the first thing we might attribute that to is The Great Migration. From the early to the mid 1900s, 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West. This was largely driven by segregation laws and poor economic opportunities.
Slavery might have ended after the Civil War, but what followed, the reconstruction era, saw racial inequalities persisting across the South. A set of laws known as Jim Crow became the law of the land, making racism and segregation policies of towns and states across the South. Southern Blacks were still working out on the field for very little money and the KKK, although officially dissolved in 1869, continued underground to intimidate and lynch African Americans.
The great migration began when industries in the North, Midwest, and West faced shortage of industrial workers when World War I broke out in 1914. The war had put an end to a steady flow of European immigrants who would have normally taken up those jobs. That’s when recruiters for factories turned to Southern Blacks, advertising to them all the economic opportunities that cities in the North and West provided.
By 1919, an estimated 1 million Black people left the South and settled in mostly Northern cities like New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia where factories were located. Work in these factories was sometimes dangerous and finding living space in the increasingly crowded cities was tough. And although segregation was not legalized in the North, racism was rampant.
Racist housing laws meant Black renters and homeowners were shut out of white areas, forcing them to create their own neighborhoods within big cities, where a new, urban Black culture would thrive.
Black Migration out of the South died down by the 1930s and picked up again during World War II in the 1940s. This time, The West saw a much bigger influx of African Americans.
By the 1970s, the impact the great migration had on where Black people lived in America was massive. In 1900, 9 out of every 10 Black American lived in the South and 3 out of 4 four lived on farms. By 1970, 50% of Black people lived in the South and only 20% of them lived in the rural South.
And inner cities that were once home to thriving blue collar black communities were devastated when factories started to shut down, causing economical havoc. The black population that was mostly shut out of sufficient educational and other economic opportunities outside of factory work suffered immensely.
So the great Migration explains why Black people live in cities, mostly concentrated in major cities like New York and Chicago. But how has that trend changed in recent years? Do most Black people still live in inner cities?
As of 2020, the percentage of Black people living in the South has actually gone up slightly to 56% while 17% live in the Midwest, 17% live in the North East, and 10% live in the West.
Population surveys also show that in recent decades, an even split of Black people live in urban areas and suburban areas. And about 2 in 10 describe their community as rural.
In comperecent, for the general US public, 50% of adults describe where they live as suburban and about a quarter live in urban and another quarter live in rural areas.
There are several factors for the shift in where Black people live, one of which is good ol’ gentrifications. As urban areas are becoming popular destinations for those with means, long time Black residents are being pushed out into suburbs, some of which are cheaper but have less employment opportunities.
Another reason for this shift is what is being called a New Great Migration, a flow of Black people from cities like Detroit, Chicago, and San Francisco back to the South, where they are often settling in suburban areas.
If this trend continues, more cities in the northeast, west, and midwest will be losing Black population in the years to come. How that will affect the culture of big cities and also Black culture is yet to be seen.
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