Some blacks move back to rural homes

Trend of past 30 years reflects the desire for traditional values

February 20, 2005|By William W. Falk | William W. Falk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FOR MUCH of the 20th century, African-Americans left the South in huge numbers. Millions migrated to cities in the North in search of better economic opportunities and social acceptance.

But, in the past 30 years, there has been a radical turn in black migration back to the rural South.

Maryland has played roles in all of this. It has been a place to which blacks migrated - primarily Baltimore but also some of Maryland's suburban counties, particularly Prince George's, the first majority-black suburban county in the United States. It also has been the rural homeland, especially on the Eastern Shore, that blacks once left and some now hope to recover.

This reflects the state's split nature. It is decidedly Northern and urban in many areas, especially in relatively affluent metropolitan Baltimore and Washington, but also decidedly Southern - it is south of the Mason-Dixon line; tobacco was a major crop; Confederate flags are a common sight; plantations still exist; historically-black counties were on both its Eastern and Western shores; and slaves were imported at its capital.

Maryland has been both a traditional home for some African-Americans and a place for others to seek a better life. It all depended on where one was from, physically but also spiritually. In what place did one's identity rest, and where did one envision the future?

The home-place quality is most likely to be found on the Eastern Shore. There, counties such as Dorchester, Somerset and Wicomico had large, rural, poor black populations before the 20th century and during much of it. Even today, the population of Somerset is more than 40 percent black, while the black population approaches 30 percent in both Dorchester and Wicomico.

This was the wellspring for black migrants who traveled across the Chesapeake Bay in search of better lives, or just as likely up the Eastern seaboard to Wilmington, Philadelphia and beyond.

But, while many people left these areas, many stayed.

African-Americans who chose not to migrate remained in rural, historically- and majority-black places that many outsiders would perceive as grim, offering little hope for a prosperous future. Yet, surprisingly, many African-Americans who live in these homelands - both young and old - declare openly their love for the place.

Family feeling

A possible explanation is that even in the most flawed place, people who have lived there for generations might embrace it as theirs.

Yes, they might have experienced hard times and been denied opportunities and been discriminated against in countless ways because of their race. But, despite these negatives, they have lived in a place made rich in memory primarily because of one thing - family.

Family relations and the love that comes with them is a glue that holds a social unit together. It is a sentiment in which one so heavily invests that nothing matters more. Consequently, for people who chose not to migrate, perpetuating a family's sense of belonging and stewardship for their "home" outweighed the motivation for a better life elsewhere.

A visitor will find family values and valuing family interwoven; one sought to do well economically not just because of rewards for oneself but also because it reflected well on one's family and, not coincidentally, was consistent with religious beliefs about living a life well.

Collectively, such familial and religious beliefs help to foster a sense of importance for maintaining and perpetuating one's home. In spending any time with local people, one gets the sense that longtime residents have decided - whether by intention or default - that one can influence most that which one knows best. (This is something that could also be said of nearly all rural counties.)

For African-Americans living in the South, then, and especially in its historically-black places, the war over civil rights was fought on their doorsteps. Local economic, social and political gains could only be registered by those who stayed and had credibility with other local residents.

This, too, fostered and strengthened a sense of "home" not only for longtime residents but also, possibly, for African-Americans who had never lived in the South. Historically important civil rights battles and major shifts in the social fabric helped to give outsiders a sense of a better tomorrow in this "new South" (ironically, a term first used right after the Civil War).

With the recent migration south of African-Americans - a net population gain of about 700,000 between 1990 and 2000 - the South has reasserted itself as the most important home place for America's native black population.

New `Promised Land'

While millions of black people never left the region, it is clear that they are increasingly being joined by people either returning to it or moving there for the first time because it is, essentially, a new "Promised Land" (a term of both social and religious significance used historically with reference to the North).

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