Over the past two centuries, African Americans have steadily migrated from the South to other regions in the United States, often because of entrenched traditions of racism, segregation and scarcity of opportunity for economic and social mobility, evidenced by movements such as the Great Migration. Shortly after the end of the Great Migration, a new trend began: the Reverse Great Migration. In the late 1990s, as the number of industrial jobs in the north decreased, cities in the South that once experienced a steep decline in their African American population received an influx of new migrants, most of whom were college-educated and settled primarily in metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Georgia.
So what’s next? As the nature of “work” changes, with remote and flexible working becoming more commonplace, where are Black college graduates heading and what influences their decisions? To hear firsthand what Black graduates from the Midwest are thinking as they consider where to plant their roots, we surveyed and/or interviewed 77 upcoming or recent Black graduates from the Midwest.* Their responses alongside national data trends suggest that Midwestern Black college students are considering incredibly complex factors in their decisions, from cultural heritage to entrenched racism, from opportunities for economic mobility to the familiarity of a place their family has long called home.
While preferences for regions were split, most students still desired to leave the Midwest, with only 29.9% hoping to stay (and even then, oftentimes for the convenience and comfort of remaining in a familiar place). The East coast seemed to hold the least allure for students, while the South surprisingly still holds draw for 23.4% of surveyed students. The West drew the biggest crowd among survey respondents, with students citing its diverse and multicultural communities and progressive policies in addition to job opportunities. Overall, however, Midwestern Black college students, current and recently graduated, are showing that their next migration will span much farther than simply to one region.
Leaving “Home” in the Midwest
Many Black Americans today have a familial connection to the South, as the region was home to generations of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Following the Great Migration, however, many lost their connection to their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ birth place, identifying more with other parts of the U.S. that had become their home—many in the Midwest.
As Black Americans moved to the Midwest to escape racism and segregation in the South, however, Midwestern states began writing and enforcing discriminatory legislation to exclude Black people from access to education, home ownership and economic and social mobility, while simultaneously funneling resources from Black communities to predominantly white communities. Five decades later, while policies like redlining and restrictive covenants have been outlawed, young Black Midwesterners express frustration at the lingering effects and attitudes of such policies and the sentiments that led to their implementation.
Various cities across the Midwest are now experiencing a decline in their Black populations.
“The percentage of Black people living in Cincinnati has [slowly] gone down in the past five years,” Essenam Lamewona, a Cincinnati native and junior in the College of Engineering at Purdue University, said in an interview.
One study of U.S. Census data found that Black Americans are now leaving Chicago at higher rates than from any other Midwestern city.
Kiersten Lofton, a Chicago native, spoke in her interview about racism and segregation in the city of Chicago: “In places like the Midwest, it’s more easily swept under the rug. Everyone talks about how diverse [Chicago] is, but we have different sides; if you cross territories, it’s like the same racism that we see, it just looks a little different depending on the region.”
The Midwest is experiencing depopulation and what some call “brain drain” at alarming rates as residents—and more specifically, highly educated individuals—are choosing to leave. Of the 77 students surveyed, a majority of respondents reported that other regions were more appealing to them in terms of living options post-graduation; less than a third of students chose the Midwest as their ideal place to live. While the decision to remain in the Midwest—or any region for that matter—remains nuanced, one factor interviewees mentioned for staying was familiarity with and knowledge of the region and its people. Tylyn Johnson, junior in the School of Social Work at the University of Indianapolis, said in an interview, “It’s not that I like the Midwest as much as I know how the people operate—how the ‘Hoosier hospitality’ and that kind of thing works.”
On top of that, job prospects and financial security proved to be a driving factor in whether students decided to stay or go. Lofton, senior in the Department of Economics at Purdue University, said that her desire to stay in the Midwest post-graduation is due to the job opportunities in her field: “Most of the jobs that I want to do are either in the Midwest (Indiana, Ohio or Illinois) or on the West coast.”
Students who are interested in the arts and social sciences, however, seem to see fewer opportunities to thrive in the Midwest outside of academia, technical or agricultural fields.
“Chicago was the only exception for me [in the Midwest],” Alonna Traylor, recent graduate in Fashion Merchandising at Columbia College Chicago, said. “There needs to be a space for [Black] creatives and designers to showcase their talents in the community.”
Continued Racial Stigma & Familial Root-finding in the South
Reminiscent of what some call the Northern elite imagination, an ideology that holds the North to a higher standard than the South on race relations, many students express extremely negative impressions of the South. Students from the aforementioned survey reported that their negative connotations about the South stem from their fears of discrimination, the political climate and knowledge of the South’s past (slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.). As a result of the negative perception, respondents to the survey overwhelmingly do not find the South appealing.
One anonymous respondent recounted a specific experience that reinforced these ideas: “Several years ago, I went to North Carolina to visit family and my father had to enter a ‘Colored Only’ broken[-]down door. This happened maybe 10ish years ago. Since then, I have had zero intention of going back except to see family.”
Purdue University’s Essenam Lamewona said, “Because my parents are immigrants (from Benin and Togo, West Africa), I feel like there’s a very specific narrative of the United States that is given to people…When you come here, the only narrative that’s given to you is ‘The South is racist, they owned slaves, don’t go there.’”
Of course, that narrative is much more nuanced, and racist notions are not limited by geographic boundaries. In fact, northern states such as New York, Indiana and Pennsylvania reportedly have more hate groups than South Carolina, Alabama or Mississippi. Many famous instances of racial injustice have happened outside the South (and many particularly in the Midwest). A study done by a University of Iowa historian found that Midwestern states and cities are considered among the worst places for Black people to live, perhaps explaining why 37% of Black Southern migrants in 2014 were from the Midwest.
One anonymous survey respondent who’s a senior at Indiana University, Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) chose the Midwest as their intended place of living, but wrote: “[The South is] unappealing because of the racism that does go on there but at the end of the day, it’s going to happen no matter where we go.”
Jamila Gipson, senior in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Indianapolis, acknowledges the possibility of experiencing racism, but that is not stopping her from viewing the South as an option: “I have to get a taste of it for myself because I can’t let that cloud my judgment,” she said in an interview.
Respondents noted cultural changes, the cost of living and job opportunities as the main reasons they would want to move to the South, and about 80% of respondents reported that they have family from the South. Gipson originally felt as though the West was her next step in her journey, but the appeal of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Tennessee, Texas and North Carolina and her connection to the South has changed her perspective: “My whole maternal side is from the South…After speaking with my mom, I honestly feel like I would flourish more in the South because of what they have to offer.”
Of the three states that Gipson mentioned, two were the top states that received the most Black millennial migrants in 2014.
Among students interviewed for the survey, one other reason given for wanting to return to the South is about more than just a job; it is for a cultural connection, or their “Sankofa” moment, and a sense of belonging. Nyla Henderson, a Youngstown, Ohio native and graduate student in College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University, recognized this in her interview: “We’re trying to get back in touch with our roots since the first time we touched [American] soil was in the South.”
Is the West What’s Next?
While the migration of Black individuals returning to the South continues, others are looking toward the West, an area filled with opportunities that attract Millenials and Gen-Zers.
Of the 77 respondents, 35.1% intend on moving to the West, mostly due to the change in climate and scenery, job opportunities, cultural diversity and laws that are representative of their wants and desires.
“The West is associated with more different cultures other than Black and white, which adds another layer of complexity,” Purdue University’s Essenam Lamewona said.
Diverse representation in the West is one factor that students consider when choosing a destination. While the opportunity for cultural competency is vast, it certainly does not mean these places are void of racial tensions. Even in relatively diverse and multicultural communities, people still tend toward adopting anti-Black beliefs and behaviors.
Furthermore, some respondents noted the West’s relaxing of laws surrounding drug criminalization, which is known to have frequent racially-biased arrests; one study showed that “on average, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.” In 2019, the West had the lowest percentage of arrests for possession and manufacturing among other regions in the U.S.
In terms of financial opportunity for graduates, six states in the West are ranked in the top 10 for the best economies in the United States because of their unemployment rates and GOP growth. Consequently, the West has been the region to experience a brain gain in recent years in comparison to states in the Midwest and Northeast. It could be argued that Black Midwestern students are repeating the same pattern that their college-educated predecessors once did in the 1990s: as people become more educated, they become less bound to their home state as opportunities to flourish in one’s career lead them elsewhere. For these students, the West appears to be the most appealing region for those who are college-educated and interested in a more diverse, multicultural community.
The Future of the Midwest
Where does all of this leave the Midwest, a region already experiencing substantial brain drain? What can the Midwest do to retain their population—specifically young, Black graduates?
“I believe the Midwest would need an entire cultural shift where it wouldn’t be considered impolite to discuss race-related issues and for people to address the deep-rooted anti-Blackness [in the region],” the University of Indianapolis’ Tylyn Johnson said.
Respondents also noted that community resources are lacking across the Midwest, which lessens the appeal for both people from the region and those outside of it. Alonna Traylor, a Gary, Ind. native, said that the Midwest needs to encourage change and not run away from it: “Keep everything up to date as technology advances and expand job opportunities for more than just factory work.”
Although many Midwestern states are experiencing a brain drain, there have been patterns of low outmigration, mostly with those who have not been educated past high school, in places like Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. The survey findings suggest that this trend still extends to the 29.9% of Black college-educated students who could only see themselves living in the Midwest.
While this survey is not representative of all Black students in the Midwest or in other regions, it certainly reveals the complexity of factors young, Black graduates are considering as they search for where to call “home.” The question is not as simple as which city gives them a job offer first—factors like students’ heritage, or a city’s diversity or progressiveness of policy play key roles in where Black millennials and Gen-Zers are choosing to live and work. And a region cannot succeed unless its traditionally underrepresented populations succeed. From the perspective of young, Black graduates, in order for the Midwest—or any region—to retain a young population and attract new migrants, there must be active efforts to build diverse communities, invest in opportunities for economic growth and encourage social progress.
*This survey was conducted from October to December 2020 and was distributed by various universities across the Midwest, including Purdue, University of Indianapolis, Michigan State University and others. The survey was not required and all responses were voluntary and anonymous. Some students volunteered to be interviewed via video call to obtain further qualitative data and agreed to be featured by name. Students’ data points are not necessarily representative of the region as a whole, but are meant to be used as a reference point for greater understanding of the complex factors contributing to the migration of upcoming and recent Black graduates in the Midwest.