When two million black Americans began migrating to the North in the early 1900s, leaving behind the legalized inhumanity of Jim Crow in search of a better life, the movement was known as “The Great Migration.” When another five million left after the second world war, scientists named it “The Second Great Migration.”
The 21st century was heralded in by a third seismic migratory phenomena. This one, still ongoing and growing, called “The New Great Migration,” is chronicling the mass movement of African-Americans back to the South, that for close to a century, they steadily left in droves. Scientists are busy formulating their methodology and collecting data to report on this historic trend.
However, for the owners of black businesses in the North that were established and thrived on the patronage of black Southern migrants and their families, scientific findings are not necessary. Their customers, patrons, clients and church members are fewer and fewer. For some the drain from urban areas back to the South has forced them to close their doors forever.
“Most of the guys I knew that had black businesses for 25 or 30 years, now they’re gone,” recalls 80-year old Oscar Hopkins, who for 45 years has owned and managed Hopkins Barber Shop in the Springfield Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York.
“It’s a drastic change from when I moved here in 1958 to now,” Hopkins adds. What was it like when black businesses were thriving in Springfield Gardens? “There were two dry cleaners, an auto mechanic shop, a body shop, an electrician, a beauty parlor, another barber shop.” Hopkins list those he can remember.
His business, along with his son’s law practice, are the only remaining black-owned businesses on their stretch of Merrick Boulevard. For his son, Everett, of Hopkins Law Group, since he opened his practice in 1990, the changes have accelerated.
“What I find is the younger retirees leave quicker than the older retirees.” Fortunately there are some legal opportunities even as they are leaving. “I give advice on how to transition, about property, estate planning,” says the younger Hopkins.
And, like his father’s barber shop, some former clients maintain their ties. “Even if they get an attorney in another place they will still call me to talk about what they are doing.”
The tithes, if not the ties, are what concerns the Rev Dr. Floyd H. Flake, longtime pastor of the Greater Allen African-American Episcopal Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens. Currently listed as the 57th largest church in the United States, with a membership of 23,000, it is losing hundreds of congregants every year as they leave for Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
“This has been probably going on for the last 10 years and that’s because these people have reached the age where they can retire,” Dr. Flake notes, adding, “The most recent recession has ramped it up.”
This has meant cutbacks in programs and furloughs for the church’s employees, with annual offerings down by between twenty to thirty percent “It’s not a killer,” claims the pastor, “but it does make a difference because it’s the older congregates who were the primary givers.”
And, as Dr. Flake observes, the lost of black businesses has had an impact. “Thirty-five years ago, you had black entrepreneurs. Now we don’t even have a single restaurant located in this community.”
As an example of bygone days, he sites The Carmichael Brothers. “Gone about seven years ago.” But once so successful they were featured in a 1985 issue of Ebony magazine. Then they were building a business empire, which started with a family diner then included a liquor store, a cocktail lounge, automotive service center, a travel agency and a commercial building leasing office space. They had plans for developing an entire block, including a mini shopping center and an apartment building.
Their original soul food diner boasted a parking lot and street parking, a luxury Frank Williams, owner of the remaining eating establishment, Thomasina’s Catering, says no longer exist to accommodate local customers in his neighborhood. At one time, Williams had other businesses as well: a deli and grocery store, a laundromat and a luncheonette.
“I did good and things began to grow. There were a lot of government employees, nurses, policemen, professional people that lived in the St Albans area.” But in the past ten years, “The steady customers I had known for years starting going back south because the cost of living is less or they had property.”
His catering business, which he started in 1995, does well with a diverse clientele. But Williams says he’s 72 years old and thinking seriously about his own retirement and returning to his home in Darlington, South Carolina.
While ten of thousands of black New Yorkers are leaving annually for the South, even more are on exit routes out of the Chicago metropolitan area, once No. 2 now No. 3 in black population. Some have headed to the suburbs, but most are headed south.
The Rev. Kendall Taylor pastors at Lodebar Church and Ministries in his old neighborhood in the city’s tough South Side. He understands the economic coalition which sustained then devastated his largely abandoned childhood community.
“The businesses have suffered tremendously because the exchange of the dollar has decreased. Businesses depended on how many times the dollar changed hands in the community. African-American hard earned dollars used to stay in the community.” Then the dollar started to leave. “They sold their homes and took their retirement money south.”
Despite the abandoned lots, vacant and deteriorating buildings, with corner stores and gas stations now run by recent immigrants, Rev. Taylor, who lives with his family in Plainfield, Illinois, wants to believe that black businesses may thrive in the area again as part of an ethnically diverse community. Like the Carmichael Brothers in the 1980s, he envisions new and expanding developments.
“I have hopes that building a new church with community facilities might be the beginning of redeveloping the community that would include affordable housing, grocery stores and a day care and health facilities.” He admits this is a challenge. “It’s really hard right now. But my vision is to take back the community one household at a time and bring back the small business owners.”
The black migration trend is reflected on the West Coast as well. Los Angeles, the Bay Area, especially Oakland, whose black residents once represented 47 percent of the city’s populations in the 1990s, are seeing significant declines due to the movement from the city to suburbs and from the city to the South.
Once known as “the Chocolate City,” Oakland, like the other parts of California only saw significant numbers of blacks during and after World War II. But these cities made important, if much shorter, contribution to African American history, including political activism. The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland.
For Rick Moss, Director and Chief Curator of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, the impact of a declining black populations goes beyond black-owned businesses. “It been many years since the percentage of African American ownership has been that great. The opportunity for such businesses and entrepreneurship or the ability to acquire city contracts to do business has been greatly reduced.”
As a chronicler of Oakland’s history, Moss has observed what followed the lost of business opportunities for blacks as they declined as a significant and reckoning factor in urban areas. “That imperative no longer exists. No one will protest loudly if the number of contracts are not awarded.”
Moss says the deepest concern about what is happening to Oakland is with the older generation “who lived the experience in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I am aware of how integral those generations were to forming the character of those cities.”
Those contributions led to what Moss describes as “a large and vociferous population that would raise a significant amount of fuss regarding City Hall and politics. When that is no longer, there’s less of an urgency of response.”
Dr. William Frey, a senior fellow and renown demographer at the Brookings Institution in his published work The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965-2000, detailed this ongoing statistical redistribution and wisely noted that “while we have yet to fully appreciate its implications on economic, political and race relations fronts, future research should examine the importance of this development not only for the South but also for the places African Americans are leaving behind in increasing numbers.”
Dr. Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard, says it’s too early to know what the impact will be. “How many of the businesses did the have? Were they business people?” Like Moss, he ponders broader issues. “I wonder if that culture hasn’t already begun to erode with the movement of the middle class out of those communities.” For anyone studying this recent migratory phenomena in Patterson’s opinion, “It’s a complex matter.”