Black Retirees: North Carolina's 'Reverse' Migration

Apr 13, 2017

The mass exodus of millions of African-Americans from the rural south to large urban areas across the United States was nothing more than great. During this Great Migration, almost half of the black adults in North Carolina left the state, most of them settling in and around New York. Now, many of those who left are steadily returning home to North Carolina to retire in a Great "Reverse" Migration.

Nearly six million African-Americans left the south between 1910 and 1970. Before 1950 – three out of four African-Americans born in North Carolina stayed in North Carolina. Those numbers would steadily decline.

By 1970, almost half of North Carolina-born black adults lived outside of the state, reflecting the impact of the Great Migration. New York was by far the leading destination for North Carolina blacks; some 104,000 people settling there.

James Sanders Jr. was one of those African-Americans who left the south in the 1960s. He was born in Durham, one of eight children. Sanders left his hometown as soon as he graduated from N.C. Central University.

"So my wife and I and my baby daughter relocated," said Sanders.

Sanders said opportunities and fellowships for graduate school were more plentiful up north. After finishing his graduate degree in Worcester, Massachusetts, it was on to New York.

The migration continued into the 1970s and 1980s. Then, demographers noticed a slow but steady reversal, that kept picking up steam. Blacks, like Sanders, were moving back south.

James and Maggie Raines visiting family in Durham in the 1980s.
Credit Courtesy of the Raines Family

"A lot of people either go south to Florida or to the southwest to Arizona, but for me I think it was pretty much a closed case in terms of returning to Durham," said Sanders.

Today, Sanders is very active in retirement. He sets aside Tuesday and Thursday mornings for yoga, at the Durham Center for Senior Life. He retired from teaching school in Newberg, New York and moved back to Durham in 2012. 

This doesn't surprise Rebecca Tippett, Director of Carolina Demography at UNC- Chapel Hill's Carolina Population Center.

"When we look at where blacks retire, North Carolina is the third most popular state, after Florida and Georgia," said Tippett.

Tippett said some experts are surprised. She says numbers show North Carolina has experienced very strong growth in the past 25 years. Tippett said it's cheaper to retire to the Carolinas, but there are other reasons.

"A lot of times I get people who look at the data and say, 'What are all these damn Yankees coming to the state'," said Tippett. "I think it is important to realize, for many of these individuals, there are historical ties to the state of N.C. Very profound and strong ties that we see echoes of the past show up in the data of the present."

James Raines sings in the men's choir at Holland Chapel AME Zion Church in Chatham County.
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

Plus, Tippett said North Carolina is a "sticky" state – people born here stay here and they come back here.  She said the only state that's more "sticky" than North Carolina is Texas.

That's the case for James Raines, 80, who enjoys singing with the male choir at Holland Chapel AME Zion Church in Chatham County. For him, it's like coming full circle. He was born in rural Chatham County, the oldest of eight children.

"We never got hungry, but no money hardly coming in the house," said Raines. "My father was an older man, so he did a lot of sitting in the door looking out, so I had to help my parents a lot."

Back in those days them fields were hot, hot and I was glad to get out. I worked at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill for a little while and then I went North. -James Raines

Raines said when he turned 18, he got tired of working on the farm.

"Back in those days them fields were hot, hot and I was glad to get out. I worked at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill for a little while and then I went North," said Raines.

Raines followed an uncle to New York in the 1950s, and eventually settled in Camden, New Jersey. He worked for an aluminum company for 42 years, and today lives on a comfortable pension.

"New Jersey was good to me, I was lucky to work the whole time I was up there," said Raines. "Had a good life up there, I raised four kids, they moved down here before my wife and I moved."

Raines' wife, Maggie Raines, died three years ago. He said they bought a retirement home in Durham a decade before actually retiring and that they always wanted to return to family.

This steady, but calculating, return of African-American retirees back to North Carolina isn't expected to end anytime soon. The percentage of North Carolina-born blacks living in the state has again topped 70 percent, like it was in the 1920s.

Demographers say as Baby Boomers age, this reverse migration to North Carolina in retirement isn’t expected to slow down and will remain steady into the mid-2020s and 2030s.

This story was produced with support from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.