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The New Great Migration

Charlotte is now the No. 3 destination for African-Americans

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"A chocolate city is no dream;
it's my piece of the rock,
and I dig you, CC..."

— George Clinton, "Chocolate City," 1975

For Jatrine Bentsi-Enchill, it started pretty much the same way it has for everyone else. First, two physician friends of hers moved to Charlotte. They raved about what a great place it was for African-Americans, about how it wasn't topped out like Atlanta or New York, about how there was still opportunity here.

So Bentsi-Enchill, 41, and her husband packed up their things and moved from Los Angeles to a posh, 4,600-square-foot home in South Charlotte.

Bentsi-Enchill says she never imagined she'd end up living in the South. As a kid in New York City, nightmare stories of the things that happened to blacks in the South haunted her.

"I was terrified of the South growing up," she said. "If you had asked me 30 years ago if I would ever have decided to live here, I'd say you were out of your mind. My perspective has changed and I think the South has changed."

A few of her friends in California gave her a hard time about moving here.

"People were like, 'You're going where?'" said Bentsi-Enchill. "Aren't you afraid of the Klan or the cops and everything, and we'd say, 'Well, where did Rodney King get beaten?' It was right there in LA."

She and her husband, both lawyers, have built a great life for themselves here, she said. She recommends Charlotte highly to anyone who will listen — so highly, in fact, that her parents moved here and bought a house down the street from Bentsi-Enchill. A cousin soon followed. Then some friends. Then more friends.

They aren't alone. Since 1995, an estimated 61,000 blacks of all ages, education and income levels have moved to Mecklenburg County, according to US Census and Claritas data.

Just how big are those numbers? Big enough to make Charlotte the number three relocation destination in the country for African-Americans. By the end of the last decade, Charlotte had attracted more new African-Americans than all but two other US cities, Atlanta and Dallas, according to a 2004 study by the Brookings Institute, one of Washington, DC's oldest think tanks.

That was particularly surprising to Brookings' researchers. Atlanta and Dallas have been on the top ten list since the late 1970s, but Charlotte didn't show up on the list at all until 2000, when it shot to the number three spot.

The Charlotte area has quickly become one of the hottest destinations in what Brookings scholar William Frey calls "The New Great Migration," the large-scale migration of African-Americans back to their roots in the South.

Among African-Americans, many sa y, word is out that Charlotte is the "it" place to be.

"Everybody thinks of Charlotte as the new Atlanta," said Robin Brown, a housing counselor and administrator at the Urban League of Central Carolinas who moved here from Pittsburgh four years ago. "Everyone wants to come here."

None of this is news to Bill McCoy, the retired director of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute. He says he's been following the new migration to Charlotte for about a decade.

"It is snowballing," said McCoy. "Obviously there has been a change in the demographic in Mecklenburg County. More people of color are locating here and they're locating in a much broader swath of Mecklenburg County than many people know or acknowledge or that has even occurred historically. When you look at current data, the only places where it continues to be primarily white are essentially above where I-485 is going to be in the north and maybe below Highway 51 in the south. In between those areas there are still places that are primarily white, but the complexion is changing."

The original Great Migration, one of the largest mass movements of people in American history, began around 1910, when African-Americans began trickling out of the South, heading north in search of jobs and a better racial climate, relatively speaking. By the middle of the century, the trickle had become a flood as African-Americans headed west to places like California. By 1970, nearly half of the country's black population had moved out of the South. Now, that trend is in full-scale reversal, said Frey. Between 1990 and 2000, the black population in the South increased by 3.6 million people, more than the other three regions of the country combined, he found.

Signs of this new migration are everywhere in Charlotte-Mecklenburg: in the schools, at the voting booth and in once solidly white neighborhoods that are now more diverse than ever. Yet, in Mecklenburg County, the trend has attracted little public notice, while the influx of Hispanics has grabbed big headlines.

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