DALLAS — In the late 1940s, Thomas Johnson had a choice to make. After a stint in the military, he could either pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, an impossible aspiration for a Black man in Texas at the time, or return to his beloved family in Crockett, a town dripping with history surrounded by the pecan and pine trees of deep East Texas, where thousands were once enslaved on cotton plantations.

While Crockett’s Black residents largely escaped the worst of the Jim Crow era’s reign of terror, Johnson was raised in a divided town. Black people lived west of Fourth Street, White people east, and what one could achieve in life was defined by that color line, even for a proud military veteran like Johnson.

He had been a bright student. In 1933, Johnson graduated from high school at 15. By 19, he had a degree from Wiley College, a private historically Black college in nearby Marshall, Tex. African Americans were barred from attending any of the state’s medical schools, however, the doctrine of “separate, but equal” meant the state had to offer Black students something. So the state made Johnson a deal: It would pay for him to go to medical school as long as it wasn’t in Texas. And with that offer in hand, Johnson joined millions of African Americans, who together formed the Great Migration, leaving the South looking for opportunities and hope not afforded to them under Jim Crow.

Johnson settled in the Twin Cities and attended the University of Minnesota. But while he would find success in Minnesota, nearly 70 years later his granddaughter D’Ivoire Johnson looked around her native Minneapolis and, like her grandfather, concluded that there were better opportunities for her elsewhere. In 2007, she made a journey that almost exactly mirrored the one he had made — moving with her two sons from Minneapolis to Dallas. She is part of what some are calling the new Great Migration, African Americans moving out of the cities that their parents and grandparents fled to during Jim Crow and into the South‘s booming metropolises.

The percentage of Black Americans who live in the South has been increasing since 1990, and the biggest gains have been in the region’s large urban areas, according to census data. The Black population of metro Atlanta more than doubled between 1990 and 2020, surpassing 2 million in the most recent census, with the city overtaking Chicago as the second-largest concentration of African Americans in the country after metropolitan New York. The Black population also more than doubled in metro Charlotte while greater Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth both saw their Black populations surpass 1 million for the first time. Several smaller metro areas also saw sizable gains, including San Antonio; Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C.; Orlando and Little Rock.

Meanwhile, the Black population shrank in a number of Northern and Western cities. For the second census in a row, Chicago and its suburbs lost Black population, and has decreased by 130,000 since 1990. In Michigan, both the Detroit and Flint metropolitan areas lost Black population in absolute terms. The metropolitan areas of St. Louis, Cleveland and Milwaukee recorded their first declines in Black population since African Americans started arriving in large numbers during the Great Migration. This trend extended far beyond the Midwest. Metro New York recorded its second consecutive loss in Black population, losing about 110,000 Black residents since 2000. In California, metro Los Angeles has lost 160,000 Black residents since 1990, while metro San Francisco has lost 90,000.

To understand the reasons behind this new Great Migration, The Washington Post interviewed Black Americans across three Southern states — Georgia, North Carolina and Texas — who had moved to the South in recent decades. Like many of those who moved during the original Great Migration, the primary driver of their decisions to leave home was economic. They moved South either with a new job already in hand or with hope that they could find work in some of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. Many also moved in search of affordable housing that could help their families build the kind of generational wealth their parents and grandparents in the North were locked out of because of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies. Some were hesitant about moving South, recalling the horror stories of racial terror told to them by their elders. They all found that racism existed in both the North and South, but for some, the larger concentrations of Black people in the South provided additional safety. In all cases, they moved in search of something better, but looking back, none felt like they’d found the promised land — at least not yet.

The Johnsons of Minneapolis

While Thomas Johnson was free to attend medical school in Minnesota, he quickly learned that the color line he knew so well as a child had not completely disappeared during his 1,000-mile journey North. After graduating from medical school in 1955, the only job he could get was at the nearby Stillwater State Prison. Two years later, he started his own clinic in South Minneapolis, eventually moving to North Minneapolis, which by the 1960s was home to most of the city’s poor Black residents. He set up shop on the corner of Plymouth and Queen avenues North in 1966, opening a medical office and then expanded to take over the entire block, adding a dental office, pharmacy and beauty salon.

“That’s where I grew up,” said D’Ivoire Johnson, 47. “At 10 years old, I had a little punch card where I would clock in, and I would go around all the offices and pick up the files and put them in alphabetical order.”

As one of just a few Black doctors, Johnson was able to tap an underserved market, eventually making enough money to buy a home in an affluent and virtually all-White neighborhood along the city’s Lake of the Isles Park. He became a pillar of the city’s Black community and an outspoken advocate for civil rights and Black advancement. D’Ivoire Johnson said that it was only at his funeral that she learned how many Black Minnesotans her grandfather helped pay college tuition.

But as fast as the money was coming in, it was going out. And when Minnesota moved toward HMOs and their complex rules and regulation, D’Ivoire Johnson says, her grandfather’s days were numbered. After years of legal fights and audits, Johnson closed his clinic in 1988 and quickly lost his real estate, too. D’Ivoire Johnson thinks her grandfather’s legal problems were part of a much larger issue facing the city’s Black leaders.

“My friend Stacey would joke there’s something going on in Minnesota. The moment you make $149,999, there’s some White person somewhere in some office that comes to find you,” she said.

“Every Black person in Minnesota that I’ve seen try to have some independence and do very well, I’ve watched them get dismantled for minor technicalities,” she added. “I’ve been working in financial institutions since the foreclosure crisis in audit and compliance positions, so I’ve actually seen the things that they do and Black folks just could never … I now sit in these institutions that are constantly under the consent order and they get to survive. We don’t. If a Black business is audited, it’s going to close.”

When D’Ivoire Johnson decided to leave Minneapolis, it was in hopes of not having her two sons grow up in what’s been called the “Minnesota paradox.” The phrase was coined by labor economist Samuel L. Myers Jr. in reference to how while Minnesotans enjoy some of the highest living standards in the country, they also suffer from some of the widest racial gaps in employment and income.

“I wanted my kids to grow up and see Black people thriving,” she said. “Minneapolis is great, but not for Black folks. If you ever really want to participate in the economy in a way that’s going to create growth, you can’t do that in Minneapolis.

“Minneapolis has a nonprofit mind-set, especially for Black people,” Johnson said. “So if you want to be a nonprofit, meaning nonprofitable, live in Minneapolis.”

In 2007, things were going well for Johnson. She owned her own mortgage processing company and was working for a wholesale mortgage company. She also was originating her own mortgages.

“I was in full hustle mode,” Johnson said. “And just knew if I came here to Dallas, I could do even better.”

Her mother and sister had already moved to Dallas for business opportunities, so Johnson was hopeful. But soon, the bottom fell out.

“I moved here because there was opportunity here and then there wasn‘t,” she said. “But I was already here, and I had my children here. My sister and my mother lived here. So I decided to stay to try to make it work.”

Even with her family’s help, her first few years in Dallas were devastating.

“It was still really horrible,” she said. “I worked tons of short-term jobs that I was way overqualified for.”

Things only stabilized when her dad moved down to help keep a roof over her and her sons’ heads. It wasn’t until 2011 that she found a good job, she said.

“Here’s the difference: Minneapolis has a wonderful social safety net. So if you fall on hard times you are not going to struggle like you struggle here,” she said. “This struggle here is something I’ve never seen before. I don’t understand it. It is demoralizing. It is dehumanizing. And it really does remind you of modernized slavery.”

Four generations on Chicago’s South Side

As far as Sherri Lucas-Hall, 57, knew, her family had been on Chicago’s South Side forever. Her Granny Ida, her dad’s grandmother, didn’t like to talk about what happened to her in the South, but Lucas-Hall got curious after reading Isabel Wilkerson’s tome, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the Great Migration.

“She told everybody about a sister she had, but nobody else knew anything else,” Lucas-Hall said. “But I got curious after I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, so I started doing my homework.”

What Lucas-Hall was able to piece together is that Granny Ida was actually one of six children. There had been four boys and two girls. Granny Ida’s parents were enslaved people, and as best Lucas-Hall can work out, her great-grandmother’s parents were sold from Virginia to Tennessee. After emancipation, the family moved to Arkansas.

“What we know is my Granny Ida, she was pregnant with my grandfather when she got to Chicago, but we don’t know where she conceived him,” Lucas-Hall said. “What I also found out was that she lost a brother in Arkansas. … All I can figure is something traumatic happened to her.”

When Granny Ida and her husband arrived in Chicago, they quickly got to work, cooking for White families. Ida’s only child, Lucas-Hall’s grandfather, worked as a porter on the railroads. Her grandfather was always working, and he died while working on the railroad in Kentucky. Her dad was raised in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood at the tail end of Chicago’s Black Renaissance, which produced such greats as Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry and Katherine Dunham. Harold Lucas, her dad, spent decades working in the steel mills until they closed. He then tried his hand at running restaurants and clubs, but those didn’t work out, she said. Since then he’s become a self-taught historian and community organizer, fighting to get Bronzeville recognized for its importance and to make sure South Side children know the rich legacy of their community.

Lucas-Hall loved her childhood in Chicago. After her parents split up, she and her mom settled not far from Rainbow Beach, on 80th Street and Escanaba Avenue, where she and her friends would play baseball on the corner. She also frequently made trips to Bronzeville to soak up the history her dad was fighting to preserve. But despite coming from three generations of hard-working Chicagoans, Lucas-Hall’s family, like much of the South Side, was still mostly fighting to survive, not thriving.

“On the South Side, everybody’s still in survival mode trying to figure out how to get by,” she said.

After graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1982 and watching the neighborhood’s steady decline, she and her husband moved to the suburbs, but they struggled to afford to live in a neighborhood where they felt safe.

“I had a bachelor’s degree. He hadn’t finished college,” she said. “And it was still a struggle for us financially, always trying to make ends meet.”

In 1999, Lucas-Hall’s then-husband wanted to move to Georgia, following his sister, but she took some convincing.

“I grew up with a historian as a father and … I read a lot, and so I knew about all of the happenings in the South,” Lucas-Hall said. “So my first thought when we were moving here was, ‘They kill Black people down there, I don’t want to go down there.’ ”

Lucas-Hall had just had a baby and her sister-in-law was selling Atlanta — hard. Lucas-Hall said she was open to the idea because she needed a change.

“His sister was telling him there were a lot of opportunities,” Lucas-Hall said. “She had her own business and she convinced him that he too could potentially start his own business. It was the Black mecca. That’s what Georgia was. And so for us, we saw opportunity and the hope that things would improve if we came this way.”

At first, life was indeed better. The couple initially lived with her husband’s family. Eventually her husband’s entire family moved to Georgia. Lucas-Hall went back to school, earning a master’s degree and started a 14-year career teaching in the DeKalb County School District. In 2006, they were able to buy a house.

“My grandparents never owned a home,” she said. “My mom never owned a home, so when I finally was able to buy one with the man I married, that meant a lot for me.”

But things started to unravel for Lucas-Hall. First she and her husband divorced, and he got to keep the house. And in 2019, she lost her job.

Lucas-Hall was fired after what she says was an accident involving a first-grader trying to lock himself in a bathroom stall. Lucas-Hall said she was trying to keep the child from locking himself in, when the stall door hit him in the head. Later, she was contacted by an investigator from the district’s department of public safety, and eventually placed on administrative leave. She was among a number of district teachers who say their constitutional rights were violated during hasty district investigations, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It took Lucas-Hall two years to clear her name to be able to return to a classroom. She worked as a Walmart cashier and as an Uber driver. After she was cleared to return to teaching, she worked as a substitute teacher in the local public schools. But she struggled to stay afloat financially. A strong believer in the power of education, she went back to school, this time to learn new and better ways to teach her Black students to read.

“I’ve spent the last four years studying the science of reading and now I have this small tutoring business,” she said. “But I’m not surviving well. The people that need my help can’t afford my services, and I can’t grow my business because I don’t have access to funds that will allow me to support myself while I’m trying to grow this business. That’s the space I’m in now — where I have this small business and I have all this information and I know how to do education better, but I have no access and no finances to affect any change.”

So far, 2022 has been a mixed bag for Lucas-Hall. She was offered a full-time job by the organization that trained her in the new reading techniques, but her landlord evicted her. She said the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office has refused to tell her when it plans to resume executing evictions amid the coronavirus’s omicron variant surge, so every time she leaves home for a substitute teaching gig, she wonders if she’ll return to find all of her and her youngest daughter’s possessions out on the curb. Earlier this month, she drove around the suburb of Lawrenceville, job offer in hand, looking for a landlord who would rent to her.

But even though Georgia didn’t turn out to be the Black mecca she was promised, more of her family are still taking that leap.

“My sister left and came down to Georgia about four years ago because she was trying to keep her boys from being murdered,” Lucas-Hall said. “She had three boys, and she moved from Chicago to come down here because she said she didn’t think her boys would survive if she didn’t get them out of there.”

As for whether moving to Georgia was the right decision for her, Lucas-Hall says there’s at least one clear advantage to moving south.

“It’s prettier,” Lucas-Hall said with a deep laugh.

“I know that’s crazy. But it’s not cold. I don’t have the snow to deal with, and I am five hours from the ocean, which I love,” she said. “And when things are good for me, I hop in my car and I will drive to Savannah just to see the ocean. So my struggle didn’t necessarily change, it’s just prettier here, and sometimes I can not think about it. I can stand back and get perspective as I sit there and wonder, am I going to be okay? Will I ever own my own home? Will my business be successful? What can I hold on to?”

Building a New South

When Darren James moved to Dallas in 2002, he was already working as an architect at Kai Enterprises, a national design firm where he is now president. But Dallas was still a breath of fresh air for the St. Louis native.

“St. Louis was just a small, insular city,” he said. “When I was growing up, you didn‘t go south of Forest Park,” he said, referring to the city’s grandest park located just south of Delmar Boulevard, which divides Black and White St. Louis.

“And what I noticed, even as a kid, was the disinvestment,” he said. “When you drive down the hill to get some good Italian food, the houses look nice, the streets look good, but when you go back up to North St. Louis, where all my grandparents and relatives lived, you asked yourself, ‘How come these neighborhoods don’t look the same?’ They were built at the same time, there was the same amount of middle-class income. … So that’s how I got into architecture. There was a planned disinvestment. … My grandfather would take us on these family trips, I could see it was like this across the entire country.”

James came from a successful St. Louis family. His family traces their roots to Arkansas and Tennessee, but has been in St. Louis for four generations. His mom was an educator; his dad was on the school board. But still it was hard to break out of the city’s informal caste system, he said.

“The first question they ask in St. Louis is what high school did you go to,” James said. “And the reason they ask that question is because it tells you everything. They can tell where your parents came from, they can tell everything about your socioeconomic background. And if you’re from there, you just think it’s kind of a colloquialism. You think it’s very nice and easy, but it’s not. It’s a way to put you in place.”

In Dallas, he found people who didn’t care what high school he went to but instead what he knew.

“Here in Dallas, if people can make money, they’ll work with you,” he said. “St. Louis is a little bit different. They’re not really willing to share in that pie, and they’re going to do everything they can to hoard that pie. And so you start to see that there’s no future opportunities there unless you happen to be one of the few people that broke through. There’s just not a lot of upward mobility for the next generation, so people like me leave. … Don’t get me wrong, Dallas’s racial norms are very strong, but this city is economically driven. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit to it.”

It’s that entrepreneurial spirit that makes Dallas a place of opportunity for Black people, said James, who has been running the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce since 2016. He has spent that time trying to provide information to Black businesses that want to learn how to take advantage of Dallas as a global city. The Black Chamber’s membership shows what is possible for Black people to build in Dallas, James said.

“We’ve got lawyers, we’ve got spirit distillers, we’ve got supply chain firms. We’ve got architects, public relations people, you’ve got manufacturers. We’ve got IT professionals, we’ve got graphic designers, website managers, and even during the pandemic, our membership has grown over this last year,” James said. “There’s always been lawyers, there’s always been educators, there’s always been accountants. But here in Dallas, we’re now in professions that were not traditionally Black.”

While James is working to change the South economically, Leslie Mac, a Brooklyn-born Black Lives Matter activist and community organizer, is working to change it politically. Before moving to Charlotte last year, Mac lived all over the North. She went to college in Chicago and spent time in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. She lived in Philadelphia for nearly a decade.

Mac started her career working on criminal justice reform legislation, such as getting state legislatures to pass bail reform. She switched to grass-roots organizing after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. When she moved to North Carolina, she started working to support groups like Charlotte Uprising, a coalition of community members and organizers fighting for police accountability and racial equality.

Mac, who is Jamaican, grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where many of New York’s Caribbean immigrants settled.

“Everybody was from a different island, and we were all kind of strangers in a strange land trying to find our way,” Mac said. “It was a really close-knit community of people that cared about one another. I knew I couldn‘t do bad stuff because somebody’s mom was going to see me, and my mother was going to find out about it. I knew that when the ice cream truck pulled up, somebody’s mom was going to buy everybody ice cream. Some of my favorite memories are stupid little things like the ConEd man coming and us begging him for some rope to do double Dutch with.”

Her sister is hanging on in Flatbush in the rent-stabilized apartment they grew up in, but they are watching what they loved disappear to gentrification.

“It’s happening in a lot of cities in the North — they are just becoming less inviting for Black people, and less of a place where Black people can thrive and raise their families,” Mac said. “And so they’re looking for places where they can build community and have that same feeling that I had when I grew up in Flatbush. And it just isn’t there anymore.”

For Mac, Charlotte was like a homecoming.

“I love Charlotte as a city,” Mac said. “It‘s been a really great place to live, and it’s a place where I can be what I like to refer to as inconspicuously Black. That’s been a revelation for me, and it’s something that I haven’t really felt since I was growing up in Flatbush, where everybody looked like me.”

Mac says to be inconspicuously Black means that she can count on other Black people being wherever she goes. In a city as Black as Charlotte, she says every business has to cater to Black folks. “These are really fundamental things that I know I would never have had in Grand Rapids. I wouldn‘t have even really had it in Philadelphia.”

“It just feels freeing. There’s a thing where I feel like my shoulders relax more here,” Mac said. “We go out to a fancy restaurant or like this little speakeasy that you have to have a membership to, and I think, that sounds like a place where there won’t be a lot of Black people. Sure enough, we walk in, and it’s like 70 percent Black people up in there having their fancy drinks. … I can feel comfortable wherever I go here in a way that I’ve never experienced before, even in New York City. There are so many places I would go and be like, I have to really watch myself here. I’ve got to shrink myself a little bit. I’ve got to make sure I’m not too angry or too loud or too whatever. Peeling those pieces away from myself has been really a freeing endeavor.”

“So much of my mind was taken up by thinking about how I needed to interact around White people before I moved here,” Mac said. “It’s a thing you don’t recognize until it’s gone. I really hadn’t realized how much of my psyche was taken up with that constant kind of drone in my head, and moving here really opened me up in a new way.”

Black in Dallas

The Fivee Bistro & Bar, located on Dallas’s Botham Jean Boulevard and named for the 26-year-old unarmed Black accountant who was shot and killed in his apartment by neighbor and former police officer Amber Guyger, is one of those places where one can be “inconspicuously Black.”

On a warm late November afternoon, D’Ivoire Johnson took a friend visiting from Martha’s Vineyard to the restaurant, where a private party had taken over the bar’s patio. Partygoers were doing a line dance in the beautiful fall weather, and inside, a live band was covering R&B classics. Fivee is a special place for Johnson. It was founded by the sister of Omar Jahwar, a larger-than-life pastor and racial justice activist, who died in March after developing covid-19 while on a national tour with his organization, Heal America, which works to curb gang violence. A huge painting of Jahwar in a cowboy hat hangs on the wall next to the bar. Fivee was Jahwar’s dream, a place where Black Dallas could come together. It’s now a place where Black professionals and families rub shoulders, enjoying perfectly executed soul food like chicken and waffles.

Before he died, Jahwar and Johnson, who speaks with the confidence of a Black woman who has spent most of her career in a field dominated by White men, would spend hours discussing their visions for Black uplift, and she would advise him on potential business opportunities. The past year has been one of Johnson’s hardest since she got her life back on track after the financial crisis. Jahwar was one of two close friends Johnson lost to covid-19. But Fivee helps her remain connected to her friend. During lunch, two of Jahwar’s family members came up to greet Johnson while she ate.

That Sunday, Johnson was feeling reflective on her time in Texas. After years of struggling, she lives with her 14-year-old son in an upscale Dallas suburb called Las Colinas, where large homes encircle a golf course. She knows that she has achieved a lot in Texas, but she still worries what will come next for her family.

“This progress is illusive. It’s not real,” she said. “Now, does that mean that I’m not doing well? No, I’m fine. My family’s fine. I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. But I still get anxiety attacks when my son walks out the door to walk our dog. So really, I’m not fine, because I’m not safe. If January 6 didn’t tell you nothing, it told you, you were not safe. Because the most unstable element, the most uninformed and misinformed — and they don’t know the difference between the two — are armed and dangerous. That is a national security issue, and it’s not being treated as such. Joe Biden is going to do nothing. That’s the reality.”

Her message for her two sons: The promised land might still be out there even if not here in America.

“Many of us are still looking for a U.S.-based Black mecca, but I tell my sons, ‘Go find your place in the world.’ Don’t limit yourself to America. There is a place in the world that’s good for you. You might have a smaller home. It may not be as easy to get to this place or that place, but there is a place in the world that’s going to be less stressful than this one for you. And you need to travel and figure out where it is.”