Norma Smith was barely 1 year old in 1965 when her family, in search of a better life, moved from Augusta, Ga., to New York City. Smith and her family were part of the Great Migration, which occurred between 1910 and 1970, when some 6 million African Americans migrated from the rural South to urban centers in the northeast and midwest. They left states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas and moved to New York, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, where progressive attitudes yielded more favorable living conditions. Like Smith’s family, many African Americans left the South to escape segregation and the lack of social and economic opportunities.
“It was a family move,” Smith says. “My grandmom felt there would be better opportunities in New York. We settled in Brooklyn, and that’s where I grew up.”
Forty-odd years later, when Smith decided to relocate her family to the Atlanta area, she would become part of another population trend, dubbed the New Great Migration, which began in the 1970s, but picked up pace in the late 1990s as large numbers of African-Americans began flocking to southern cities, such as Atlanta, Dallas and Miami. Much like the earlier migration, this new migration was prompted by job growth in southern cities, lower costs of living, along with familial and cultural ties to the South.
This new migration is being led by college graduates, retirees and middle-class families like Smith’s. Smith moved from New York to Newnan, Ga., a suburban area about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, with her husband and two sons in 2007.
“The main reason [for the move] was I wanted to make a lifestyle change, and I decided to move back South considering I still had family here as well,” Smith says.
“My husband was nervous about the move because he was born and raised in New York. My mom and brother had already moved back to the South, so they were happy we were moving. But my friends thought I was crazy to give up my job and my position and salary so close to retirement to start over,” she says.
In fact, Smith took a significant reduction in salary when she moved to Georgia, but she says the lower cost of living, particularly the low housing costs, more than compensated for the pay cut. The slower pace of the South compared to the hustle and bustle of New York City also played a role in Smith’s decision.
“It’s true that New York has more job opportunities for all income brackets as compared to Atlanta, but here, you can have a big, spacious home with a yard for the same amount as an apartment in the city. That’s what I really fell in love with – the space,” she says. “Then there is the quality of living here. There’s a friendliness here, and there’s not the noisiness of crowded city life or the loud, boisterous people.”
Smith says her husband was not the only family member to struggle with the move. Her 15-year-old son had preconceived ideas about life in the South, particularly strained race relations and lack of cultural opportunities – a reputation many southern cities are working hard to shed. Smith says that while there is certainly no lack of entertainment options in New York, southern cities like Atlanta offer a host of cultural, entertainment and sports opportunities.
“I wanted to get away from that fast-paced city lifestyle – that’s why we settled in Newnan. But it’s good to know that if I’m craving the big city, I can always go to Atlanta,” she says.
Smith says safety for her two school-aged sons also factored into the family’s relocation.
“I wanted my kids to grow up in a slower environment. The fast pace of city life means there are more opportunities for kids to get into trouble. In New York, for instance, even elementary kids take public transportation or walk home from school. They have more liberties and freedom in terms of getting around in the city, and that can be dangerous,” Smith says. “Here, it seems there isn’t as much for kids to get into. Plus, it seems the schools have a lower tolerance for kids who cause trouble in school. I wish I had moved sooner when my children were even younger.”