It’s no secret that Nashville is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Since 1990, the city’s Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and African populations have each exploded, rendering Music City an international place of sorts. Davidson County is now home to more than 60,000 Hispanics and 19,000 Asians. Twenty years ago, those populations were minuscule in comparison.
Also during the last two decades, a demographic reality unfolded locally involving black Americans — a change lost amid the International City hype. While African-American populations in other Southern cities boomed, weaving a tale of reclamation in the New South, the story is far from the same in Nashville.
During the past 20 years, African-Americans have moved by the hundreds of thousands from various parts of the United States — often from cities in the North and Midwest — to the South in what has amounted to a reverse of the “Great Migration” of the early 20th century, when blacks fled the embattled South for a better life elsewhere. Since 2000, in the country’s black population, 75 percent of growth was in the South, up from 65 percent during the previous decade, according to U.S. Census data. Also during the last decade, major metro areas in the North, particularly New York and Chicago, posted their first declines in black population since at least 1980.
In some cities of the greater South — particularly Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston Miami, Orlando and Tampa — the rise in African-American populations has been nothing short of stunning. Atlanta now has the second-largest black population among all U.S. cities, having passed Chicago in the past few years and trailing only New York City. From 2000 to 2010, many Southern cities — particularly in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina — saw their African-American populations increase by at least 20 percent and, in some cases, a considerably higher percentage. In Tennessee, the black population in Memphis, always significant, increased further.
During the same 10-year period, Nashville’s black population grew a healthy but still modest 19 percent, from approximately 146,000 to about 174,000.
Cathy Yang Liu, assistant professor Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, said climate (particularly for the elderly), proximity to the East Coast, cultural dynamics and jobs combine to influence African-Americans’ choices when relocating to the South from other parts of the country.
“Orlando, Miami, Charlotte and Atlanta all fit that criteria [more so than Nashville],” said Liu, who has studied the phenomenon of blacks moving to Atlanta. “There could be several reasons blacks are migrating to some Southern cities and not [as much to Nashville],” acknowledging that getting at the motivations behind the moves is far more difficult territory than the numbers themselves.
African-Americans’ re-embrace of the South is part of an overall trend involving people of various ethnic and racial groups moving to Sun Belt cities. Regardless of the reasons, which tend to be speculative at best, the numbers are noteworthy.
According to recently released 2010 statistics from the U.S Census Bureau, of the 20 largest cities in 11 Southeastern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia), only two — Lexington and Louisville — are “less black” than Nashville by the percentage of African-Americans compared with their greater populations.
Black population changes are not solely the result of migration, but that factor looms large within the dynamic. Orlando is a strong example: Much of the Florida city’s African-American population growth the past 10 years was due to an influx of black newcomers.
In 2000, Orlando’s geographically small city limits were home to about 50,000 African-Americans. In 2010, the number was 66,000, a 34 percent increase. Orlando to Nashville is not an apples-to-apples comparison — Nashville-Davidson County encompasses about 525 square miles, while the City of Orlando is only 100. But in a general sense, the black populations of Southeastern cities such as Charlotte, Orlando, Raleigh-Durham and Tampa — all cities, like Nashville, that did not historically have hugely significantly African-American populations such as those of Atlanta or New Orleans — are growing rapidly.
That Orlando, a city with no African-American heritage of note, is luring blacks more than Nashville — with our triumvirate of Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University, and our status as a history-rich center of black business and culture — is striking.
With Nashville attracting all types of newcomers — from the white music executive from California to the Mexican-American construction worker from Texas to the Indonesian-American computer technician from Illinois — why do blacks migrating to the South seemingly prefer to relocate to cities other than Nashville?
jeff obafemi carr, director of the city’s Amun Ra Theatre and a local pop culture critic, filmmaker and actor, said he is often asked when he travels around the country if Nashville is receptive to blacks looking to relocate. He said Charlotte, among others, has a much better perception than Nashville.
“There is a perception problem, and some of it is rooted in reality,” said carr, who is African-American. “There is a diverse culture of music here, but unfortunately, it’s still not branded by the city as a diverse music culture.”
Rosetta Miller-Perry, founder of the Greater Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce and publisher of the Tennessee Tribune, agreed with carr that there is a perception problem. She noted that Charlotte has a vibrant and cosmopolitan feel that attracts both young blacks and whites — and that has created a buzz in various black communities in cities nationwide.
“It blew me away,” Miller-Perry, who is African-American, said of a recent visit to Charlotte. “It reminded me of Atlanta and New York.”
It’s difficult to compare population figures from city to city. The census bureau includes statistics from both city limits and metropolitan statistical areas. Geographical boundaries can vary wildly from place to place. Also, some cities annexed large landmasses between 2000 and 2010, distorting their populations from the decennial census 10 years ago to the most recent count.
But in a general sense, the following figures (given as approximations) are helpful:
• The City of Charlotte had 177,000 black residents in 2000 and 256,000 in 2010, an
increase of 45 percent.
• The City of Raleigh boasted an African-American population of 76,000 in 2000.
By 2010, the figure was 118,000, an increase of 54 percent.
Dan Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University sociology professor, said another key statistic to consider is Nashville’s percentage of blacks related to the overall population. The figure as of 2010 was about 27 percent, basically unchanged from 2000.
“What did change at above-average rates for Davidson County between 2000 and 2010 is the percentage of foreign-born residents,” Cornfield said.
That change could explain, in part, why the percentage of blacks did not increase. Still, and in contrast, many of the previously listed Southeastern cities saw their percentages of black residents in relation to their overall populations rise at least somewhat from 2000 to 2010.
“The question I get — from both blacks and whites — when I go places to work on a project or shop a product, particularly in New York and L.A.,” carr said, is ‘Why are you still in Nashville?’ ”