Great Migration in reverse: Black entrepreneurs are moving to the South

Janelle Richards and Rehema Ellis

Tristan Walker was a rising star of the tech world with strong connections in Silicon Valley. A graduate of Stanford University’s MBA program, he quickly rose through the ranks by working for companies like FourSquare and Twitter. In 2013, he started Walker & Company to address the lack of health and beauty products aimed at black consumers. After the company merged with Procter & Gamble in 2018, however, Walker, who remained CEO, decided it was time to move his business and his family.

“It was important for us to be in a place that’s more diverse than the places that we were,” Walker said. In Silicon Valley, black professionals make up just a small fraction of the tech industry.

So Walker moved his family to the South, settling in Atlanta — the same region where his ancestors built their families.

His move is an example of how one of the largest migration patterns in U.S. history, called the Great Migration, is now reversing course. In 1900, nearly 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South, according to the Census Bureau. Starting in 1915 and over the next five decades, 6 million of them, desperate to escape Jim Crow laws and segregation, moved north, to states like New York, Illinois and Michigan, to find steady work.

“The need for labor during World War I, the need for people to actually work in some factories … people were actually recruiting African-Americans in the South,” said Jessica Lynn Stewart, an assistant professor of African-American Studies at Emory University.

Many never forgot their Southern roots or the family members who remained.

That was the case for Walker. Raised in New York, he grew up visiting his grandmother in Aliceville, Alabama. The young entrepreneur never thought he would live in the South, but culture and education in Atlanta made the area competitive when it came to recruiting top talent for his company.

The move was also a personal decision for his family.

"I realized, particularly with my having two sons, what kind of world I wanted them to grow up in," Walker said. "And when I thought about cities in this country that were thriving, Atlanta won and there was no second place."

Nearly 50 years after the Great Migration, broken neighborhoods spurred a new search as black families, retirees and young professionals started to see hope in Southern cities. Black families are now leaving Chicago by the thousands.

“You had people who were upwardly mobile saying: We want to go somewhere else. We want to go somewhere where we don’t see the neighborhoods being constantly disinvested in,” Stewart said. "I think we see a connection between loss of economic opportunity and crime. You see in a lot of these major cities in the Northeast and the Midwest increases in crime. And that can directly be related to the fact that there aren’t a lot of jobs.”

With more entrepreneurs choosing Atlanta as home, Ryan Wilson and TK Peterson saw a need for a dedicated environment to support professionals connecting socially and professionally. So, they started The Gathering Spot. A members-only club rooted in community and culture, the hub creates space for black professionals to build relationships, network and connect through various experiences and events.

“Our youngest member is 22, and our oldest member is 88,” Wilson said. “Every industry is represented. … The main thing we’re focused on is trying to make sure people know each other better. In a world that’s increasingly digital and where we focus on digital connections, what The Gathering Spot stands for is doing a little bit of that but doing more of the old-school, in-person, actually relationship-building pieces.”

These are the kinds of spaces that drew Walker & Company employee Nicole Chandler back to Atlanta — where she was raised but never thought she’d return. Determined to move from California, she saw the city as offering a welcome restart.

“There’s so many innovators in this space that look like me, that are making products for me,” Chandler said. “I’m seeing people that look and move like me, and I think that is very attractive to people, especially coming from Silicon Valley.”

For Walker, the opportunities for growth in the South will allow future generations of black families to thrive.

“I was really chasing an opportunity that would help my sons thrive in the future,” he said. “It’s been really important for me to show that it is possible to thrive with people who look like you and see other people thriving at the same time in the environment you happen to be in.”