Middle Class Blacks Head to Atlanta

By Patricia J. Mays
Associated Press Writer
Monday, December 7, 1998; 1:53 a.m. EST

ATLANTA (AP) -- Four months ago, Ronnie Harris quit his job as a safety engineer for the city of San Antonio, sold all his furniture, leased his four-bedroom ranch house and moved to Atlanta.

Harris, 36 and divorced, didn't have a job or a place to live, but was intent on settling in a place with a booming economy and a growing community of young, upwardly mobile blacks. For many like Harris, there is only one place to move.

"I chose Atlanta because it's THE place to be," he said. "It's the black mecca."

Within weeks of his arrival, Harris landed a job as an insurance adjuster and found many other like-minded transplants lured here by a rich mix of job opportunities, black culture and civil rights legacy.

"The climate is good, the cost of living still isn't as bad as New York or L.A., it has a nightlife," said Raymond Winbush, director of Race Relations Institute at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. "It has everything that most black urban professionals want."

The city, in a region once known for its sprawling cotton plantations, also is home to five historically black colleges, many black celebrities, several urban radio stations, an upscale soul food market, black theatrical groups, the National Black Arts Festival and the Shrine of the Black Madonna -- a renowned black book store.

"My experience in L.A. was you didn't see many blacks at the opera or plays, the things I enjoyed doing," said Millie Cartznes, 49, who moved to the region from Los Angeles in August. "Here, I've met so many prominent black authors and artists."

Home to several R&B musicians -- including Usher, Toni Braxton, TLC and hip-hop producer Jermaine Dupri -- Atlanta is becoming known as the new Motown.

"In terms of the music industry, black music is to Atlanta what black music was to Detroit in the '60s," Winbush said.

Through much of this century, blacks abandoned the South for economic opportunities elsewhere. But with an improving racial climate, the South, and Atlanta in particular, are drawing people back home. During the first half of the 1990s, the South gained more black new residents than any other region.

From 1990-97, Atlanta led all other U.S. metropolitan areas in total black population gains with 189,643, according to Census Bureau estimates compiled by William Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan.

Although many of the blacks moving to the "city too busy to hate" are educated and upwardly mobile young professionals, the area also is attracting working-class families and retirees trying to get back to their roots.

"What I saw when I looked at the rich demographics was that Atlanta was attracting all segments of the black population, white-collar and blue-collar," Frey said.

Blacks account for only about 25 percent of the 3.5 million people living in the 20-county metro area. But about two-thirds of the city's 400,000 residents are black.

Some of the transplants are actually natives returning to a city that had a prime role in the civil rights struggle. It is home to the white marble tomb where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is buried, the office where he plotted civil rights strategy and the church where he preached.

Since electing its first black mayor in 1972 -- Maynard Jackson -- Atlanta has been led by black politicians. Former Mayor Andrew Young was instrumental in bringing the 1996 Olympics to the city.

"Blacks are returning back home to where their roots are and they are coming back and finding a more tranquil urban atmosphere," said Herman "Skip'' Mason Jr., a former history professor at Morehouse College.

Some blacks have accumulated tremendous wealth -- evident by neighborhoods filled with $500,000 homes -- but Atlanta still has serious problems. Thirty-five percent of blacks live below the poverty level, and the city's crime rate is among the nation's highest.

Many newcomers who venture here purely on speculation have discovered that opportunity does not necessarily guarantee success.

"In years past, people were coming here expecting the golden turkey to lay the golden egg in their lap,'' said Daniel Johnson, president of the Black Newcomer's Network. "We are realizing now is that you have to have something to bring to the table."

c Copyright 1998 The Associated Press