Printer Friendly

"They're never here more than a year": return migration in the southern exodus, 1940-1970.

Over the course of the twentieth century more than ten million people left the southern United States for the North and West. After five decades of consistent large-scale outmigration, the tide slowly began to shift back to the South in the early 1970s. By the end of the decade, for the first time in more than a century, the South actually showed a net in-migration of both blacks and whites. (1) The late-twentieth century return migration has emerged as a vibrant area of investigation in its own right, but millions of southern out-migrants--particularly southern whites--returned to the South during the Great Migration. (2) We know very little about the return movement that took place during the period primarily associated with the southern out-migration, between World War II and 1970. (3) Understanding these return migrants reveals not only the precursors to the now-dominant southbound stream, but it also has implications for our understanding of southern migrants in the North. As numerous studies of return migration in other contexts have suggested, return migrants have an impact on the places they leave. A highly transient migrant stream can inhibit the development of migrant community, for instance, and short-term migrants almost always draw at least some sort of antipathy from both long-term settlers and other local residents alike.

The study of return moves has emerged as an important subfield in the growing interdisciplinary body of migration studies. Favoring the term "mobility" over "migration," recent scholarship has come to deemphasize the older Point A to Point B framework. A recognition of the importance of "mundane movements," as one seminal article put it, demands that we take into account the variety of short-distance, temporary, and circular moves that often precede and follow highly visible long-distance migrations. (4) The study of return migration has been central to this reorientation. Most scholars now see return migration as a constant part of the migration process. Some studies have found that an ongoing counter-current of return migration can have serious implications for the "primary" migration itself. Michael Hanagan's study of internal mobility in southwestern France, for instance, suggests that a shift from seasonal migration to permanent migration helped explain migrants' changing attitudes towards urban life. As opportunities for seasonal migration ebbed, migrants began to see a future for themselves in the city, which ultimately provided a powerful basis for their integration into urban life and working-class politics. This approach has found fertile ground in studies of international migration as well. Mark Wyman's Round Trip to America draws on a large body of work showing how immigrants hoping to return to Europe often brought a radically different orientation than those who intended to stay in the U.S. permanently. Observers ranging from union organizers to religious leaders identified the flightiness of return migrants as potentially detrimental to the local and national well-being. (5)

In an effort to bring some of the insights of the migration studies literature to bear on our understanding of the Great Migration, this article compares the role of return migration in the southern stream to two northern cities: Cincinnati, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana. Cincinnati and Indianapolis were similar destinations in most respects, yet the migrant communities there developed in fundamentally different ways over the course of the twentieth-century. Drawing mostly from the rapidly declining coalfield region of southeastern Kentucky, Cincinnati's southern white migrants had a reputation for staying in the North. Indianapolis's southern migrants, who largely came from the more prosperous regions of western Kentucky and Tennessee, had a reputation for transience. Together, the different migration streams to these two otherwise similar mid-western cities provide an almost ideal setting for exploring the effects of return migration on migrant adjustment in the North. Ultimately, the comparison suggests that a regular stream of return migration did indeed have a significant impact on all migrants' experiences, both on those who would return to the South and those who remained in the North.

The story of southern white migrants has something to offer back to the larger literature on worldwide migrations as well. Return migration is almost taken to be a constant in the broader migration studies literature. There are certainly known instances of mass migrations with very little return movement, particularly when potential return migrants feared social or political persecution back home, or when the costs of return were simply too great. But southern white out-migrants did not have to cross international borders, they did not have to travel long distances, they did not face discrimination at home, and most were not in extreme poverty. Even in this relatively unencumbered stream, the return migration of southern whites was highly variable from one northern city to another, and with great consequences for the migrants themselves. By investigating the causes and impact of variable rates of return migration within such an apparently homogeneous and fluid migrant stream, this article also brings the experiences of southern whites during the Great Migration to bear on the broader migration studies literature. The experiences of twentieth-century southerners suggest that return migration was vitally important not only when it was present, but also when it was conspicuously absent.

Broad Patterns in Southern White Return Migration

Southern whites certainly had a reputation for transience even during the mid-twentieth century peak of southern out-migration. A joke said to have been popular in Ohio suggested that St. Peter needed to tie heaven-bound southern white migrants to the Pearly Gates--that was the only way he could keep them from driving back to Kentucky for the weekend. (6) Interviewed in the early 1950s, a personnel director from an Indianapolis auto transmission plant identified a pattern that many others would note over the years, stating,
 My impression is that the southerners view it as a temporary
 thing.... We get a much higher turnover of southern whites than any
 other group. They work for a while and then go back to the farm....
 When I get a man from Kentucky and he says that he has a family and
 that they are staying with a sister or someone, I tell him I'm sorry
 that I don't have anything for him. I can be pretty sure that he'll
 get homesick and frustrated and leave after a while. (7)

A resident of an Indianapolis westside neighborhood where many southerners lived put it even more succinctly: "they never stay ... they're never here more than a year." Echoed by numerous employers, neighbors and community leaders, this view of southern whites as in constant motion was pervasive throughout the mid-twentieth century North.

Of course, locals often have unfavorable things to say about migrants, so their comments must always be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of southern whites, however, there is some truth to the stereotype of the highly mobile migrant. From 1935 to the present, the U.S. census offers some broad indication of the rates of return migration during the southern exodus. During each of the 1940-1990 censuses, respondents were asked where they lived 5 years before the census (except in 1950, when the census asked where people lived 1 year before, in 1949). Using this data, it is possible to identify return migrants as southern-born persons who lived outside of the South 5 years prior to the census but lived in the South at the time of the census. Figure 1 gives a sense of the long-term trends in return migration from the North and West. Taking return migrants as a proportion of all southern-born whites living outside the South 5 years prior to each census, Figure 1 shows southern white and black rates of return migration between 1935-1990. (8) In contrast with southern black patterns, southern white rates of return migration were as high at the peak of the out-migration as they were during the reversal of the 1970s and 1980s. Southern white return migration rates were thus not only relatively high, but also they were clearly on the rise long before the southern out-migration came to an end.

It is important to keep in mind that the rates of return displayed in Figure 1 represent not only a crude measure, but a very conservative one. In 1970, for instance, Figure 1 reports that about 12% of southern-born whites living outside the South in 1965 had returned to the South. Southerners who had left the South after 1965 and returned before 1970 are not included in this estimate, even though they were recent return migrants living in the South in 1970. Furthermore, many migrants who lived outside the South in 1965 probably returned after 1970, so these data are by no means a measure of overall are return for the entire cohort of migrants living in the North in 1965. Finally, it is important to remember that twentieth-century census data permit only a 5-year snapshot of patterns in return migration. If the rate of return migration stayed relatively constant over the 1960-1970 decade, for instance, then the decade-long rate of return migration for those living outside the South in 1960 was probably closer to 20-25%. For the reasons specified above, even this figure would provide only a very conservative cohort measure.

Census data from 1965-70, when both the primary migration and the return migration were peaking, reveal that the return migrants were by and large a young and prosperous group. Of all southern-born white adults living in the North in 1965, those who would return to the South by 1970 had a median age that was 9 years younger than those who would stay in the North. This is not to suggest that the returners were simply unattached and restless. In fact, just over three-quarters of adult returners and northern stayers alike were married and living with spouses in 1970. (9) Compared to those who stayed in the North, the returners had also done quite well economically. Utilizing a special question in the 1970 census asking respondents about their occupations in 1965, Table 1 compares return migrants' and staying migrants' occupations before any of them moved back to the South. Of all southern-born white men living in the North in 1965, those who would return to the South were generally in higher status occupations than other southerners who would remain in the North. As Table 1 shows, 38% of adult male returners worked in professional, technical, clerical, or sales jobs in the North before returning to the South after 1965, compared with only 29% of the northern stayers. Returning women were similarly clustered in these fields, with 62% of returners and only 52% of stayers working in white collar occupations. The fact that return migrants were younger and more skilled than those who remained in the North underscores the findings of recent studies arguing that southern whites did very well in the North relative to native northerners. Southern white migrants as a whole showed very high occupational distributions in the North despite the fact that a skilled and professionally-oriented subgroup among them were consistently returning home. (10)


The larger issue lurking beneath this portrait of the young and skilled return migrant is that migrants from some areas--generally areas not enjoying the mid-twentieth century Sunbelt growth--were simply much less likely than other southerners to return to the South. The 1950s and 1960s saw increasing numbers of southern whites leaving the most impoverished regions of Appalachian Kentucky and West Virginia. These migrants were less prepared for the northward move, they achieved less economically in the North, and they had fewer opportunities to return home than did those leaving more prosperous regions. (11) A comparison of the birthplaces of those who stayed in the North versus the birthplaces of those who returned to the South reveals that migrants from Kentucky and West Virginia were significantly under-represented in the return migration. While 40% of southern whites who stayed in the North from 1965-1970 were born in Kentucky or West Virginia, only a quarter of southerners returning during this period were born in these two states. (12) Even the Kentuckians and West Virginians who did return to the South often went elsewhere, and almost none of the return migrants born in states other than Kentucky or West Virginia moved to these two states. (13) Return migrants' strong bias against Kentucky and West Virginia is particularly striking in light of the fact that these states were so close to the North. A return move to these areas would seem to be a fairly straightforward matter. The under-representation of upper-South natives in the return migration is indicative of the larger point that, on the whole, southerners from economically depressed areas were much less likely to return home than were those from newly prosperous areas.

Variable rates of return migration across the South take on a particularly profound meaning when one considers that most northern areas drew migration streams rooted in specific southern states. Migrants moving to eastern cities tended to come from the southern coastal states. Those moving to cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana tended to come from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Those moving to Michigan and Illinois tended to come from the southwest. Because migrants from some southern areas were less likely to return to the South than others, the relative permanence of southern white migration streams varied significantly from one northern state to another. Differential rates of return across the South thus often had a curious result: some northern cities received relatively poor and permanent streams while other cities had streams that were better off yet more transient. During the heyday of the southern white out-migration in the 1950s and 1960s, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana exemplified these divergent patterns.

There and Back: The Case of Two Northern Cities

In most ways, Cincinnati and Indianapolis were very similar migrant destinations. The cities are close to one another (they are about 115 miles apart), and both are very close to the South. Cincinnati and Indianapolis were also similarly sized cities during the twentieth century. In 1920, Indianapolis's population numbered about 315,000, rising to about 440,000 by 1970. Cincinnati's 1920 population was about 400,000, and had risen to about 460,000 by 1970. (14) Neither city had been a major destination for the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century "new immigration" from southern and eastern Europe; foreign-born persons made up 10% of the population in Cincinnati and only 5% of the population in Indianapolis in 1920. (15) Yet the two cities both had strong manufacturing economies with a consistently high demand for southern labor during the post-World War II period. Southern whites in particular went to both cities in large numbers. By 1970, both cities were about 20% southern-born, and about 70% of the southern migrants to both cities were whites. In addition to having the whitest overall southern migrant stream, Cincinnati and Indianapolis were in the paradoxical position of having the highest proportions of African-Americans of any midwestern cities through World War II; even through the 1970s the cities always remained near the top of this list. (16) In these ways, Cincinnati and Indianapolis had gone a path that put them at one end of the spectrum of twentieth-century migrations to northern and midwestern cities. The cities were particularly southern, the southerners in the cities were particularly white, yet African-Americans were present in proportionately equal or higher numbers than they were anywhere else in the region. In short, these two cities were as southern as any two northern cities would ever be.

Given all these similarities, the differences in how migrant communities developed in the two cities was startling. For both blacks and whites alike, Cincinnati was the portrait of successful migrant organizing. Southern whites in Cincinnati were extremely politically active, with interest groups and a political visibility unrivalled throughout the North. As in many cities, the migrants frequented certain churches, bars, and factories. But in Cincinnati, the southerners developed vibrant self-help organizations and even migrant-based activist groups, several of which exist to this day. Taking cues from southern African-American organizers, southern whites in Cincinnati fought for specialized schools, community outreach programs, and ultimately gained fully-recognized minority status by the city--no small feat in the heady days of the early Civil Rights Movement. In Indianapolis, on the other hand, southern whites seemed to be invisible in almost every way. Despite their numbers, southerners were a non-issue in local politics. Migrant organizers from other cities occasionally tried to rally the troops in Indianapolis, but always to no avail. (17)

There were a number of reasons for these differences between the two cities. For one, the political cultures of the two cities had been different over the years. Cincinnati had a long history of migrant organizing. After international immigrants and African-Americans had so ably laid a firm groundwork, it was not entirely surprising that southern whites would assume the mantle of the newest ethnic group. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, Cincinnati's nascent southern white community often explicitly modeled their goals and techniques on the standard set by the local African-American community. Southern white migrants in Indianapolis did not have such a rich tradition to draw upon. In Indianapolis, frequently referred to by early-twentieth century boosters as "the 100% American City," strong ethnic group formation had never been a particularly prominent part of local political culture. African-American migrants in particular had always fought an uphill battle there. In the mid-1920s, Indianapolis was literally run by Ku Klux Klansmen. Nevertheless, local African-Americans did make many important gains in post-war Indianapolis. But they did so in fits and starts, constantly fighting a defensive battle against more conservative elements in the community and a particularly non-receptive city government. The two cities' divergent political cultures certainly played a role in southern white migrants' organizing experiences. (18)

The difference in the development of the two cities' migrant communities was not only about politics; it was also about migration patterns. Most of Indianapolis's migrants came from an area of western Kentucky and Tennessee marked by its economic growth in the 1950-1970 period. The main sending regions of the Indianapolis migration were going through an urbanization that was typical throughout the South. The key sending towns in the Indianapolis migration had major population gains in the 1960-70 period. (19) On the whole, people in these areas left their homes not because of a general economic decline, but because of a specific decline in farming opportunities. In many cases, migrants leaving rural areas surrounding these towns could simply move to the nearby town and seek new opportunities there. Moving far away to a larger city such as Indianapolis was a possibility, but it was often one among many. Cincinnati-bound migrants from the Appalachian coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, on the other hand, had almost no opportunities nearby. The most represented hometowns among Cincinnati migrants saw massive population losses in the mid-twentieth century; sometimes towns disappeared altogether. (20) Southerners in Cincinnati could go home to visit--and they did so with remarkable frequency--but the southeastern Kentucky coalfields they had come from offered virtually no jobs and no permanent future during the 1950s and 1960s.

Focusing only on Kentucky, Figures 2 and 3 show what this difference meant in terms of relative rates of return migration to western Kentucky and eastern Kentucky points-of-origin. For the years 1955-60 and 1965-70, respectively, Figures 2 and 3 show rates of "flux" between Kentucky sub-regions and the North; that is, migrants who came from the North as a proportion of migrants who went to the North. Flux rates of 131% in western Kentucky mean that about one-third more people were moving from the North to this area than were moving from this area to the North. Flux rates of 49% in southeastern Kentucky mean that about two people were leaving this region for the North for every one who came there from the North. On the whole, these rates of flux suggest much higher rates of return migration to the prosperous regions of western Kentucky (which fed the migration to Indianapolis) and much lower rates of return migration to the Appalachian coalfields of eastern Kentucky (which fed the migration to Cincinnati).



Understanding the relationship between return moves and migrant community formation in these two cities offers insights on the meaning the return migration that accompanies almost all mass population movements. The voices of local residents and the migrants themselves speak to the salience of these patterns within the two cities. In Indianapolis, everyone seemed to note how transient the migrants were during the 1950s and 1960s. Neighbors, coworkers, employers, and even the migrants themselves pointed it out. One long-term resident of Indianapolis's Stringtown neighborhood (a heavily southern area) said of the southerners in 1976 that,
 they never stay, they're never here more than a year.... It's not like
 they've heard this was a desirable place to live or anything. They
 find cheap rental property, and they come and stay for a while. (21)

An oral history project conducted in 1982 contained similar references. Fairly representative among them were the comments of a resident who described the changing neighborhood in the following terms,
 what we're getting in here now is two things: rednecks and blacks ...
 We have so many hillbillies. This has become a place where they get
 work, and they're very transient, and they don't care for their
 property. (22)

Migration scholars know all too well that locals' views of migrants cannot always be taken at face value. Locals often accuse migrants of upsetting the community, even in cases when the migrants have every intention of staying put in a neighborhood. Even in the best situations, a migrant-dense neighborhood can seem to be a very disorganized place.

What stands out about descriptions of the Indianapolis migrants is not just that the southerners were transient, however, but that there was a particular seasonal pattern to their transience. For instance, one Indianapolis resident questioned in 1976 noted an annual pattern in of southern whites' moves. She said,
 In the last, well, I'd say since the Korean War--since the fifties,
 there have been some hillbillies, and we'd almost count on them....
 They would come in when schools started in Kentucky, which wasn't
 until mid-October and they would leave early for Christmas vacation
 and come back late from Christmas vacation and leave early before
 Memorial Day when school was out in Kentucky. And they came up here
 to work in the winters and they went down there for the summers. (23)

More importantly than any coincidence with the 1950s Kentucky school year, the pattern this observer described corresponds with the peak labor demands of the corn and tobacco harvests of western Kentucky, where most Indianapolis-bound migrants began their journey. Others noted a similarly seasonal pattern to the move. Reverend Karl McClure worked as a pastor in Indianapolis's southeast neighborhoods from the early 1970s through the 1990s, and he also noticed a pattern to southerners' supposed transience. Interviewed in 1995, he recalled,
 When I first started here in '72 there were hordes of people still
 coming into the area.... It was common for these people to consider
 themselves to be Kentuckians or Tennesseans or whatever. As one fellow
 told me one day when I asked him what his occupation was, he says,
 "I'm a farmer," and I chuckled and I said "right here in the middle of
 Indianapolis?," and he says, "no in Kentucky." ... I said "what do
 your raise?" and he said "oh, a little tobacco, corn, hogs, a few
 chickens." And the longer he talked, the more I realized that this guy
 farms on the weekend, has a neighbor who lives in Kentucky and looks
 after whatever has to be done in the in between times. And when Friday
 evening comes he's headed for Kentucky, and comes back here late
 Sunday night or early Monday morning, and he can't wait to get back to
 farming. He had a good job at International Harvester. He lived where
 he could get a room by the week, and he was doing what he had to do to
 make enough to live, but farming was his occupation. And that was true
 of an awful lot of them. (24)

In this way, the apparent transience of white southerners in Indianapolis was in many cases quite the opposite: migrants' frequent movement into and out of Indianapolis resulted from an over-riding desire to stay "rooted" down in Kentucky.

Co-workers and employers noted the same pattern of the Indianapolis migrants. Lawrence Brookins, an African-American migrant who worked in Indianapolis's Union Carbide plant in the 1950s remembered how,
 The blacks were, they made the money, but the problem was that a lot
 of those people that were there were farmers. So, what they could do,
 they could take off during the spring of the year and plant their
 crops, and then take off in fall to harvest the crops ... they were
 white men. (25)

Brookins was not simply making an idle observation. In the same interview he went on to explain how the white farmers were not only allowed to leave and return every season--they were allowed to do so while retaining full seniority. Southern whites' tendency to come and go as they please was also troubling to managers. Transiency represented lost training costs, and many employers were quick to associate transiency with rural southerners. This seems to have been particularly true in Indianapolis, where numerous observers noted the high likelihood that southern white migrants would leave the city and return home to Kentucky and Tennessee farms for good. A manager from an Indianapolis rubber products recalled of southern whites how,
 they're apt to leave if anyone gets sick back in Tennessee, or if the
 weather gets nice they want to take off and go fishing. They aren't
 quite as reliable. If I find out a guy is from Kentucky, the first
 thing I ask him is whether he has come up here alone or whether he has
 kin or friends in town. If he comes up here alone it's a good bet he
 won't stay six months. I just won't hire a man like that because he
 won't stay. He gets lonely and homesick up here and first thing you
 know he's gone. (26)

Furthermore, it was not just those who resented the migrants who noticed the seasonal pattern to their movement. Sympathetic observers noticed, too. A document produced by a local southside community organization in 1974 tellingly read, "unsatisfied with the homes in which they lived or with the jobs they could find, many moved from one area of the city to another, or back and forth ... to their old home in the hills ... Such transiency has made it difficult for a family to identify itself with a neighborhood and to make it a home." (27) In this way, the transience of the southern white population in Indianapolis helps explain why migrants never organized the way they did in other midwestern cities such as Cincinnati.

The southern white move to Cincinnati took on a very different tone. The tendency of southern white migrants to move to Cincinnati and stay there was evident to migrants and locals alike. In great contrast with factory foremen and managers in Indianapolis, for instance, one personnel manager from a Cincinnati furniture company even pointed to southern migrants' ability to stay put and hold a job as one of their strengths as employees. Interviewed in 1975, he recalled, "our attrition rate was next to nothing with the Appalachians. At one point we had as many as one-third of our people who couldn't read or write. Where else could they get a job?" (28) Evidently he did not share the Indianapolis personnel managers' concerns about southern employees moving back to their homes in Kentucky.

The relatively low rates of return to Appalachian areas such as southeastern Kentucky conditioned the Cincinnati-bound migrants' perceptions of both their new homes in the North as well as their old homes in Kentucky. Many migrants from the eastern Kentucky coalfields recalled how their hometowns seemed abandoned, or literally longer existed in any sense. Jerrald Robertson moved to Cincinnati from Webb's Crossroads, Kentucky in the late 1940s. He said of his home that,
 I was born in a two room, I guess you'd call it a shack.... Ten years
 afterwards I was there and looked at it and had a hard time believing
 anyone had ever lived there. (29)

Will Pennington had a similarly bittersweet homecoming experience in the 1960s. Pennington was originally from the small farming and coal-mining town of Hooker, Kentucky, six miles from the town of Manchester. He moved to Cincinnati in 1953. Questioned in his Cincinnati home in 1975, he stated,
 I was actually born in a log cabin. And that cabin was standing until
 about six years ago, when they came in there and strip-mined the area
 and the leveled it all. You wouldn't even recognize where I lived.
 They completely leveled it off and it's a big old bottom.... They just
 filled everything up. (30)

Hilton Garrett, a former coal miner, recalled how the southeastern Kentucky town of Wheelwright had changed over the years when he was interviewed in 1974,
 at one time, we had just about everything here that they could have
 back in these coal fields. We had filling stations, we had shoe shops,
 we had the fountain over there, big bath house right down there. Now
 we ain't got none of that. Now it's altogether different.... A
 youngster grows up here, has got to go somewhere. There's nothing
 left. Whenever they pulled that railroad out, they pulled that track
 out. And when they moved that tipple and converted this mine, when
 they handed over to this machine work, it's been going down ever
 since. Just like them other coal camps down here. Right Beaver,
 Wayland, and Garrett, you know. Jenkins was the same way. All the coal
 camps has gone down. (31)

Of the Floyd County towns listed here, only Wheelwright and Garrett were even recognized as "places" by the Census Bureau in 1990 (a "place" is the Census Bureau's most inclusive definition of any type of settlement). At that time neither was large enough to be considered a town.

The history of these four towns the miner mentioned, all on a branch line of the C & O Railroad, is illustrative of the rise and fall of many small coal towns in southeastern Kentucky. All the towns show up on the census books for the first time between 1900-1920, at which time their populations ranged from 506 in Wheelwright to 1,362 in Wayland. The next three decades were good to these towns. Wayland's population peaked at 2,436 in 1930, when its population had even surpassed that of Prestonsburg, the county seat, which was more than one-hundred years old at that time. Wheelwright's population crested at 2,027 in 1940 and held steady there through 1950. Between 1950 and 1970, however, the coal-mining jobs left these towns as abruptly as they had arrived several decades before. Between 1960 and 1970 alone, Wheelwright's population decreased by 48%; Wayland's population decreased by 71%. The Floyd county town of Beaver no longer existed in any sense. (32)

Many southerners in Cincinnati came to share this common background that on the one hand represented a passionate point of heritage and identity, but on the other hand was a place to which they stood very little chance of returning for good, except perhaps upon retirement. Becky Sebastian moved to Cincinnati from Breathitt County, Kentucky, in the 1950s. Looking back on her family's move, she remembered, "It wouldn't have been a question--if my dad could have made a living in Breathitt County, we would never have left." (33) Bill Herald, another Breathitt County migrant who left for Cincinnati in the early 1960s stated,
 I think if I could have gone to Jackson [the largest town in
 Breathitt County] and got a job and made a living, I probably--well--
 it's hard for me to even visualize, because it wasn't there, and you
 knew it wasn't going to be there. It never really entered my mind.
 But I knew I could come here and have something more than I had at
 home. I knew I couldn't have nothing there, no matter how hard I
 worked. You got out of grade school and headed north. It was kind of
 like you couldn't wait to get old enough to get a job. You was looking
 for the job, nothing else. It didn't really matter too much where you
 went. (34)

In this way, many southeastern Kentuckians' move to Cincinnati was comparable to other southerners' local moves to nearby towns and cities in the South--it was a necessary first step away from rural life.

People did stay in southeastern Kentucky, of course, and some were part of the small counterstream back to the area. Jerrald Robertson's family briefly moved back to southeastern Kentucky in the late 1950s. After several years in Cincinnati, Robertson remembered how,
 my dad decided he was going to move back to Kentucky, which we did for
 about a year, and I had the experience of attending a one-room
 schoolhouse.... We lived in my grandparents' old house, which was not
 modern--we didn't have running water, didn't have electricity.

They returned to Cincinnati after only a year. Robertson recalled that, "Looking back I kind of wonder why they left Kentucky after just a year.... I guess my mother must've kind of convinced him, because he couldn't make a living there I'm sure." (35)

Even when migrants realized that there was no reliable way to make a living back home, many planned an ultimate return for retirement. Frances Martin and her husband moved to Cincinnati from the coal-mining town of Williamsburg, Kentucky in 1951. Reflecting on her move, she stated,
 Well, I didn't like it, but we found work here. If I wasn't working
 here I'd be right down in the country where my mother is.... Yeah, to
 me that's my home. If I stay able to work and I retire I'll probably
 go back there and make it my home. (36)

Charlene Ledbetter Dalton moved from Harlan, Kentucky in 1948, and in 1995 she was still plotting an eventual return for herself and her husband Ray (a Jackson County native),
 Ray is younger than I am, but I know that's his dream to go back and
 to have a place there. He really loves it there. He was raised there.
 And his reason for coming here was the same reason as my family's, in
 a way, you know, work, lack of work. We go down, and there's a lack of
 work there yet. And there's still houses that need rebuilt. There's
 houses, believe it or not, that you still have to haul water to. My
 life is here, my kids, all but one, are here. But yeah, there'll be a
 day when I'll go back. It won't be to Harlan, it'll probably be
 Jackson County.

Even after almost five decades in Cincinnati, Dalton believed she and many like her would eventually return. In her words, "most Kentucky people want to go back, because they've got something nobody else has." (37)


The history of the southern white migration to Cincinnati and Indianapolis reveals much about the meaning of return migration in the larger southern exodus. The Great Migration contained a strong and significant counterstream long before the heralded turnaround of the 1970s, particularly for southern whites. The return movers were relatively well-off, and their southern destinations were reflective of an ambitious group targeting the more prosperous areas of the South. While southern whites as a whole had a very high rate of return, the return migration was far from uniform across the North. Drawing on southerners from a particularly prosperous area, the migrant stream to Indianapolis was characterized by a fluidity that the migration studies literature suggests was common among internal migrations. Southern white migrants to Cincinnati, on the other hand, came from one of the most impoverished areas in the nation. As such, Cincinnati's southern whites displayed a tendency to stay put, largely choosing life in the North over a highly questionable economic future at home.

The case of return migrants in the Great Migration also speaks to the more general relationship between return migration and community formation. Even in a relatively short-distance internal movement such as the Great Migration, the incidence and impact of return migration were highly variable. As is often the case, migration streams in the Great Migration were localized, and some home regions had a stronger pull on potential return migrants than others. Future studies should be cautious about characterizing the frequency of return among particular migrant groups. Rather than a broad cultural characteristic that can be ascribed to entire ethnic or national groups, the tendency towards return migration is best understood in terms of a particular localized migration stream.

Finally, the case of the Great Migration affirms that patterns in return migration have real implications for all migrants' lives. In 1973, as the Great Migration was beginning to wane, the Cincinnati City Council voted to include "Appalachians" as a protected group on par with women and African-Americans in all internal affirmative action documents and policies. Following the lead of the local African-American community (which was largely southern too), numerous Appalachian-based organizations contributed to this broad-based effort. As recently as 1992, the Cincinnati City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations "based on race, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, Appalachian origin or disability." (38) While Cincinnati's southern migrants drew on their common sense of exile to build a vocal migrant community, similar groups and ordinances were unheard of in Indianapolis. As the two cases together make clear, however, Indianapolis's low degree of formal community development should not be seen as a failure of the migrants to organize. Understood in terms of the patterns followed by so many of Indianapolis's southern migrants, the lack of community made good sense. Many of the Indianapolis migrants were working hard to maintain ties and put down roots at home. The difference was that, for them, "home" was in the South.
Table 1 Occupational distribution of southern-born whites aged 18-60
living outside the South in 1965, by future return migration status and

 Would remain Would move
 outside the back to the
 South in 1970 South by 1970

Occupation in 1965
Professional/technical 19% 27%
Clerical/sales 10% 11%
Blue collar 63% 54%
Service/farm 8% 7%

Total 100% 100%
(N) (8,437) (783)

 Would remain Would move
 outside the back to the
 South in 1970 South by 1970

Occupation in 1965
Professional/technical 17% 26%
Clerical/sales 35% 36%
Blue collar 28% 18%
Service/farm 20% 21%

Total 100% 100%
(N) (4,199) (393)

Source: Integrated Public Use Microdata Series files (IPUMS), 1970 Form
1 State sample.
Note: Occupational categories derived from the IPUMS OCC5YR95 variable
("Occupation 5 years ago, 1950 basis)


This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (SES 0317254 and SES 9711863). I am extremely grateful to Don Corathers and Malcolm Wilson for providing me with transcripts of interviews they conducted for the Urban Appalachian Council's "Perceptions of Home" traveling exhibit. Thanks also to Jason Digman, Tom Maloney, Leslie Page Moch, Peter Stearns, and David Wolcott for their helpful suggestions and comments on earlier drafts of this article.

1. Throughout this paper 1 use "South" to refer to the census-defined region consisting of 17 southern states. "North" refers to 21 states in the census-defined Northern and Midwestern regions. "West" refers to the 13 states in the census-defined Western region. Statistics on net southern out-migration are from U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Bicentennial Edition (Washington, DC, 1975), 95. Data on southern-born persons living outside the South were generated from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) database. The IPUMS is a harmonized series of samples from the manuscript returns of the United States census from 1850 to 2000. All IPUMS data and documentation are available free from the University of Minnesota's Population Center at

2. For research on southern return migration from the 1970s onward, see Rex R. Campbell, Daniel M. Johnson, and Gary Stangler, "Return migration of black people to the South," Rural Sociology 39 (1974): 514-28; John Cromartie and Carol B. Stack, "Reinterpretation of black return and non-return migration to the South, 1975-1980," Geographical Review 79 (1989): 297-310; Anne S. Lee, "Return Migration in the United States," International Migration Review 8 (1974): 283-300; Kevin McHugh, "Black Migration Reversal in the United States," Geographical Review 7 (1987): 171-82; Larry H. Long and K. A. Hansen, "Trends in return migration to the South," Demography 12 (1975): 601-14; Issac Robinson, "Blacks move back to the South," American Demographics 8 (1986): 40-3; and Carole Stack, Call to Home: African-Americans Reclaim the Rural South (New York, 1996).

3. One notable exception is Robert Adelman, Christopher R. Morett, and Stewart E. Tolnay, "Homeward bound: the return migration of southern-born black women, 1940 to 1990," Sociological Spectrum 20 (2000): 433-63. Adelman, Morett, and Tolnay provide an excellent regional-level overview of southern black and white women's patterns in return migration between 1940 and 1990.

4. See Leslie Page Moch, "The Importance of Mundane Movements: Small Towns, Nearby Places, and Individual Itineraries in the History of Migration," pp. 97-117 in Philip E. Ogden and Paul E. White, eds., Migrants in Modern France: Population Mobility in the Later Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London and Boston, 1989). For more general discussions of recent trends in migration studies, see Leslie Page Moch, Moving Europeans: Migration in Western Europe Since 1650, 2nd edition (Bloomington, 2003); Steve Hochstadt, Mobility and Modernity: Migration in Germany, 1820-1989 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1999); Dirk Hoerder and Leslie Page Moch, eds., European Migrants: Global and Local Perspectives (Boston, 1996); and Dirk Hoerder, Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium (Durham, NC, 2002).

5. Michael Hanagan, Nascent Proletarians: Class Formation in Post-Revolutionary France (New York and Oxford, England, 1989); and Mark Wyman, Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 (Ithaca and London, 1993).

6. See Clyde B. McCoy and Virginia McCoy Watkins, "Stereotypes of Appalachian Migrants," pp. 21-31 in William W. Philliber and Clyde B. McCoy, eds., with Harry C. Dillingham, The Invisible Minority: Urban Appalachians (Lexington, 1981), 21.

7. Quoted in Eldon Dee Smith, "Migration and Adjustment Experiences of Rural Migrant Workers in Indianapolis," (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1953), 204.

8. These rates of return migration were calculated by taking the number of southern-born return migrants as a proportion of the estimated number of southern-born persons living outside the South every ten years from 1935-1985. In 1965, for example, I estimated that 6,907,000 southern-born whites lived outside the South. I arrived at this number by averaging the number of southern-born outmigrants reported in the IPUMS 1960 1% sample and the 1% 1970 Form 2 State sample. I then used 1970 data to determine that approximately 813,000 of these individuals, or 12% of the total, had returned to the South between 1965-1970.

9. The median age of non-returning southern migrants in the North aged 18 and up was 43 (N = 27,599), while the median age of return migrants aged 18 and up was 34 (N = 3,229). For both groups, 76% of all adults were married and living with a spouse. Source: IPUMS 1970 Form 1 State sample.

10. For discussions of the economic successes of southern white migrants in the North, see Chad Berry, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles (Urbana and Chicago, 2000); and James N. Gregory, "The Southern Diaspora and Urban Dispossessed," Journal of American History (June 1995): 111-134.

11. The fate of Appalachian migrants in the North has been the subject of much debate. A flurry of sociological work in the 1970s and 1980s argued that southern Appalachian migrants encountered extreme hardship in the North. More recent work focusing on southern white out-migration as a whole has downplayed the story of southern whites' economic difficulties in the North, while accepting the point that migrants from southern Appalachia probably fared worse than other southern white migrants. For early sociological works on Appalachian migrants in the North, Kathryn M. Borman and Phillip J. Obermiller, From Mountain to Metropolis: Appalachian Migrants in American Cities (Westport, CT, 1994); Philliber and McCoy, The Invisible Minority; William W. Philliber, Appalachian Migrants in Urban America: Cultural Conflict or Ethnic Group Formation? (New York, 1981). For more recent considerations of this literature, see Berry, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles; and Gregory, "Southern Diaspora and Urban Dispossessed"; Phillip J. Obermiller, Thomas E. Wagner, and E. Bruce Tucker, eds., Appalachian Odyssey: Historical Perspectives on the Great Migration (Westport, CT and London, 2000); Trent Alexander, "Great Migrations: Race and Community in the Southern Exodus, 1917-1970," (Ph.D. diss., Carnegie Mellon University, 2001); and Trent Alexander and Jason Digman, "Just Another Immigrant Group?: The Occupational Experiences of Southern White Migrants in the North, 1870-1980," Working Paper, Minnesota Population Center, 2003.

12. Kentucky and West Virginia were by far the most common states of birth of southern migrants remaining in the North from 1965-1970: 25% of the total were from Kentucky (N = 7,446), and 15% of the total were from West Virginia (N = 4,270). (The total sample size for all southern-born whites remaining in the North from 1965-1970 was 29,579.) Just under a quarter of the southern-born whites returning to the South between 1965-1970 were born in Kentucky or West Virginia (N = 851 out of a total of 3,498 returners in the sample). Source: IPUMS 1970 Form 1 State sample.

13. Just over half of southern-born persons moving from the North to the South between 1965-1970 moved to southern states in which they were born (N = 1,827 for those returning to their state of birth; N = 1,670 for those moving to a southern states in which they were not born). Among the Kentucky-born return migrants, 62% returned to Kentucky (N = 315 of 505 total KY-born returners). Among the West Virginia-born return migrants, 44% returned to West Virginia (N = 151 of 346 total WV-born returners). Only 3% of return migrants born in southern states other than Kentucky or West Virginia moved to Kentucky or West Virginia (N = 75 of a total sample size of 2,646 return migrants born in states other than Kentucky and West Virginia). Source: IPUMS 1970 Form 1 State sample.

14. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, Volume II, Population (Washington, DC, 1921), 618-680; and U.S. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Census of the Population: 1970. Characteristics of the Population, Volume 1. U.S. Summary, Section I (Washington, DC, 1973) 1:195, 1:198. I have based Indianapolis's 1970 population on its 1960 area, so that the area of both cities can be considered constant between 1920 and 1970. In the late 1960s, Indianapolis annexed most of the surrounding county, which added about 306,000 people to the city's population. Including those newly annexed areas, Indianapolis's 1970 population was 792,229. The 1970 metropolitan areas of Cincinnati and Indianapolis were similar sizes, too. Cincinnati's SMSA population numbered 1,384,851 at that time, and Indianapolis's SMSA population was 1,109,882 (see above volume, p. 1:120).

15. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, Volume II, Population (Washington, DC, 1921), 618-680.

16. Data on southern-born migrants as a proportion of the populations of Cincinnati and Indianapolis from U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, Volume II, Population (Washington, DC, 1921), 618-680; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States, Population, General Report, Statistics by Subjects (Washington, DC, 1935), 144-221; and U.S. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Census of the Population: 1960. Subject Reports. State of Birth. State of Residence in 1960 and State of Birth of the Native Population by Age, Color, and Sex (Washington, DC, 1962), 19-54, 171-177.

17. For a more thorough comparison of southern white and African-American efforts at community-building in the two cities, see Alexander, "Great Migrations." For discussions of the development of southern white migrant organizations in the Midwest, see Berry, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles, 180-194; Phillip J. Obermiller and Thomas E. Wagner, "Cincinnati's 'Second Minority': The Emergence of Appalachian Advocacy, 1953-1973," pp. 193-214 in Obermiller, Wagner, and Tucker, eds., Appalachian Odyssey; Bruce Tucker, "Toward a New Ethnicity: Urban Appalachian Ethnic Consciousness in Cincinnati, 1950-87," pp. 225-247 in Henry D. Shapiro and Jonathan D. Sarna, eds., Ethnic Diversity and Civic Identity: Patterns of Conflict and Cohesion in Cincinnati Since 1820 (Urbana, 1992); Thomas E. Wagner and Phillip J. Obermiller, "Going Home Without the Trip: Appalachian Migrant Organizations," pp. 215-230 in Obermiller, Wagner, and Tucker, eds., Appalachian Odyssey; Thomas E. Wagner and Phillip J. Obermiller, Valuing Our Past, Creating Our Future: The Founding of the Urban Appalachian Council (Berea, KY, 1999).

18. Richard B. Pierce's study of African-American life in Indianapolis argues that blacks' efforts at reform there usually took place "beneath the surface." He found that local organizations generally arose to address the problems that nationally-based organizations might have addressed in other cities, and their stances were often relatively conservative and conciliatory. As Pierce argued, progress in Indianapolis "was not a conflict which transpired on the streets or was heard over a bullhorn." See Richard B. Pierce, "Beneath the Surface: African-American Community Life in Indianapolis, 1945-1970," (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1996), 7-8, 23. For a history of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, see Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (Chapel Hill and London, 1991). A comparison of southern migrants' political activities in Cincinnati and Indianapolis is explored in more detail in Alexander, "Great Migrations."

19. The main sending towns in the migration to Indianapolis, all in western Kentucky, were Somerset, Bowling Green, Glasgow, Scottsville, and Franklin. Glasgow's and Scottsville's populations increased by about 10% during the 1960s; Franklin's population increased 16%; Bowling Green's increased 28%; and Somerset's population increased by 47% between 1960-1970. I determined the specific town origins of southern white migrants in Cincinnati and Indianapolis through an analysis of migrants' marriage record applications from Marion county, Indiana and Hamilton county, Ohio in 1970. In each city, I drew a random sample of 300 southern-born white applicants for marriage licenses. Unlike census data, these records reveal the specific town and county where migrants were born, thus permitting the more detailed point-of-origin analysis necessary for this article. For a discussion of representativeness and reliability of marriage record samples, see Alexander, "Great Migrations"; and Trent Alexander, "The Great Migration in Comparative Perspective: Interpreting the Urban Origins of Southern Black Migrants to Pittsburgh," Social Science History 22 (Fall 1998): 349-376. Kentucky town population data for 1960-70 from U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1970 Census of Population, Volume 1: Characteristics of the Population, Part 19: Kentucky (Washington, DC, 1973), 19:11-19:13.

20. Ibid. The main sending towns in the southern white migration to Cincinnati were Manchester, Hazard, and Harlan, all in southeastern Kentucky. Between 1940-1970 these towns saw net population losses of 11%, 26%, and 48%, respectively. The counties containing these towns--Clay, Perry, and Harlan--lost 23%, 50%, and 45% of their populations between 1940-1970, with almost all of the declines taking place in the 1950s and 1960s.

21. Tape-recorded interview with Barbara Tapp, by Rich Phelps, March 21, 1976 (Indiana University Oral History Center, People of Stringtown project, Accession # P-76-22).

22. Tape-recorded interview with Winefred Waldo, by Jeannie Harrah-Conforth, Indianapolis, Indiana, November 10, 1983 (Indiana University Oral History Center, People of Indianapolis Project, Accession # 83-48).

23. Tape-recorded interview with Ann Malotte, by Rich Phelps, March 24, 1976 (Indiana University Oral History Research Center, People of Stringtown project, Accession # P-76-30).

24. Tape-recorded interview with Reverend Karl McClure, by Ted Slutz and Tommie Farris, Franklin, Indiana, February 27, 1996 (The POLIS Center's Faith and Community Project, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis).

25. Tape-recorded interview with Lawrence and Mary Brookins, by Richard Pierce, Indianapolis, Indiana, December 5, 1995 (Indiana University Oral History Center, Remembering Indiana in the Twentieth Century, Accession 95-8), transcripts page 14-5. See also Pierce, 200, 212-214.

26. Quoted in Smith, "Migration and Adjustment Experiences," 205.

27. Maude Louvenbeck, The Near-Southside Community: As it Was and As it Is (Indianapolis, 1974), 8-10.

28. Barbara Zigli, "Dream of Moving Up Comes True for Many," Cincinnati Enquirer, 6 May 1981, pp. A1, A6.

29. Tape-recorded interview with Jerrald Robertson, by Don Corathers, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996 (Records of the traveling exhibit "Perceptions of Home: The Urban Appalachian Spirit," Frank Foster Library, Urban Appalachian Council), interview transcripts.

30. Tape-recorded interview with Will Pennington, by Laurel Anderson, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 25, 1975 (Appalachian Oral History Project, Alice Lloyd College Oral History Collection, Accession # 1106).

31. Tape-recorded interview with Hilton Garrett, by Luther Frazier, Wheelwright, KY, August 8, 1973 (Appalachian Oral History Project, Alice Lloyd College Oral History Collection, Accession # 650). Part of this quotation originally appears in Crandall A. Shifflett, Coal Towns: Life, Work, and Culture in Company Towns of Southern Appalachia, 1880-1960 (Knoxville, 1991), 211.

32. For population data for Floyd county towns, see U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, State Compendium: Kentucky (Washington, DC, 1924), 15-22; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States, Population, Volume 1, Number and Distribution of Inhabitants (Washington, DC, 1931), 439-442; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Seventeenth Census of the United States, Volume 2, Part 17, Kentucky (Washington, DC, 1952); and U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1970 Census of Population, Volume 1: Characteristics of the Population, Part A: Number of Inhabitants, Section 1 (Washington, DC, 1972), 19:11-19:13.

33. Tape-recorded interview with Becky Herald, by Don Corathers, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996 (Records of the traveling exhibit "Perceptions of Home: The Urban Appalachian Spirit," Frank Foster Library, Urban Appalachian Council), interview transcripts.

34. Tape-recorded interview with Bill Herald, by Don Corathers, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996 (Records of the traveling exhibit "Perceptions of Home: The Urban Appalachian Spirit," Frank Foster Library, Urban Appalachian Council), interview transcripts.

35. Tape-recorded interview with Jerrald Robertson, by Don Corathers, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996 (Records of the traveling exhibit "Perceptions of Home: The Urban Appalachian Spirit," Frank Foster Library, Urban Appalachian Council), interview transcripts.

36. Tape-recorded interview with Frances Martin, by Don Corathers, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996 (Records of the traveling exhibit "Perceptions of Home: The Urban Appalachian Spirit," Frank Foster Library, Urban Appalachian Council), interview transcripts.

37. Tape-recorded interview with Charlene Ledbetter Dalton, by Don Corathers, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996 (Records of the traveling exhibit "Perceptions of Home: The Urban Appalachian Spirit," Frank Foster Library, Urban Appalachian Council), interview transcripts.

38. For discussions the City Council's 1973 decision, see Appalachian Committee Meeting Minutes, Box 1, Series 1, Files 6, 8, 9, and 14 containing meeting minutes dated 3/15/73, 7/19/93, 10/15/73, and 12/13/73, Frank Foster Library, Urban Appalachian Council, Cincinnati, Ohio. For information on the 1992 initiative, see "Council approves gay-rights ordinance," Cincinnati Enquirer, November 26, 1992, C-1; Allen G. Breed, "Hillbillies no more ... Cincinnati law protects Appalachians from discrimination," Cincinnati Courier-Journal, December 27, 1993, B-3; and Ben L. Kaufman, "Issue 3 on gays survives appeal," Cincinnati Enquirer, February 6, 1998, C-1.

By J. Trent Alexander

Minnesota Population Center, University of Minnesota

537 Heller Hall

271 19th Avenue South

Minneapolis, MN 55455
COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Alexander, J. Trent
Publication:Journal of Social History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Previous Article:'A good beating never hurt anyone': the punishment and abuse of children in twentieth century Ireland.
Next Article:Illegitimacy, inter-generational conflict and legal practice in eighteenth-century northern Burgundy.

Related Articles
'But it is a fine place to make money': migration and African-American families in Cleveland, 1915-1929.
Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration.
Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles. (Reviews).
The declining contribution of socioeconomic disparities to the racial gap in infant mortality rates, 1920-1970.
Black migration in reverse: African Americans are leaving major cities for opportunities in the South.
"'They're never here more than a year': Return Migration in the Southern Exodus, 1940-1970".
"Headed for Louisville:" rethinking rural to urban migration in the South, 1930-1950.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters