Black Lives Matter activists in Port Huron, Michigan. Photo by Alphonso Amos
Black Lives Matter activists in Port Huron, Michigan.

2020 census data shows a population decline in Michigan’s Black communities. One local leader says it’s to find more opportunities in the South. 

PORT HURON, Mich.—In the summer of 2020, at the height of public grief over the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of American law enforcement, a small group gathered near the Raven Cafe to call attention to the tragic and continual trend.

Port Huron isn’t a particularly big or busy Michigan city. It’s a riverside town at the South end of Lake Huron with just under 30,000 residents. It comes in 65th on the list of Michigan cities by population and is the seat of the largely rural St. Clair County. It’s major points of pride are the international border crossing at the Blue Water Bridge and being the birthplace of Thomas Edison, who it must be said, didn’t much care for the town.

Like the river that flows alongside Port Huron, forming the natural border with Canada, the city endures with an importance to trade and commerce outsized for it’s small footprint. And that’s the community whose support the local Black Lives Matter protesters embodied—small, resilient, and essential.

Looking south, though, the leader of Port Huron’s Black Lives Matter, Alphonso Amos, sees evidence of another challenge ahead for Black Michiganders. By extension, those are challenges faced by the culture and experience of Michigan that flows like the river through metro Detroit.

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Amos, former member of Port Huron’s city council and current Black Lives Matter organizer in the city, sees what’s happening in metro Detroit as evidence of what he calls “the reverse migration,” a change in the trend of Black people in America moving north to seek opportunities. 

Now, Amos says, Black people look to places like Georgia to find their futures. 

“A lot of folks are going South because they get access to a lot of companies where folks in Michigan just aren’t getting access to some of these companies,” Amos told The ‘Gander. “Employers are just not hiring a lot of Black and brown folks. So we see that quite a bit, where people are able to go off down south to places like Atlanta and really start building a life for themselves.”

And he sees it both in anecdotes from people he knows and Michigan’s census data.

The Continuing Exodus from Across Michigan

Detroit has felt the reverse migration keenly in 2020. Census data shows that Detroit lost 25,000 Black residents in the 2010s, a part of a long-lasting decline dating back 70 years. While there are likely factors at play beyond the reverse migration, Amos is certain that the flight of Black Michiganders southward is at the heart of the population decline felt from the city’s heart across the sprawling region that is metro Detroit.

While the drive from the Raven Cafe to Detroit is over an hour long, Port Huron is still part of the six counties that make up the northern metropolitan statistical area centered on Detroit. And Port Huron is definitely part of the same statistical trend as Detroit, with the census reporting a decline of 12% in the city’s Black population. 

Amos said the migration can be seen clearly in the 2020 election, where Black votes helped shift the prevailing politics in Georgia. And the new migration is hardly a 2020 anomaly. During just the first decade of the 21st century, Michigan’s Black population fell by more than 37,000, even more than the 2020 census showed.  

The reason for this new reverse migration is the same as the one that brought the original Great Migration to begin with: opportunities. 

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Driven by economic, social, and political opportunity, Black people began moving to cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, and Detroit around the start of World War I. Though northern cities still carried discrimination and exploitation, the Great Migration brought Black constituencies in larger numbers to regions of the country that simply didn’t have many Black voices before. That pattern continued until the 1970s, where it started to shift.

That looks a lot like what’s happening today in Michigan. Across the state from Port Huron and Detroit, former Kalamazoo City Commissioner Stephanie Williams attributes this new migration largely to Michigan lacking in ways Black people can make their living, spurring this reverse migration on.

“Black [people] specifically continue to be locked out from having equitable access to the political process, to owning and sustaining business and property and living free of racism which has a disparate impact on our health and education outcomes,” she told The ‘Gander.  “Michigan needs to lead and be consistently intentional on anti-racism efforts.”

But there are things Michigan can do to stem the tide and entice the Black population whose voices have long been part of the state’s rich culture to remain Michiganders. 

What Makes the South So Alluring in the Reverse Migration

Williams explained the approach Michigan should take in light of new focus on the reverse migration as being “consistently intentional” on issues related to race and inclusion. 

“Michigan needs to lead efforts to dismantle systemic racism and support diversity and inclusion in government, institutions, and private employers,” she said.

Amos says that in recent years, Michigan has been finally stepping up to the plate on those issues but needs to improve it’s swing. 

“We see a lot of traction in the state moving toward helping folks alleviate debt in terms of criminal justice debt to society,” Amos said. “There have been avenues and resources out there for Black-owned businesses through this pandemic, really highlighting what that looked like.”

Lacking intentional, concentrated action means the slow drain of Black talent and voices to cities like Atlanta is likely to continue, said Amos. Especially considering the things that Southern states are offering. 

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“We’re seeing affordable housing, we’re seeing the opportunities in employment, the opportunities to start businesses are a little easier for many people,” Amos said of those that moved southward. “I hear so many people talk about their experiences moving down south and how they were challenged—couldn’t get any jobs outside of manufacturing or low-wage paying jobs here in Michigan; however they moved down south and … really went into corporate America.”

Amos says that Michigan’s government, and in particular Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (D) have done a great job in trying to highlight the ways Black Michiganders are supported, but unfortunately those efforts come in conflict with a long history of intentional actions taken to marginalize the Black population of the state and those efforts have taken root in parts of Michigan society. 

That, he says, is why Michigan must act with intention and purpose. 

Michigan Acting with Intentionality Is What’s Needed Now

But there’s still a lot to do, especially in rural Michigan cities like Port Huron or Kalamazoo. 

“Ultimately, the state just isn’t captivating the folks who need access to decent wage paying jobs,” Amos said. “Michigan definitely needs to focus on creating more of an equitable and resilient economy that works for Black people. And really, be not ashamed to say that it has to build one that also works for Black people.”

And that’s a major crux of where Michigan has stumbled in Amos’ opinion. While addressing issues like poverty, wage stagnation, housing affordability and other important things that work against all Michiganders is important, the effort to address problems faced by everyone ignores those problems specific to a long legacy of racism, discrimination, and slavery that still mark Black experiences in America today. 

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“When you talk about Black people there needs to be some intentionality on how to develop the workforce with Black folks,” he said. “We have to look at offering incentives for companies who get state tax breaks for their hiring practices. We also have to focus on how to help build up Black businesses a lot more, identifying more funding opportunities for those businesses to get grants and receive grants to grow, and then to focus on creating policies that will help to really change the systemic issues that Black people have been plagued with in the state.”

The reason both Williams and Amos have called for intentional action focused on Black issues is because many of those issues were created in the first place through intentional government action. Redlining, for instance, was used to intentionally limit where Black people could live, and through that limit where they could work or go to school. Undoing that legacy simply can’t be accomplished without the same intentionality. That’s because, as Detour Detroit highlighted, redlining is still impacting Black Detroiters today.  

Though, Amos said, there are other things that should be considered when looking at census data. 

Black Communities May Have Counted Differently

There are, of course, other causes for the data not related to people actually moving. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan disputes the census data altogether, claiming that Detroit was seriously undercounted during the tumultuous 2020 census. As Michigan’s largest city, and one with over half a million Black residents, an undercount in Detroit would significantly impact the state’s overall census results.

While Michigan overall had a lot of successes with the 2020 census in spite of the pandemic, Detroit was a hard city to count as Kurt Metzger, founder and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, told Michigan Radio at the time.

“[Detroiters are] not really seeing the federal government as caring one iota about their situation,” Metzger said. “They don’t see the schools really being improved through an infusion of money, they don’t see money coming into their neighborhoods. So it’s that real direct connection between the census and their future, and the city’s future is kind of a difficult concept, and so it really requires people to get out there, people to hear from people they trust.”

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It’s that argument that Duggan has centered his attention on. He’d pledged last year to challenge the census results, and has followed through on that pledge. 

“The census is just factually inaccurate,” Duggan told the New York Times. “It was census malpractice and we’re going to get it reversed.”

Though, as the Times noted, Duggan’s claims have been met with a healthy dose of skepticism. 

Further complicating the issue, as the Black population of Detroit has declined, census data showed the white population increasing, which could be used to both support and oppose Duggan’s argument.

An argument that Amos finds more compelling than the Detroit undercount is the evolving nature of racial identity. 

“As we opened up the different realms of what folks could identify as, we do see a lot more people identifying as multiracial,” Amos said. 

That, too, is supported by the census data. The fastest growing racial demographic in Michigan is multiracial, according to the 2020 census, and overall Michigan is becoming more racially diverse. In Port Huron, the multiracial population nearly doubled over the last decade, though still was small enough that it wasn’t able to account for the city’s entire decline in Black residents. 

Amos also said that young Black people are deciding more often to wait to start families, or foregoing having kids altogether. That’s part of an overall trend in the United States that Amos attributes to financial uncertainty and less social pressure placed on having children.

But despite those factors both likely playing a role, Amos is certain that reverse migration is the central issue exposed in Michigan’s census data and declining Black population. And that migration leaves a lot of questions Amos wants Michiganders to ask.

“How are we investing in local, neighborhood grocery stores so folks aren’t experiencing food deserts? How are we helping uplift the businesses in that community and are those businesses Black-owned and are we reinforcing gentrification?” Amos asked. “All of those things matter.”