By on 8.11.14 in Migration

As I’ve discussed before, North Carolina is an attractive state to both individuals born here and those born elsewhere. The state’s attractiveness stems from a wide range of educational and employment opportunities, coupled with good quality of life and relatively affordable cost-of-living.

North Carolina’s high population growth has been fueled by net migration. Net migration statistics are calculated by subtracting the number of individuals moving away from North Carolina (out-migration) from the number of individuals who moving into the state (in-migration). Thus, there are three elements that can increase net migration levels:

  • Individuals moving here from other states and countries (increases in-migration)
  • NC-born individuals staying in state (decreases out-migration)
  • In-migrants staying in state (decreases out-migration)

While migration is a challenging event to measure, data suggest that all three of these elements play a role in the high levels of migration into the state. Migration, particularly international immigration, increased over the past 30 years, and the rising share of North Carolina residents born elsewhere suggests that a large proportion of in-migrants stay in the state. But, the focus on the growing non-native population—that is, those “damn Yankees” (myself included)—obscures an important fact: the majority of people born in North Carolina still live here.

More importantly, the share of NC-born adults still living in the state has increased: in 2010, 72% of all NC-born adults were still living in the state, the highest level since 1950 (when it was 74%).

The chart below highlights the share of North Carolina born adults—individuals 18 and older—who were living in a different state over the past 160 years. These trends are presented separately for whites and blacks because of the importance of black out-migration from the South during the mid-twentieth century in shaping both Southern states and Northern and Western cities.

NC Born Living in Another State by Race 1850-2010

In 1850, only half of all NC-born adults were living in North Carolina; 51% of NC-born whites and 35% of NC-born blacks were living in a different state. (Though beyond the scope of this blog post, it is important to note that black mobility in the pre- (and post-) Civil War era faced significant constraints.) The top 5 states for NC-born white adults other than North Carolina were Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, and Mississippi; for blacks, the top 5 states were Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, New York, and Wisconsin.

Out-migration of NC-born white residents declined steadily between 1850 and 1880 and remained relatively stable through the early 20th century. In 1920, 77% of NC-born adults were still living in North Carolina; 23% of NC-born adults—21% of white adults and 28% of black adults—were living in a different state.

The Great Migration

The first wave of the Great Migration, a time period spanning nearly sixty years (roughly 1917 to 1975) during which black American citizens migrated from the South to the North, Midwest, and West, is visible in the increase in NC-born black adults living elsewhere in 1930 (32% vs. 28% in 1920). Over this time period, the share of NC-born black adults living in a state other than North Carolina increased steadily, peaking at 44% in 1960 and remaining at this level through 1980. As the table below shows, NC-born blacks who left the state mainly moved north; between 1940 and 1980, New York was the most popular destination. Eleven percent of NC-born black adults—136,000 individuals—were living in New York in 1980.

Top 5 States Other than NC

Since 1980, the proportion of NC-born blacks living outside of the state has steadily declined, reflecting what has been termed the “New Great Migration.” In the past few decades, blacks have returned to the South, pulled by economic growth, improved social conditions, and ancestral connections. Today, 29% of NC-born black adults live in another state, with roughly equal numbers (~55,000) in each of Virginia, Maryland, and New York.

Black Southerners were not the only ones migrating during the 20th century, however. White Southerners, too, moved North and West, though historian James N. Gregory notes that “African Americans and whites left the South for somewhat different reasons, moved in somewhat separate directions, and interacted on very different terms with the places they settled. In most respects, we need to think in terms of two Great Migrations out of the South.”

The share of NC-born white adults living in another state increased after World War II and has held steady since 1960. With the exception of Virginia (and Georgia in 1920 and 2010), the top 5 destinations of white migrants differed from those of black migrants. White migrants were much more likely to stay in the South. Today, 27% of NC-born white adults live in another state: 156,000 live in South Carolina, 131,000 live in Virginia, and 123,000 live in Florida.

Data used in this blog post are from the 1850-2000 decennial census and 2010 American Community Survey data in the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) from the Minneapolis Population Center at the University of Minnesota. The 1890 Census records were destroyed by fire and microdata are unavailable for this year.

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