Nashville Has Been Losing Blacks to Atlanta for Decades and It Must Stop

Maybe it’s because of cheering the tragic Falcons in Super Bowl 51. Maybe it’s because I just discovered EdLANTA—my new favorite education blog. Whatever it is, this lifelong Nashvillian has been forced to unpack my connection to and numerous networks within the city of Atlanta and think about the mass exodus to Atlanta from Nashville.

That’s right, every day hundreds from all over the country choose Atlanta. Relocating there in droves as they have been for decades. Especially Nashvillians. I personally moved my aunt and baby sister there. My best friend of 36 years also found the allure too strong to ignore.

So, I can’t help but mourn the loss (personal and otherwise) of thousands of upwardly mobile, creative black Nashvillians and the never-to-be realized return on investment as our schools pour into an unofficial talent pipeline to Atlanta. What’s up with that?

Atlanta vs. Nashville

I suppose the connection shouldn’t be a surprise, since the cities have so much in common. Though the city of Atlanta boasts only 450,000 residents, the metro area is a staggering 5.7 million—not your typical sleepy Southern city.

Similarly, Nashville is exploding with nearly 700,000 residents in the city and an additional 1.1 million in the surrounding area. At this point, we’re welcoming 85 newcomers per day. What can I say, the “creative class” loves this place. (No, I didn’t just smirk when I said that.)

Atlanta was always known for its accessible cost of living, but in the past decade it has become one of the most expensive major cities in the United States. But let’s be honest, Nashville is suffering the same fate. Gentrification is rampant, squeezing out Nashville’s most vulnerable with more ridiculously expensive housing and impossible traffic hassles that are creating the need for regional transportation options that will translate to a shocking increase in cost of living. I can’t wait. (Yes, this time I did smirk.)

Why Is Everybody Leaving?

So what’s the real reason everyone’s headed down to the ATL? I’ll just say it:

Atlanta is way Blacker than Nashville. Period.

More than half the city (58%) is African American, compared to only a quarter of Nashvillians.

My childhood friend, Add Seymour, who works at Morehouse College in Atlanta, told me why he always knew he would eventually leave Nashville: “I needed a place that was much more progressive.”

He also made a good point: “It’s funny that a city that was so integral to the civil rights movement, home to a gazillion colleges and universities and the country and gospel music industries, wasn’t progressive, but it wasn’t.”

And then this: “I wanted to live in a place that was happening. I knew Atlanta was it. Full of Black people important to making things happen. You don’t see that in Nashville.”

I must admit, entering the city my first time and bombarded with images of black doctors and attorneys was both startling and incredibly comforting. I felt accepted in every store and neighborhood. The experience made such an impact that I remember with a smile 25 years later.

And as my friend Atlanta transplant TaTanisha Jackson Shumpert explained:

Although, I am in the South, I feel that most of the people here get it. When I come back home, back to Atlanta, even from a short trip. I can breath. I literally feel like I have been holding my breath the entire time I was away and when I return I can breath again.

Reverse Migration is a Thing

Apparently, the mass exodus of black people seeking identity vindication is not unique to Nashville. There is also a major movement of blacks from North to South reversing the trend started by blacks during Jim Crow and continuing through the end of the civil rights era. Today, the black middle class is moving South, many to Atlanta, in search of safety, financial promise, and cultural reattachment.

Alternately, my little sister, 32-year-old Amber North, when upon graduating from college in Kentucky, was eager to move to the big city because “Atlanta is one of the most diverse and progressive cities in the country.” Adding that the major factor was “to live in a city where being black is the majority.”

Nashville, despite the It City status and its newest distinction as U.S. News and World Report’s 13th best cities to live, still eludes its black creative class. I love my city, but I get it. There are few images and symbols around the city that ensure blacks feel appreciated, part of the city’s movement. Nashville Scene writer Betsy Phillips wrote in a ThinkProgress piece:

Nashville is an ‘It City,’ a great, money-making fantasy – for white people with expendable income. The culture we’re commercializing is from white people for white people.

Maybe that’s why it’s not a problem for me to hit the road at a moment’s notice. I’m just 267 miles away from soul-saving cultural appreciation.

What’s The Key To Keeping Us Here? The Children.

There is no shortage of Nashvillians willing to make the trip to simply play. My Facebook timeline is evidence of fellow city slickers sliding south for weekends filled with shopping, nightclubbing, and Civil Rights memorial hopping; it’s a city that does a great job satisfying the culturally starved.

It’s also a city that is greatly benefitting from black tax dollars sorely needed for Nashville’s schools. Instead of modeling the reinvestment of dollars into the community that made us, we are grooming another generation of Atlanta transplants. Further, we fail to elect, hire, and appoint in proportion to our demographics.

Black children go to schools where 75% of teachers are white. And while a teacher’s race is not a major determinant of student success, models of success matter. So, when 85% of the police force is white and a child sees only blacks in handcuffs, the messaging is near fatal. Our children need us here and our leaders must want to keep us here.

If we are to be a city of authentic inclusion, even as we’ve become a great place to live for the largest Hispanic population in the state as well as the largest Kurdish population in the United States, we must care enough to make Nashville a haven for its black residents, too.

If it matters. Those of us who have chosen to stay believe it does.

Vesia Wilson-Hawkins is a former Metro Nashville Public Schools student, parent and staffer. She is currently a political consultant, blogger and staunch school choice advocate. Vesia blogs about education in Tenessee at Volume and Light.
An original version of this post appeared on the blog Volume & Light.

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