'Hey, Black people exist here': Black population makes significant gains in US West

·12 min read

LOS ANGELES – Sophia Calloway moved from Cincinnati to Phoenix last year to be closer to her parents, who relocated from Ohio to the Arizona desert three years earlier for new jobs.

Bernadette Williams-York departed Alabama for Seattle in 2018 to take a prestigious post at the University of Washington.

C.T. Taylor jumped from one coastal megalopolis, New York, to another, Los Angeles, to work for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2017.

The three are among millions of Americans who move each year for new jobs, family connections, educational opportunities and retirement, but their journey has special significance: They are among a rising number of Black Americans moving to the West, historically a region where their numbers have been low.

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Sophia Calloway, 31, who moved from Cincinnati to the Phoenix area last year, is part of a growing number of Black people moving to parts of the western U.S.
Sophia Calloway, 31, who moved from Cincinnati to the Phoenix area last year, is part of a growing number of Black people moving to parts of the western U.S.

Black people are moving west "pretty much for all the same reasons that anyone else would move here," Calloway said, ticking off such draws as employment opportunities; growing cities with plenty of outdoor activities, restaurants and nightlife; and, in large parts of the region, appealing weather. In Arizona, "the sunshine is amazing. It's good for your mood."

The rising Black presence in the West, which still trails the 12.4% national average for Black residents, can be measured in the pace of growth and in hard numbers.

Part of it is a proportional boom, resulting largely from a traditionally low Black population base. Nine of the West's 11 contiguous states were among the 21 nationally to record double-digit percentage growth in Black population, according to an analysis of 2020 census data. Idaho had the region's biggest increase, 60%; only California lost Black residents.

Skyrocketing state and metro percentages, such as the 174% jump in the Black population in the Twin Falls, Idaho, area, need to be understood in context. That equates to an addition of 701 Black residents, a tiny number but nevertheless significant if you live in that area of 114,283 people.

Although the West represents less than a quarter of the U.S. population, it accounted for more than one-third of metropolitan areas that experienced growth of 25% or more in the number of Black residents, according to the census analysis.

The momentum is evident in sheer numbers, too. Nevada, Arizona and Washington made the top 10 of states with the largest number of new Black residents; no Western states cracked that grouping in 2010, said William Frey, who analyzes the census at the Brookings Institution.

Similarly, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Seattle ranked in the top 12 metro areas nationally in Black population gain; only Phoenix, the nation's fastest-growing city, ranked that high in 2010. Las Vegas added more than 80,000 Black residents and Phoenix more than 70,000, with the Black population's rate of growth more than doubling the overall rate in each metro area.

To be sure, the South still has by far the largest Black population in the nation and the highest Black population increase since 2010. The West, however, ranked second in its rate of Black population growth, outpacing percentage gains in the Northeast and the Midwest.

"It does show that fairly big Black population gains are occurring in Western metropolitan areas that have been traditionally booming areas for whites and Hispanics," Frey said.

More Black Americans in West reflects growing national diversity

Growth in the Black community in the West is consistent with overall population trends, said Felicia Johnson Yoda, who follows the census for Faith in Action, a national community organizing network fighting for social and racial justice. Nationally, the white population dropped for the first time, while communities of color, including the Black population, increased in number.

The "country is obviously growing more and more diverse, which is a good thing. The strength of this country is its diversity," Yoda said. "So, it doesn't really surprise me that those that identify as Black or African American are branching out to other areas."

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Black population growth in the West reflects a pattern for all racial and ethnic groups across the country, said Mark Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center.

"The nation has been becoming more diverse over the course of the last three or four decades. Initially, that was in places like California, New York, Florida and Texas. But the story of diversity is now much more widespread, as the population has dispersed to urban centers around the country and as economic opportunity has risen in some parts of the country that had lower levels of economic activity in the past," he said.

Bernadette Williams-York moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to the Pacific Northwest to pursue a career opportunity at the University of Washington.
Bernadette Williams-York moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to the Pacific Northwest to pursue a career opportunity at the University of Washington.

Black Americans search for community in West

Calloway, 31, an accountant who is finishing up her degree at the University of Cincinnati remotely from Arizona, said the pandemic led her to reevaluate what mattered in her life, and "being able to be close to my family when things were still uncertain was really important to me."

More than 40% of Cincinnati residents are Black, and Phoenix is under 10%. Calloway notices the smaller Black population in Phoenix and her home in outer suburb Buckeye, but she said the move has been "overall positive."

"I felt more of a sense of community, like Black community, in Cincinnati than I have in Phoenix, but I will say there seems to be more diversity in Phoenix overall, and that’s intriguing. It's nice. I've met more people from other backgrounds, rather than just Black or white… and I've appreciated that experience," she said.

Calloway, who has met other young Black professionals through the Greater Phoenix Urban League, knows of at least four Black friends from Ohio who are recent arrivals to Phoenix, but the community remains small enough that finding some products and services is a challenge.

In Cincinnati, "I could go to a local Kroger or Walgreens or Target and there was a huge assortment of Black hair care or skin care products. And here, I've noticed across the board, there’s significantly less … so I've done more Amazon shopping for some of those," she said.

There are stores that carry products favored by a Black clientele, she said. "It's just that I have to drive a lot further than I would have done before I moved here. Before, I could drive like five minutes. Now, I drive like 55 minutes."

A past marked by discrimination

Starting in the 1910s, the Great Migration that saw Black people leave the South initially led primarily to big cities in the North that had plenty of job opportunities. Many Black people moved to California in the 1940s, as wartime employment was available in coastal communities such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, said Javon Johnson, assistant professor and director of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Entertainment jobs also became available in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, although equal treatment wasn't, said Johnson, a Los Angeles native who moved to Las Vegas in 2017.

The historically smaller Black presence in the West resulted from geographical and economic factors along with its own variation of racism, as exemplified by Oregon's 1859 entry into the union as the only state with a Black exclusion law. The Ku Klux Klan was powerful in Oregon and Montana in the early 20th century, and Arizona was fighting over making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday as recently as three decades ago.

Although the West often was hostile to Black newcomers, racism and discrimination are hardly unique to the region, Johnson said.

"It’s not like we Black folks go to places thinking there will not be racism. History has taught us well," he said, crediting the growth in Las Vegas to Black people "searching for livable space, not necessarily nonracist space, but livable, manageable space."

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Today, members of all racial and ethnic groups are leaving California for surrounding states in search of economic opportunities and lower housing costs, said Johnson, whose previous home in California's Bay Area cost four times as much as his similar-sized dwelling in Las Vegas.

Even as Black Americans are leaving California, which saw a 2.7% drop in Black population in the 2020 census, newcomers are arriving from the East, including longtime New Yorker Taylor, who comes from a place that is "just as expensive, if not more."

C.T. Taylor, who moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2017, stands in front of a signature piece of L.A. art, a Colette Miller Angel Wings painting.
C.T. Taylor, who moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2017, stands in front of a signature piece of L.A. art, a Colette Miller Angel Wings painting.

The East Coast transplant, 33, who now works as a security officer for the Los Angeles airport police, said the expense is justified for "the opportunities as far as the weather, attractions, events, the beach. A (place with) cheap cost of living doesn't have the attractions and events a major metropolis provides. You got to do the fun stuff: Disneyland, Six Flags, Venice Beach, SoFi Stadium, Staples Center. If you don't do the attractions, there's no real point in living here, because it is so expensive."

He enjoys living in L.A. and has recommended it to friends, but their responses sound similar to some who are leaving: The cost of living is too high.

Finding a home in a new city

Williams-York, 60, said she researched Seattle's racial history and the size of its Black population before taking her job as associate director of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington.

"I always take that into account," said Williams-York, who would like her friends and family, including her daughter, to join her. "In the case of Seattle, even though I knew the population of African Americans … was small, the thing that drew me was the University of Washington itself and their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion."

Although Montgomery, Alabama, where Williams-York had lived for seven years, has a bigger Black community, she found the area "to be stifling" and in many ways "still locked in the Old South, and that didn't resonate with me. I had conflicts with that. And I was really looking for an environment where I could be myself and wouldn't be a threat or challenge to anyone; they would be receptive to the way I see the world and my contribution that I feel I can make to it."

Williams-York, who also is an associate professor at the university, bought a house in Kent, a suburb about 15 miles south of Seattle, because it is "more diverse than Seattle itself," she said. "They cater more to people from diverse backgrounds here. ... You can walk out your door and see people who look like you in the grocery store."

Meshayla Cox moved from Southern California to Montana to attend the University of Montana and she remained in the state to pursue a career after graduation.
Meshayla Cox moved from Southern California to Montana to attend the University of Montana and she remained in the state to pursue a career after graduation.

Black community gains voice in rural states, too

Westward expansion isn't restricted to the big cities. Many smaller cities with historically tiny Black populations – such as Missoula and Billings, Montana and Greeley, Colorado – experienced double-digit and even triple-digit growth in their Black populations.

Missoula's 69% increase, for example, is based on the addition of just 307 people, but there's both a symbolic and real power to any growth in the state that continues to have the lowest percentage of Black residents (0.5%, according to the 2020 census), said Tobin Shearer, history professor and African American Studies director at the University of Montana in Missoula.

"That's significant," said Shearer, who noticed a change amid the racial justice activism of the past year. “There’s been a shift in the visible presence of the African American community in leadership positions and in the community around. I've been here 14 years, and I noticed that in ways I hadn’t previously.”

Meshayla Cox, 26, who left Southern California's High Desert in 2013 to enroll at the University of Montana, likes living in Big Sky Country but knows the challenges of being part of such a small Black community.

The addition of a few hundred more Black people helps, but it "doesn’t make enough of an impact where you don’t feel like you’re in a fishbowl all the time (or you're) not able to even slip on a music station and hear the kind of music you like," she said. She's trying to persuade her mother and two sisters, who live in Missouri, to move to Montana. Her brother joined her there last year.

Cox, the equity, inclusion, and justice consultant at The Montana Racial Equity Project, could see the population change in Missoula, where she lived for six years.

"I started to notice a lot more different Black folks moving to the community. I would talk with other people who were new or just moved there from California or other places," she said. "I felt like that came to a head during the last year, in terms of really seeing how much Missoula's Black community has grown … (during) the protests they did there for Black Lives Matter."

A stronger voice, however, has led to pushback in the conservative Republican state, including a recent state attorney general's opinion that called critical race theory discriminatory and banned some antiracism programs taught in schools and used for employee training, Cox said.

"Although we are a state that is largely white folks, there are enough people of color and Black folks who are speaking out against racial injustice in the state that we’re starting to make some noise and get some attention from it," Cox said. "I know critical race theory is getting a lot of playtime in the media, especially for Republicans, but I think in previous years, (Montana) would have been able to ignore the national conversations around that one."

That higher profile comes via success stories, too, such as when Wilmot Collins, a Liberian war refugee, became Montana's first Black mayor with his election in Helena in 2017. That resulted in a 2018 piece on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" that expressed humorous astonishment at his election in a state with so few Black people.

That kind of national attention, Cox said, "might have an impact on spreading the word that like, 'Hey, Black people exist here.' "

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Census: Black population grows in US West, sign of growing diversity