For most of the 20th century, millions of African-Americans left their southern roots for northern cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, chasing dreams of freedom and opportunity. But in a dramatic reversal of "The Great Migration", black people are now rushing back to the South for many of the same reasons they once left.
Since 1990 the southern states have added to their population some 807,442 blacks from other parts of the country, according to analysis by a University of Michigan demographer, William H. Frey.
"We came north looking for jobs and freedom," says the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the US civil rights leader. "We are going back south looking to find better jobs and better living conditions. When I left Greenville there was not a single black working on Main Street -- not one could work on Main Street," he said. "That's not true any more of the new South -- those jobs didn't exist 30 years ago."
The "new South" provides a stark contrast to the era of segregation that Mr Jackson left behind in Greenville, South Carolina, to attend the University of Illinois on a football scholarship more than 40 years ago.
While southern cities and towns still struggle with many of the racial divides that plague their northern counterparts, an increasing number of young, educated African-American professionals now see the region that their parents and grandparents once fled as a land of economic opportunity. When Black Enterprise magazine named its best cities for African-Americans in 2004, the top eight spots were all in the South; Atlanta placed first, followed by Washington DC, Dallas, Nashville, Houston, Charlotte, Birmingham and Memphis.
"In terms of opportunity this place has been for me the promised land that Chicago promised to be in the earlier part of the [last] century," says Jason C. Williams, a Philadelphia native turned prominent Atlanta businessman and spokesman for the Atlanta chapter of 100 Black Men of America, Inc. The organisation is dedicated to improving educational and economic opportunities for African-Americans, and its members include the former secretary of state Colin Powell and entertainer Bill Cosby.
"The South was initially really the centre of growth for African-Americans; it was where most of us came from, we have real strong deep roots here and the people that stayed really dealt with a whole lot of the racial issues that I think the North hasn't," Mr Williams says.
The South is also attracting young African-American professionals and students for cultural reasons. Atlanta, birthplace of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, has now secured its place as one of the most important contemporary black cultural capitals through its music scene. World famous rap and hip-hop artists such as Ludacris and OutKast now sing about urban life, strife and success in the South, just as Chicago blues greats like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers expressed the dreams of many blacks who headed north during the 20th century.
The black population of the metro Atlanta area doubled between 1990 and 2004, says Dr Frey, currently a Brookings Institution fellow in Washington DC, and in recent years nearly twice as many blacks as whites have been moving to the city. In the past 15 years the black population has grown from 25 per cent of the entire metropolitan region to more than 29 per cent, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, though the suburbs remain predominately white.
Beside jobs and popular culture, two of the biggest draws for African-Americans are the cheaper housing and the many historically black colleges and universities.
Housing prices in much of the South have remained affordable. According to 2005 third-quarter data published by the National Association of Realtors, the median home price in greater Atlanta is $171,200, about 20 per cent below the national median price of $215,900, while a home in metro Dallas goes for a bargain median of $147,200. Meanwhile, the median price for a home in the New York City area is about twice the national level.
Education centres such as Atlanta University Center, a consortium of five historically black colleges and universities, also draw many northern black students.
"It's a place where you can enjoy the amenities of an urban environment and yet associate, in terms of matriculating in school, with young people with comparable backgrounds and ambitions," says John E. Williams, dean of the Division of Economics and Business at Morehouse College, which is part of the consortium.
According to the Chamber of Commerce, almost a quarter of African-Americans in Atlanta aged 25 to 34 have a four-year college degree, compared with an average of roughly 18 per cent in the top 50 US metro areas.
Black community leaders credit the affirmative action initiatives instituted by Atlanta's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in the mid-1970s with laying the groundwork for the city's current black-friendly business, cultural and education climates.
"It is the strongest inclusion programme in the nation that still maintains by law that female, small and minority-owned businesses must be included in the procurement arena," says Thomas Dortch, former chairman of the 100 Black Men of America, Inc. "I saw some article where someone said, if you can't find a job in Atlanta you don't want to work."
The South's gain, however, has been the North's loss, Since 2000, including domestic migration, natural increases and immigration, the Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Washington and Houston areas have had the biggest black gains, according to Dr Frey's analysis. The traditional black cultural centres of New York, Detroit and Chicago are not even on the 25-city list of fastest growing US metro areas for blacks.
James W. Compton, president and chief executive of the Chicago Urban League, says: "It is a concern, especially when you see the exodus of young, talented people, because those are the ones you look for to provide leadership in government, in business, in culture, in education -- across the board."
Under syndication arrangement with FE