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Black Detroiters Moving to Atlanta for New Opportunities

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his 'dream' for African Americans in Detroit. Today, he'd probably be preaching from his hometown—where many Detroiters have fled.

For years, tragedy seemed like a constant companion for Vanessa Lynn in Detroit. Her 25-year-old sister drowned, her brother had a fatal heart attack at age 23 and her father lost a painful battle with cancer. In 2004, she lost her business, home—even her will to live.

Although she gradually stabilized her life and began living her dream as a playwright, it seemed she couldn't get enough traction in Detroit. So, like a stream of other Detroiters, with just enough money to last two months, the 41-year-old moved to Atlanta in February.

"I felt like a caged bird," she says.

Fifty years ago this month, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first marched down Woodward Avenue and delivered his "I Have a Dream Speech" in downtown Detroit, southern Blacks viewed the Motor City as a mecca for better jobs, quality of life and freedom from the horrors of the Jim Crow South. And, as part of the Great Migration, they headed here—and to other northern cities—in droves.

Now, as thousands of Detroiters plan to march down Woodward Avenue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's March and "Dream" speech, which he also delivered two months later during the march on Washington, Detroiters are escaping the city's crime, corruption and financial woes for southern cities such as Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C.—and especially "Hotlanta."

Black Flight

Today, Atlanta is perceived as the land of opportunity for African Americans in entertainment, business and education—and its quality of life is driving a decades-long "Black flight" of Detroiters to King's birthplace.

"When I moved down here," Lynn recalls, "the guy in the moving van said, 'What is going on in Michigan? The last 20 families I have moved have been from Michigan!'"

That reflects a March 2011 New York Times analysis of 2010 U.S. Census data, titled, "Many U.S. Blacks Moving to South, Reversing Trend." 

While Detroit lost 237,493 residents—or 25 percent of the population—from 2000 to 2010, census data showed the state of Georgia's population surged 18 percent, making metropolitan Atlanta's Black population surpass that of Chicago, which was second only to New York City.

"This is an unprecedented out-migration of the population," says Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit. "The White flight changed to African-American flight. There isn't that (racial) stigma anymore of the South. It's seen as much more attractive."

Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, says it's because "Atlanta has a lot to offer."

He explains: "It is quickly becoming the second leading Black cultural capital of America. Plus, it offers a very large Black professional class that skews younger and richer. It has low taxes and warmer weather all year long."

Still, Muhammad insists, "Detroit has far better music and a rich history of Black economic and political empowerment that Atlantans are just now starting to enjoy. And there's still the nagging problem of the rest of the red state of Georgia."

'Power Move'

Nevertheless, nothing is stopping Detroiters who say America's ninth largest city offers more opportunities for a better life than Detroit, which topped the latest Forbes list of America's Most Miserable Cities

"It's like a power move," says security guard Ron Morrast, 47, who grew up in a rough neighborhood on Detroit's west side and plans to move to Atlanta in July. A relative—who moved there 22 years ago, opened a barbershop and built a brisk business with 15 barber chairs—is what inspires him.

"I don't know anything about Atlanta," he says. "But I know I'm a survivor, and I can make it there."

Plus, when Morrast told his employer, Southfield-based Vista International Security, he was moving to Atlanta, the Black-owned company officials offered him a promotion to general manager in its Atlanta office.

Another benefit? Deskwork will take Morrast off his feet as he recovers from a debilitating accident.

Morrast says he'll be leaving behind a tough past riddled with the pain of learning the drug trade from his brother, who was shot to death at age 32, along with a divorce, drug use and his mother's cancer death.

"I have a dream to be a better person than I am today," says Morrast, who plans to continue giving motivational talks to teenagers at churches and schools.

He enjoys the thought of being part of a reverse migration a half-century after King's march on Detroit.

"We were run out of the South," he says. "Now, the door of opportunity is open for us in Atlanta, so we have to take advantage of it."

That's exactly what inspired Tenisha and Darrell Mercer to move to Atlanta with their three children in April 2006.

"For us, it's almost like a reverse homecoming," says Tenisha Mercer, a 38-year-old former Detroit News reporter and Wayne State University graduate. While growing up in Highland Park, she spent summer vacations visiting family in rural Leesburg, Ga.

"My grandfather was a sharecropper's son with a third grade education. For the time he grew up, the South was not the land of opportunity. It was anything but. Our family story has it that my grandfather 'walked off' to leave town. He was the type of person that, back in that time, would've been killed."

He headed to Detroit in 1940, became a foreman on the Chrysler assembly line and lived amongst thriving Black businesses and culture in Paradise Valley.

But 66 years later, when the Mercers were raising their children in a bungalow on Detroit's east side, the city had changed.

The Mercers were disappointed by the quality of education their 8-year-old son was receiving—while getting into fights—at one of Detroit's best public schools.

So they sold their house in December 2005 and were buying a new home in the Atlanta area. With savings and several job options, their future looked bright.

But even before they left Detroit, "everything fell apart," says Mercer. The new house deal went bust and they lost money, staying in a hotel for several weeks before securing an apartment. The full-time reporter's position Mercer hoped for never happened.

"My husband was working as a security guard. He got jobs from time to time. Other times, we didn't know how we would pay the rent. We exhausted our savings before he was able to find something."

That's when she took advantage of Atlanta's strong entrepreneurial vibe. (A 2010 study of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics by the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity showed that Atlanta is a national leader for small business startups.) In May 2006, she started Mercer Media Group, promoting her services as a writer.

 

Smiling Faces

But networking and making friends was difficult.

"The reason I love Detroit is it's a city where we wear our heart on our sleeve," she says. "We don't have time for the B.S." But in Atlanta, "There are a lot of users. Folks will tell you what you want to hear, as long you're helping them. But when it comes to a reciprocal relationship, you have to be really careful."

She adds that Detroiters keep it real, while she's met many "fake" people in Atlanta. One in particular was a former neighbor who drove a luxury car and lived in a nice house. "She was getting evicted, but she was bragging about the celebrities she was working with and name-dropping."

Though the Mercers "felt alone," they persevered. She attracted clients, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Coca-Cola. And in 2008, her husband, now 46, started Mercer Protection Agency, hiring its 40 security officers for clients such as CBS, the city of Atlanta, the American Diabetes Association and entertainer Steve Harvey.

Last year, the Mercers bought a house in upper-middle class Johns Creek, where their children attend one of Georgia's top-rated school districts.

"Moving here was one of the best decisions we've ever made," says Mercer. "Our kids have opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise."

Son Darrell Jr., 15, "is a budding entrepreneur" who's active in one of America's largest chapters of the student organization DECA. Events enable him to network with CEOs and executives.

"In Atlanta, you're able to see Black wealth and success," Mercer says. "It's the norm. You're seeing successful people who look like you. That does a lot for your self esteem."

Likewise, daughter Ashley, 14, will attend an acting workshop this summer after expressing an interest in film. In addition to Tyler Perry Studios, Atlanta is also headquarters for CNN and Nickelodeon, while many movies and sitcoms are filmed there.

"If you're in the film industry," Mercer says, "Atlanta is like the Black Hollywood of the South."

Showcasing this fact are Detroiters in starring roles. On Atlanta-based Bravo TV, they include former Miss USA Kenya Bell on "Basketball Wives"  and business consultant Toya Bush-Harris in "Married to Medicine."

Sometimes, entertainment powerhouses are just a table away, says Mercer, who met filmmaker Tyler Perry in a restaurant in 2007.

The Mercer's youngest daughter, Mya, 12, wants to become a chef in a city where, Mercer says, "the dining options are profound."

Mercer adds, "We're able to dream bigger in Atlanta."

Yet she credits her hometown for her success. "Detroit made me the person who I am. I'll always be proud to say I'm from Detroit."

They return about once a year to visit family. Driving through the east-side neighborhood, where they owned a house from 1996 until 2006, is "sad, because the 48205 area code is one of the most crime-ridden areas of the city."

In contrast, the Mercers' safe, manicured neighborhood bustles with people jogging, bicycling and walking dogs.

Safe and Secure

A healthier, active lifestyle is one aspect of Atlanta that Mercer's brother has enjoyed since leaving Detroit three years ago.

"In Detroit, I was unemployed for eight months and couldn't find any work," says Oscar Pasley, 30. "I took a chance. When I first got down here, I found a job at Applebee's within the first week." Five months later, a frequent customer hired him at a worker's compensation insurance company.

"I advanced really quickly from entry level to being a supervisor—in two-and-a-half years," says Pasley. "I love my job."

Now, he says, "This is the best move I've made in my life."

Meanwhile, he reconnected with his Pershing High School sweetheart on Facebook. They married, and Ashleigh, 28, left Detroit for Atlanta with her two children, ages 5 and 11. His 8-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Detroit, spends summers in Atlanta.

The Pasleys live in what he calls the "ritzy" suburb of Alpharetta, among professional athletes. The region's famed trees, mountains and lakes keep the family active, too.

"Last year, we visited state parks for hiking and relaxing," he says. "This year, we're going to the beaches. Growing up in Detroit, … it doesn't seem like there's a lot to do with kids. You have to worry about crime and your kids' safety. Here, it's not like that."

He also loves that his children are growing up where "the people down here are health nuts. There are jogging trails and bike lanes everywhere. We try to be health conscious and in shape. The kids' schools offer healthy meals and don't allow them to bring sweets to school."

Another plus, Pasley says, is, unlike racially polarized Detroit, their community is a melting pot of Whites, Blacks, Indians and Mexicans. "It's very harmonious."

Still, Pasley is proud of his Detroit roots.

"The city made me," he says. "I wouldn't take back the time I spent there. You have to do what's best for our kids and keep them in an environment so they don't have to go through the same struggles, so they can learn and prosper."

He plans to buy a house and open an auditing firm someday. "This is where I'm going to stay rooted."

College Bound

Attending Atlanta's historically Black colleges and universities is another lure for Detroiters.

"It's always been my dream since fifth grade to attend Clark Atlanta University," says native Detroiter Delizha Manassa, 18. "But as I got into high school and started reading about Morehouse College, I learned that was the school that I wanted to attend."

When he interviewed there, he says, "Getting the whole brotherhood feel was just awesome. With all of the success that some of the men who come out of Morehouse have (such as King, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson), I want to be one of those men one day."

Attending Morehouse on the 50th anniversary of King's march is "mind-blowing."

"I'll be the first male in my family to graduate high school and attend college," says Manassa, who lives with relatives in Virginia to escape struggles in Detroit.

Manassa plans to study computer engineering. Then, he dreams of attending graduate school at Harvard University before working in cyber security for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"I'll be in the percentage of the young Black males who are willing to show that there is a better way," he says, adding that he wants to someday take care of his grandmother, Celia Manassa, 62, who lives on Detroit's east side.

"I've seen her struggle from the time that I was young. I lived with her on and off for all my life, for the 16 years that I lived in Detroit. We've had some trials and tribulations that would have made any normal person want to give up and break down."

Growing up in similar circumstances is his cousin, Key'isha Manassa, 18, who plans to attend Clark Atlanta University in September.

"I'm excited to see a whole new city," says the Michigan Collegiate High School senior. "I'm going to seize the opportunity and enjoy it. I don't want to live around abandoned houses anymore."

Manassa says she has a response for critics.

"I hear a lot, 'Oh, why do you have to go so far to pursue your education? You can get a business accounting degree here.' I tell them, 'This is something I want to do for myself and that will make me happy. I have to pursue my dreams for me, not for you.'"

Detroit Hope

Detroit NAACP chapter president, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, believes, "Detroit is coming back."

He points to the major revitalization plans downtown and an influx of suburban professionals. "In a few years, Detroit will be the place to be. There's a lot of hope and opportunity here."

For now, though, Vanessa Lynn has found her hope and opportunity in Atlanta. In the short time she's been there, things finally have turned around.

"If you're not going to hustle, you can stay in Detroit," she warns. "With Atlanta, you've got to hit the ground running."

She landed a good "day job" with benefits. Walmart stores nationwide sell DVDs of two of her plays, "Affairs" and "Unequally Yoked," which she says has ranked in the Top 20 of Amazon's African American Cinema bestseller list for more than a year. Her play, "Deranged," starring actress Robin Givens, was produced last month at Detroit's Music Hall. And she's selling her new book, "Beyond the Chitlin' Circuit: The Ultimate Urban Playwright's Guide," inspired by the annual conference she'll host in December.

Meanwhile, television network executives attended the recent screening for the DVD of her play, "Boss Lady" (in Walmart stores July 9).

She hasn't given up on Detroit, though.

"My big dream ultimately is to open my own theater complex. I would even consider doing that in Detroit."

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