A Return Home Leads to New Questions on Race

Ravi Howard spent the last few years investigating a murder that happened in Mobile, Ala., where Howard is originally from. He had gone to school up North and made a home there, but found himself pulled back to the South to raise a family. The same thing is happening to many of his friends, too.

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Journalist and commentator Ravi Howard spent the last couple of years investigating the lynching of Michael Donald in 1981. The young black man was killed in Mobile, Alabama, which is also home to Howard's family.

Ravi Howard had gone to school up North and made a home there, but he found himself pulled back to the South to raise a family. Turns out he's not the only one.

RAVI HOWARD: Mobile, Alabama is a place where as a child I spent Christmas vacation, Mardi Gras, and family reunions. It's the city where my father was born and where my parents met. It's also the place where a lynching happened in 1981. A 19-year-old named Michael Donald was killed by Klansmen and his body was hanged from a city street. I spent some time over the last few years researching the murder. And during that time, Mobile became a place for me to observe things - details, streets, neighborhoods. Then inexplicably, the city became home. My wife and I found ourselves leaving Maryland and moving to Mobile.

Considering that I was researching a Klan killing of a young black man, my friends didn't really understand. Why moved to the south? Somewhere buried in that was the idea that young black people moving to the south was a surprise. According to a Brookings Institution report last spring, the trend of black population growth in the south has not only continued since 2000 it is accelerating. As someone who writes for a living, I tend to like the anecdotal evidence more than the stats. So I took a look at my friends.

My friends Osiah was a Connecticut banker, who moved to Houston in January. Another friend, a Boston doctor, at this very moment is unpacking and setting up house in Birmingham. Another friend from college, a Maryland teacher, has settled in Durham. Their reasons for moving back were practical: career advancement, cost of living, a calmer place for racing kids, and also, it just felt like home. There's no denying that the south has had, and still has, issues with race.

But is not as if racial conflict only happened in one corner of America. Some whites in Little Rock hated immigration in the 1950s, but some folks in Boston felt the same way in the '70s. Michael Donald was killed by the Klan here in 1981, and eight years later, Yusef Hawkins was murdered by the same kind of mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

My wife and I flew down here last April and followed our realtor from house to house in midtown Mobile, an area that has resisted famous in favor of local flavor - Victorian houses next to shotgun houses, thin roofs next to Spanish tile. Most all of them in the midst of old majestic oak trees, I couldn't help but admire. The street where the clan dumped Michael Donald's body now carries his name.

At a recent dedication ceremony, a young black city councilman wondered aloud what members of his generation, my generation, were doing to remember our history. He asked what are the black children of the '70s and '80s doing? For some, like me, the answer is moving home.

SIEGEL: Ravi Howard lives in Mobile, Alabama. He's the author of the forthcoming novel "Like Trees, Walking."

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