RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The jobless rate in the United States is at a near-50-year low. So all this month, NPR is looking at what that means for workers and communities. Many African Americans are seeing an opportunity for better jobs and cheap housing in the South, and Charlotte, N.C., is one of their destinations. NPR's Daniella Cheslow reports.
DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: Brittany Smith shows me around the house she and her husband bought on the outskirts of Charlotte.
BRITTANY SMITH: And this is my laundry room here - washer, dryer - your standard (laughter).
CHESLOW: It's a beige house with a brick facade. There's a front porch and a two-car garage and a green front lawn. She holds her 15-month-old daughter, Erelah.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)
CHESLOW: Smith grew up mostly in Detroit. Six years ago, she struggled to find a full-time job in health care there. Her then-boyfriend Sam was a career counselor at a college campus that was closing.
SMITH: We were looking at what cities are growing for young professionals, and Charlotte was always, like, one of the top five.
CHESLOW: It helped that Smith's father had moved back to North Carolina, about two hours away from Charlotte. So they made the move.
SMITH: We did have the idea of, you know, we may go down here for a year. If we don't like it, then we can always go home.
CHESLOW: The Smiths are part of an influx of African Americans to Mecklenburg County, N.C. The African American population here has ballooned by 64% since 2000. Some people come from neighboring counties in North and South Carolina, but thousands are coming from Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois. And other cities in the South are seeing similar growth, including Houston, Atlanta, Tallahassee and Columbia, S.C. Smith, 32, is about to begin a new job at a health insurance company doing community outreach.
SMITH: It starts Monday, actually, so very quick turnaround. But, yeah, starts Monday.
CHESLOW: Her previous job was similar. It was a dream job, she says. But the new position pays better and has more responsibility. Sam, now her husband, found work in Charlotte, too, as a university career counselor.
JESSICA BARRON: Opportunities for black folks - the South and that have never been in the same sentence.
CHESLOW: Demographer Jessica Barron in Durham, N.C., says, throughout much of the 20th century, millions of African Americans left the South to escape racial discrimination and lack of opportunity.
BARRON: That's why we got the Harlem Renaissance and Chicago blues. These are all a part of the story of the Great Migration.
CHESLOW: As manufacturing dried up in the Rust Belt, services, tech and finance expanded in Southern cities. African Americans started coming back. Barron says migrants tend to have higher education and more connections than African Americans who remained in places like North Carolina for generations. The job market for African Americans over the past two years is the best ever. Unemployment is at 6.7%, although it's double the rate for whites. Charlotte, in particular, is booming. The city has seen eight straight years of job growth.
TOM HANCHETT: But as the tide has risen here, it has not lifted all boats equally.
CHESLOW: Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett says decades of segregation and redlining have given African Americans in Charlotte fewer opportunities to buy homes and build wealth.
HANCHETT: Affordable housing is especially an issue for African Americans. It requires special effort to overcome it because special effort created it.
CHESLOW: And in Charlotte, many African Americans work in industries like hospitality and retail, where wages have stagnated. That mirrors the national trend, where wages have grown more slowly for African Americans than any other group.
I meet Nicole Muse-Dennis at one of two jobs she works - as bar manager at night and a special education teacher during the day.
NICOLE MUSE-DENNIS: I'm what I call overemployed. I have two jobs, and I'm still trying to make it.
CHESLOW: Muse-Dennis says raising two daughters as a single mom on a teacher's salary has forced her into a 65-hour workweek. A couple days later, I join her morning routine.
MUSE-DENNIS: Come on. Let's brush your hair.
CHESLOW: It's still dark as she gets ready to drive her daughter to school.
MUSE-DENNIS: The hard part is just making sure I get up - actually, like, get up in the morning. That's the hard part. And then making sure I can actually drive there.
CHESLOW: Muse-Dennis owns her town house in a middle-class neighborhood called University City. And the value of her home has increased in recent years, but her taxes have gone up, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
CHESLOW: As Muse-Dennis strains to make a living, Brittany Smith, the Detroit transplant, is not as overextended. She and her husband both work jobs they love, and they have just one child. She feeds her daughter Erelah a pouch of organic sweet potatoes.
SMITH: Here I am, a transplant that has come down here, and I've taken advantage of all these opportunities. Now, some of it may be due to I have, you know, an education, and same for my husband. But also, it make me - actually, my husband and I - to look at ways that we can help bridge the gap.
CHESLOW: The structural issues that keep many African Americans unemployed or underpaid are difficult to fix. But a strong economy opens more paths to success, and that's the experience of the Smith family and millions of other African Americans who are starting new lives in the South.
Daniella Cheslow, NPR News, Charlotte.
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