“If there were opportunities for me, I would love to return to Pensacola,” said LaRuby May, an African-American lawyer now living in Washington, D.C.
May was born and raised in Pensacola and left her hometown to go to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. After Eckerd, May continued her education at George Washington University in D.C. and Villanova University outside of Philadelphia. Despite strong family connections in this area, May does not see herself returning to Pensacola.
“I would appreciate the opportunity to serve the community which helped me to become the person that I am,” said May. “But I am also practical and understand that I have greater access to resources away from Pensacola than I do in Pensacola.”
A New Migration
Pensacola has long had a problem retaining its young professionals. Citing a multitude of factors such as economic prospects, educational opportunities, cultural interests, and post-hurricane housing issues, the upwardly mobile have often seen greener pastures in larger cities. This is particularly true within the African-American community. While the exodus of talent spans multiple sectors of the population, the loss may be felt deepest within Pensacola’s African American-community.
While the overall U.S. economy and the continuing reverberations from recent hurricanes certainly play a strong part in the exodus phenomenon, historic factors such as racial disparity appear to be a stronger factor in this recent wave of black migration from Pensacola. Racism creates its own hurdles for the rise of the young black professional. Despite the gains of the Civil Rights Era and the election of the first African-American president, obstacles still exist for even the most educated African Americans. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 81 percent of all black professionals think that racism not only exists in the workplace, but that it is common.
That less than 20 percent of African-American professionals feel that the worksite is a place for equality between the races points to a problem. These feelings of inequality may be more pronounced in sections of the country that historically have had racial problems, such as Pensacola.
“I honestly feel that living in Pensacola made the obstacles harder from [the perspective of] an African-American male,” said Pensacola native Rodney Carter.
Carter was born and raised in Pensacola, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and left Pensacola to go to college. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Florida Memorial University and his master’s degree from St. Thomas University. Both universities are in Miami Gardens. Carter currently directs student activities at Florida Memorial.
“I honestly wanted to stay in Pensacola and help my city flourish,” said Carter. The problem for Carter was a common one for many black professionals: the lack of opportunity. Carter stated that there were few options in his chosen field that he felt would be good for his career.
“Either you’re a coach, community center director or an athletic director,” he said. For Carter, none of these jobs were attractive, so he left Pensacola permanently.
“It truly hurts me to say that my hometown has a very big problem with racism that can’t be overlooked anymore.”
Pensacola has historically had its ups and downs related to issues of racial disparity. Slavery was the norm in Pensacola before the Civil War. Although the city had a large free black population, there existed a much larger enslaved population that worked to build many of the 19th-century landmarks of Pensacola’s past, such as Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens.
After the war, Pensacola saw unprecedented gains by its recently emancipated population. During this time frame, Pensacola had several black politicians serving in various capacities, from constable, city alderman, and even one African-American mayor.
Although these gains were rolled back with the 1884 election of Gov. Edward Perry, Pensacola still maintained a large black professional and working class. The development of this new class of black doctors, lawyers, writers and printers was aided by the city’s close proximity to Tuskegee University, founded by famed intellectual and former slave Booker T. Washington.
As a testament to this community, Washington even devoted a chapter in one of his books to Pensacola. He praised the city’s strong “Negro business community” as proof of the post-Civil War gains for blacks in the South.
Census records shows that Pensacola was majority black by the turn of the century. However, with the intrusion of Florida’s Jim Crow laws into the lives of blacks and the subsequent lynching of at least five African-American men between 1899 and 1912, nearly all political power in the African-American community had been drastically eroded by the next census. The percentage of African Americans in Pensacola was cut in half by 1920.
Though the professional class that remained stayed strong during the Jim Crow years, many other black Pensacolians left the South for less racially intense environments elsewhere. This was not unique to Pensacola but happened throughout the South. Thousands of African Americans took the rise in racial violence and the lack of political enfranchisement in the South as a sign that they may have a better chance at success—and survival—in the North or out west. The move by blacks from the South to Northern cities is known as the Great Migration.