The Migration of a Professional Class
Recent years have seen a reversal in this trend. Civil rights legislation and a friendlier racial climate have made the South more attractive to African Americans looking for career prospects in the 21st century.
For the first time in generations, more African Americans are moving to the South than leaving. Florida is listed among the states that have had a substantial growth in their African-American population, according to an article published last month by the Associated Press.
Despite this trend, Pensacola is seen by some African Americans as a less-than appealing option for relocation. Often dubbed the “Black Mecca,” Atlanta has become one of the major destinations for African-American professionals from around the country as well as from Pensacola.
Keisha Nelson currently resides in Atlanta but calls Pensacola home. A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, Nelson worked in the Pensacola area for some time before leaving to attend college at Georgia State. Nelson holds a master’s degree in computer sciences and currently works for a major corporation in Atlanta as an IT specialist and training manager.
Nelson said that the best job she could get before leaving Pensacola was at a frozen yogurt shop.
“There simply weren’t any opportunities in Pensacola for jobs that paid higher than minimum wage, and I knew that there more jobs available outside of the city,” said Nelson.
With hopes of using the G.I. Bill to pay for college, Nelson joined the Army Reserves. She used the opportunity to leave Pensacola.
“I was just grabbing at straws trying to find something,” she said. “My thought was that I would have to leave Pensacola if I wanted to survive.”
Nelson worked consistently in Atlanta for several years until the most recent economic collapse.
“In March of 2010, I was briefly laid off from my job in Atlanta,” said Nelson. This development and her mother’s health led Nelson to consider returning to her hometown.
“I thought about coming home, and I interviewed with two companies here,” said Nelson. However, when she was finally offered a job, the pay was 54 percent less than what she has earned in Atlanta.
“The salaries were so drastically different, it just didn’t make sense to relocate.”
The pay difference between Pensacola and Atlanta wasn’t the only sticking point for Nelson. She was also troubled by the local mindset and perceptions of racism in the local workforce.
To explain, Nelson related a story. Nelson said that she has a close friend “who has a degree in business and worked professionally in Atlanta.” When the friend came to Pensacola to look for work, she received few offers of employment.
“The only job she was offered paid $8.50 an hour, just barely above minimum wage,” Nelson said.
Although Nelson admits this may just be a reflection of the economy, she added that the person who offered her friend the job did something strange.
“This person looked her up and down and said, ‘I know exactly where we can put you.’” Nelson’s friend’s new job was to supervise six other African Americans in a company that had several white employees.
“It wasn’t even the job that she applied for,” said Nelson. “This is an African American woman with a degree in business. Now she is working in Pensacola for minimum wage—and then only hired to supervise other African Americans.”
Nelson added that the lack of opportunity prevents people from coming back to Pensacola after earning a degree. “Because if they come back, not only will they have to work two or three jobs to survive, but then they have to deal with the type of biased employers that would tell a professional, ‘I know exactly where we can put you.’”
Carter, the student activities director, had similar experiences with the lack of opportunity. His family still resides in Pensacola, and he said that Pensacola has “a major problem with giving the opportunities to African Americans who meet all the requirements [for employment].”
The disparity in pay and equal opportunity in the hiring process–or the perception of both–have the potential to repel Pensacola’s black professionals from returning to their hometown.
“With bigger cities, there are better pay scales and more opportunities,” said Carter. “Within my profession, there aren’t many opportunities [in Pensacola] that have a good pay.”