photography by Elizabeth Lavin April Allen ignored the warning of her first real estate agent and moved to Oak Cliff. Since then, she has found not only friends and a welcoming neighborhood, but a husband as well.

Why Young Black Professionals Are Wary of Dallas

More African-American people than ever are moving to the city—but not without apprehension.

In a glass skyscraper on Park Avenue in New York, executives offered Onay Payne her dream job. The bosses at her real estate private equity firm wanted Payne to oversee a new $650 million fund, a significant promotion.

One catch: the job was in Dallas. What would it be like, Payne wondered, to live in Dallas as a thirtysomething black woman?

At her Brooklyn apartment, Payne picked up the phone and dialed one of the few people she knew in Dallas, a classmate from Harvard Business School who also was black. Did she like Dallas? Payne asked. Are there many black professionals there? A quiet pause followed, then a string of hesitant utterances.

“Um, well, um—” her friend said. “I suppose if it’s a great professional move—but socially, I wouldn’t recommend it.”

At a time of striking growth among the black population in the Dallas area, the city still suffers from an image problem among black professionals who perceive other cities—Atlanta; Chicago; or Washington, D.C.—as being more friendly to blacks.

“Dallas is a tough sell,” says April Allen, the friend Payne called, and executive director of KIPP Dallas-Fort Worth, a nonprofit charter school organization that has had trouble recruiting education reformers to the area. “There is definitely the perception that Dallas isn’t as progressive as other cities for African-Americans.”

Michael Boone, founding partner of the Dallas law firm Haynes and Boone, says his firm still struggles to recruit African-American attorneys to Dallas and has resorted to sending out letters to the top 100 black student law groups in the country, encouraging members to apply. Young black lawyers often are told that if they want to work in the South, they should go to Atlanta, not Dallas, he says.

“We’ve got to work harder to convince people that Dallas is a good place to be,” Boone says.

It’s a perception that has long troubled city leaders, this idea that the Dallas area isn’t viewed as a place where blacks, particularly high-achieving blacks, would want to live.

Yet, interestingly, this perception is at odds with the data. In one of the more notable demographic shifts of recent decades, blacks have been moving by the thousands to southern cities, including, and especially, Dallas.

The Dallas-Fort Worth metro area ranked fourth for attracting the largest number of African-Americans between 2006 and 2010, drawing a yearly average of 7,678 new residents, according to William H. Frey, a demographer for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Coming in first was the Atlanta area, with an average of 23,750 new black residents a year; then Houston, with 11,008; followed by Charlotte, with 10,137.

Clearly, Atlanta remains the overwhelming magnet for African-Americans in the South, attracting triple that of Dallas and more than Dallas and Houston combined. But Dallas has emerged as a key player in the migration shift, Frey says.

“Dallas is one of the major magnets for blacks, and professional blacks, in the U.S.,” Frey says. “You’re talking about Dallas in the same breath that you’re talking about Atlanta or Houston or some of the North Carolina cities.”

Dallas has benefited from the reversal of a long-term Great Migration north by thousands of black residents throughout the early part of the 20th century, as they went in search of better jobs and more tolerant communities. In the 1990s, demographers noticed that the numbers had fully turned around, with African-Americans leaving former magnets like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and repopulating southern cities such as Dallas. Demographers call it the New Great Migration.

They say the migration has been partly fueled by college-educated blacks, resulting in an overall “brain gain” to certain states, including Texas and Georgia.

Frey believes the Dallas metro area will continue to be a major draw for blacks in coming years. He notes Dallas ranked second nationally for overall black population gain between 2000 and 2010, which included migration and local births. During that period, the area’s black population increased by 33 percent, or 233,890 people. Once again, Atlanta was far and away the top gainer, growing by 39 percent, or 473,493 people, more than Dallas and third-ranked Houston combined, according to Frey’s analysis of U.S. Census data. During the same period, the black population dropped in the metropolitan areas of New York and Chicago for the first time.

And yet the negative perceptions of Dallas endure among black professionals.

“For all the growth and opportunity and dynamism of Dallas, the racial divide persists,” says James Waters, a black attorney who moved to Dallas in 2000 from New York to join Haynes and Boone. “I’m not entirely certain why that is so, but I think many thoughtful people are concerned about it.”

Despite significant growth in the black population here, the Dallas metro area is still only 15 percent black. Nationally, it ranks ninth for having the largest black population, behind New York; Atlanta; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Houston. For comparison, Atlanta is 32 percent black.

Black professionals who have moved to Dallas say they often don’t see other blacks at their corporate headquarters, in their neighborhood grocery stores in Uptown or Lakewood, or at happy hours downtown.

That was Payne’s experience when she first moved to Dallas in the fall of 2006. Like many thirtysomethings on a fast-track career path, Payne was ambitious. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, got her MBA from Harvard Business School, and worked 12-hour days in New York before getting offered the big promotion. Despite her social concerns about Dallas, she wasn’t going to let them get in the way of her career path.

She bought a one-way ticket, stopped at a BMW dealership to pick up a car, and drove to her newly purchased condominium in Uptown. As the days passed, Payne was pleased with some of the perks of her new life: an easy commute to her office in Uptown and a much lower cost of living, which allowed her to upgrade to a 1,750-square-foot condominium, more than double the space she had in Brooklyn.

But one thing was immediately troubling. In New York, she never had a problem finding a crowd of black professionals, in restaurants, at the gym. Here, when she went out after work, she often was the only black person in sight.

“I quickly realized that if I wanted to socialize with other black professionals, I was going to have to work for it,” Payne says.

It’s a startling experience that many black professionals say they have after moving to Dallas—the overall lack of black professionals in northern parts of the city.

Attorney W. Keith Robinson moved from Alexandria, Virginia, last August to accept a position as an assistant professor of law at SMU. “Here, I’ve had the experience that I haven’t had in a while, of being the only black guy in a suit in a restaurant,” Robinson says. “It’s definitely a strange experience. It’s not that I feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. It’s just, I know there are other black professionals in the city. Where are they?”

When Allen was recruited from Harvard Business School, she tried to avoid this experience by picking a neighborhood with a diverse population of whites, blacks, and Hispanics. She, too, had been worried about the social experience of living in Dallas. She researched neighborhoods online and got excited about North Oak Cliff, with its diverse demographics and older, historic homes. But when she got a call from the relocation real estate agent, the woman tried to dissuade her.

“You really don’t want to live in North Oak Cliff,” the woman told Allen. “It’s not really legal for me to say this, but it’s not the right demographic for you. We should find you a nice condo in Uptown.”

Allen hung up the phone, confused. “I thought, ‘Okay, welcome to Texas,’ ” Allen says.

She parted ways with that agent and hired one who lived in North Oak Cliff. To find friends, she leaned on her alumni networks, eventually assembling a group of five close black female friends. Over dinners, they talked about living in Dallas and how it fell short in some ways compared to other cities, particularly Atlanta.

“There is definitely a cultural divide, where blacks do the black scene, and whites do the white scene,” says former Dallas resident Kari Pinnock, a black professional who left Dallas for her hometown of Toronto last fall. “In other cities, there is more of a cultural mix.”

In rankings of the country’s top 100 metro areas in terms of black-white segregation, Dallas falls in the middle of the pack, coming in at No. 48 (where No. 1 is the most segregated). Dallas scored slightly better than Atlanta, which came in as the 41st most segregated area. The top spots went to Milwaukee, New York, and Chicago.

“Blacks are still very segregated in the United States,” says demographer Frey. “Dallas comes in okay, but the numbers show that it is not exactly highly integrated.”

Onay Payne (right) and her friend Michelle Gibson hanging out at TABC. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Pinnock says she felt more isolated living in Dallas than she did while living in Atlanta. “It’s not that I felt in any way uncomfortable, but I would go into Highland Park or Uptown for lunch, and I would be the only black person there,” she says. “No one is giving you the cold shoulder or anything like that, but you know they’re looking at you. I didn’t feel that way in Atlanta.”

Pinnock and her friends felt that the Dallas sprawl made it feel more segregated, because black professionals were spread out across the suburbs. Though Atlanta also suffers from massive sprawl, the women say a more vibrant downtown made up for the suburban divide, with professionals congregating in the city’s core for its arts scene and social offerings. The women hoped that perhaps with the continued growth of the Dallas Arts District and the new downtown deck park, a more diverse group of professionals will linger in the city and cross paths. But the biggest difference they saw was that those other cities had a more visible presence of high-achieving blacks in political and business circles.

“One thing that is dynamic about Atlanta is that there’s quite significant African-American leadership in the city, across all platforms,” Allen says. “I don’t know if it’s just more media exposure there, but you don’t feel that in Dallas. You want to have these role models, to see people who look like you, doing the things you want to do.”

Over time, Allen’s circle of friends dwindled, as several of the black women left Dallas for other cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C. One of the women was Lauren Graye, a black professional who moved back to her hometown of D.C. after living in Dallas for four years.

“There just aren’t enough examples of African-Americans in high executive positions in Dallas,” says Graye, who works in retail merchandising. “It’s a turnoff. It seems much more likely for me to achieve a certain level of success in a company that already has African-Americans in executive positions.

“I think unfortunately it’s a vicious cycle,” Graye continues. “Companies have trouble retaining African-Americans because they don’t already have them in leadership positions. So we perceive there is a glass ceiling, and we leave.”

These negative perceptions among minorities led a group of business leaders to discussions in the late 1990s. The executives were having trouble recruiting and retaining minority professionals, particularly blacks.

For them, diversity wasn’t a buzzword, or even a moral imperative, but a matter of survival. In a time of shifting demographics, and an extraordinarily connected world economy, these company leaders knew they must court diversity for competitive edge. Knowledge of different cultures means access to more consumers. Most simply, clients searching for attorneys, accountants, or bankers like to see a little of themselves in the company ranks.

“Diversity is now a well-established, well-entrenched idea in corporate practice,” says David Lei, SMU associate professor in the management and organizations department. “There is a belief that diversity will result in a much better product long term.”
The company leaders who gathered included the executives of BNSF Railway. With an overwhelmingly white work force, company leaders knew they needed to diversify to survive. They had long heard that minorities had a negative impression of Dallas.

“We really tried to understand the root cause of what was going on there, but we were never able to articulate it or figure out what we could change,” says Matthew Rose, the chief executive officer of BNSF. “If it is cultural, how do you go about changing that?”

They decided to forsake the nebulous and focus on the concrete: recruiting minorities to North Texas. Their efforts eventually led to the formation of a group called North Texas Leaders and Executives Advocating Diversity (LEAD). Twenty-three organizations, cities, and companies across the region, including American Airlines and Lockheed Martin, pay yearly fees from $5,000 to $68,000 to access a group of heavily vetted minority candidates from across the country. Since the group’s inception 10 years ago, it has helped place more than 400 people. But the area’s larger issues still pose a problem for LEAD.