ong a symbolic division between the Black inner city and its northern White suburbs, Eight Mile will always be a major artery of southeastern Michigan and a predominant county line. But it's not quite the racial divider it once was.
One of the last bastions of the Eight Mile Road borderline has blurred: Macomb County, the historically "Whitest" county in southeast Michigan with a history of racial intolerance, had the most dramatic uptick in African-American population, the most recent U.S. Census data notes. According to a U.S. Census estimate, Macomb's Black population leaped a whopping 22.6 percent from 2010 to 2013. By comparison, Oakland County's Black population increased 7.3 percent in the same three-year period.
What's caused this massive migration? And what does it mean for the region?
History of Macomb County
Years ago, as freeways were built and land opened up, White residents began to leave crowded Detroit neighborhoods for greener pastures. That was obviously exacerbated as racial tensions rose in the 1960s, capped off by the 1967 riots. Now, their children and grandchildren are coming back; talk to any recent White transplant to Detroit, and there's a good chance they've got a suburban upbringing.
Black Detroiters moving to the suburbs is nothing new, whether it was Southfield in the 1980s, Oak Park in the 1990s or the western Wayne suburbs in the 2000s. For many who wanted to leave, there were still question marks over some areas-many of those in Macomb County.
To be sure, Macomb County as a whole has never been absent of residents and business owners of color. One of the county's first Black-owned business was a cemetery opened in Warren in 1925, where the Black inventor Elijah McCoy is buried. Mount Clemens began attracting an influx of Black residents during World War I and remains the county's city with the highest Black population.
But history points to a clear unfriendliness toward Black residents. The county historically leaned Republican until President Obama's first term. The county opposed busing between districts in the 1970s and, despite a strong Black community in Mount Clemens, you'd still be hard-pressed to find Black political representation in almost every decade.
"We were the red-headed stepchild of the metro area. A lily White county of rednecks. A county created by White flight, populated by closet racists," the Macomb Daily wrote in a 2008 editorial.
Why African-Americans are moving to Macomb County
If you want to see one of the most prominent examples of Macomb County's more "colorful" presence, head to Eastpointe. Once known as East Detroit, the city changed its name in a failed attempt to align itself with the Grosse Pointes (but a more blatant attempt to distance itself from Detroit Detroit). Now, Eastpointe is one of several Macomb County suburbs that has seen an influx of Black residents, mostly coming from Detroit.
Drive through brick bungalow-lined streets and you'll see young Black boys playing ball with young White ones, or girls of all ethnicities standing in line at the walk-up Dairy Queen on Nine Mile Road. Black customers are greeted heartily at a Middle Eastern restaurant on Gratiot-another sight that would have been unheard of in the Macomb County of old.
"I like the neighborhood," says Erica Cook, owner of Pretty Woman Beauty Salon, when asked why she decided to open a hair salon on Gratiot near Nine Mile. While greasing a client's hair with Vaseline, Cook ticks off firm "no's" when asked if she's been hassled, intimidated or felt uncomfortable at all in Macomb County.
Cook has owned Pretty Woman since September 2013 and business is doing fine. Black women wait to get their hair done while K. Michelle songs play in the background. She's one of several salons to open up and down the Gratiot stretch in the last few years.
According to figures from Data Driven Detroit, a Detroit-based numbers cruncher, the Macomb County cities with the greatest gains in African-American population were southern communities like Eastpointe, Warren and Roseville, with a significant uptick in St. Clair Shores as well.
Realtor Robert O. Williams has seen this trend firsthand. "Seventy percent of purchases from three other brokers (in my office) are African-American sales in Macomb County," Williams says. "And 50 percent of that 70 percent are coming from Detroit."
A casual survey of Black residents in Macomb County comes with near-universal answers as to why they moved from Detroit to the 'burbs: Safety. Security. Better schools. Better neighborhoods. Clean streets. If needed, adequate police response.
At the same time these needs-or frustrations-were fully felt, the housing market started tanking in 2008 in metro Detroit, opening up opportunity for those looking for good real estate bargains. That was particularly true in Macomb County, which has a lower median home price (currently $131,500) compared to Oakland County ($192,500) and typically a lower property tax rate, according to online home/real estate marketplace Zillow. Bottom line: You can get more house for your money in Macomb.
Growing population in Macomb County
Macomb County became more open to African-Americans through the schools. Our state's schools of choice program, which allowed neighboring districts to recruit students to come to their schools to increase enrollment, opened up opportunity for both financially beleaguered suburban districts looking for more students (and more money) and parents looking for better schools for their children. Some school districts opened their doors beyond city borders, while others required proofs of address for students to attend. Eventually, all Macomb County school districts had an open-door policy in 2012-except one.
Circle back to Eastpointe, whose school district was the last in Macomb County to become a district of choice. During contentious board meetings where some board members fought to keep the district closed off, one board member openly remarked that there would be "White flight" if the East Detroit School District opened its doors.
He didn't say who or what would cause the White flight. But it was clear to whomever was paying attention.
That board member was removed, and the district watched as more Black parents-mostly from Detroit-joined other Black parents that had already moved in years prior.
Angela Roseberry was just a teenager when her parents decided to uproot the family and move to Warren from Detroit.
Back then, she says, they had heard about potential discrimination they might feel. Sixteen years later, Roseberry says she's encountered very little of it, and now lives in a house of her own in Warren while running a boutique, Totally U, in Eastpointe.
"I don't have any shutters or gates on my storefront," she says. "If you go to Eight Mile, you'll see a lot of shutters and gates."
Totally U is in its fourth year of operation, and Roseberry has regular clients from both sides of the border. She's comfortable in Eastpointe, but admits she has concern that some of the same prejudices heard about back in the day may creep up in some of the suburbs she's unfamiliar with.
For now, she credits her longevity in running a business to the "family-oriented" atmosphere of where she's located. It's the little things, like people walking their dogs out in the open or the quicker response of emergency services.
It goes back to safety and security. Ironically, those responses Black residents give aren't unlike the same ones White residents gave after the riots.
In the 1984 book Union Power and American Democracy, author D.W. Buffa weighed in on Detroit's shifting demographic. "People in Macomb left Detroit because they thought it was a bad situation," he writes. "They don't want to be bothered with problems. They want to be left alone north of Eight Mile."
Today, those people clearly include a growing number of African-Americans.