Category: History

Data ScienceHistoryMigrationPoliticsSocial Justice

Back to Mississippi: Black migration in the 21st century

The recent election of Doug Jones to the U.S. senate in Alabama — thanks largely to African American turnout — got me thinking: What if the Black populations of Southern cities were to experience a dramatic increase? How many other elections would be impacted?

Does that seem far-fetched? Over a tenth of the Black population of the U.S. left the South during the first half of the last century.

They moved from the rural South to the North and West, hoping to escape race-based terrorism and find economic opportunity. The featured image, from the U.S. Library of Congress, is an infographic made in 1950 by the Census department about the migration. My grandparents were part of this movement — they left oppression in small town Georgia and Alabama hoping to find a (slightly) better situation in Atlanta.

As the U.S. census figure infographic below indicates, this migration — one wave in 1910 – 1940 and another wave coming 1940 – 1970 — was epic. Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns is a gripping history of this Great Migration.


The Great Migration, 1910 – 1970 from: US Census Bureau. (2012). Retrieved from


A trend towards a reverse migration back to the South has been noted recently. In a 2011 story, the New York Times reported that in 2009, of the 44,000 people who left New York City, over half moved to the South. A more recent report by the Times, provocatively entitled  Racism Is Everywhere, So Why Not Move South? explores some of the rationale behind this movement. The sentiments echo the recent paper Individual Social Capital and Migration by Julie L. Hotchkiss and Anil Rupasingha.  Improved social capital — the sense that you are a somebody in the place that you live, that your life matters (or could matter someplace) is a powerful catalyst for movement.

The LinkedIn Workforce Report for January confirms that Southern cities are gaining workers at the expense of Northern cities, and this Redfin analysis reports that there has been some North to South migration. According to the LinkedIn Workforce Report, southern cities are still among the top ten in terms of job migration (at least amongst LinkedIn members). Thriving African American communities in cities like Atlanta and Jacksonville, lower costs of living, and the rise of these cities as technology centers are powerful draws.

To look at the potential political impact of a new reverse migration, I ran a few simulations. I assumed a similar reverse migration rate of 2% per year over out ten years. In my simulations, I assume that the main states from which African Americans migrate are New York, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and California — the main destinations of the Great Migration.  I assumed that the main destinations of the new migrants are among the states that people left during the initial Great Migration: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina. I could have arguably added Tennessee to this mix. I used a Dirichlet distribution to model the allocation of migrants to various destination states.

Let’s first revisit the 2016 election map

newplot (6)

Below are a couple of illustrative outcomes from my simulations. In most of the outcomes, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are the states in which the political outcome of the migration are felt most.

newplot (8)

Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are impacted the most

newplot (7)

There’s still hope for Mississippi

Again, I let 10,000 simulations play out, sampling the allocation of migrants to destination states from a Dirichlet distribution.

To make the point a bit further, below is a bar chart showing the number of outcomes for each state over the 10,000 simulations in which Black voters had a decisive impact upon the presidential election (i.e. allocation of electoral college votes) for that state.


The point though is not really predicting the dominance of one political party or the other, it is understanding the implication Black voter empowerment — how Black people are empowered to participate in decisions regarding the health, education, policing, and economic viability of their communities. Further, beyond just Black and White, it speaks to me as an opening to think about participatory multi-racial democracy. After all, there was a flash of time between the Civil War and the enactment of Jim Crow racialist laws  in which Citizens of Color of the South were actively involved in governance.

Although these are speculative simulations — for me they contain the seeds of a certain kind of hope. Perhaps the future is the past — but maybe we can mold the future in ways that are universally empowering.

HistoryinclusionMathematicsPoliticsSocial Justice

Black history month is Black mathematicians month — in the UK

In the US, the African American scholar (and February 1st Google doodle subjectCarter G Woodson began working in 1926 to establish “Negro History Week“, for in Woodson’s day the contributions of Black people were  “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” Woodson’s Negro History week evolved into today’s US Black History Month thanks to the efforts of student activists of the 1970s.

My partner, Dr Gayatri Sethi, reminds me that the aspiration of marginalized and minoritized peoples to be heard, to enter into equity in whatever place they call home is universal.

With that in mind, it is no surprise then that Black History month has been celebrated in the UK for the last 30 years in October. This October a group of mathematicians at University College London — and  — decided to make October Black Mathematicians month.

During the month they presented interviews with UK mathematicians starting with Dr Nazar Miheisi who does research in Analysis at King’s College. The Aperiodical blog also ran pieces highlighting Black mathematicians, among them Dr Caleb Ashley who gives this Numberphile segment on the fifth postulate.

Building an equitable mathematics community, or better yet an equitable world, should not be confined to a single month — it is an undertaking that will require continuous and deliberate effort. But it is encouraging and inspiring to see many hopeful signs on a global scale.

Do you know of similar efforts in other countries to encourage the participation of marginalized peoples in science and mathematics? If so, please leave a comment or drop an email!



It seems that my last post set sparked a lot of questions in my mind about the Civil War era, it’s impact on my family, the repercussions upon Georgia, and how it is still being grappled with to this day.

There is a lot that I am still unpacking but I’ll start simple. For some reason I have been fascinated by Ulysses S. Grant since since sometime in grade school: at some point in the fifth grade I had written a play about a family of newly freed slaves encountering him on their way to a new existence in the north.

I encountered a biography, Grant by Jean Edward Smith which was fascinating in laying out many of the details of the Civil War I’d forgotten. He has a great story-telling style that seemed to make the intrigue of the early days of the Civil War jump out, and brought to life the way in which life in the 19th century seemed to straddle the complexities of a long ago time with our own.

I read a few chapters of it before returning it to the library, and then shortly a long awaited biography American Ulysses came out. Prescient. I vowed to complete this one end to end. As the politics of the 2016 US presidential election came to their head, I was reminded time and again, how far and how little progress the US has made confronting what I would simply call White supremacy. Several insights began to stand out as I continued reading the book.

  • One conclusion that one comes to is that the relative low ranking of Grant in terms of presidents seems in part due to the revisionist US history that unfolded after Reconstruction was abandoned. That is, objectively Grant stands out as an equal to LBJ and his predecessors as an aggressive advocate of civil and human rights. Yet after his time in office, the country effectively began to turn a blind eye to the racial violence and dis-enfranchisement of African Americans ( and Native Americans, and ethnic minorities ) that would envelop the South for a hundred years. I think the historians bought into this narrative.
  • The degree to which he evolved as a thinker on race and equality seems unparalleled in politics. These kinds of evolutions are certainly rare in US politics, the closest thing that I can think of in this evolution would be Robert Kennedy’s evolution from a critic of the 1960’s Civil Rights in his time as Attorney General to being an unqualified advocate at the time of his assassination.
  • Andrew Johnson’s impeachment seems to have really arisen over his refusal to enforce any of the Civil Rights measures passed in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. This biography argues effectively that (Andrew) Johnson didn’t have any interest in African Americans having voting rights . To quote Johnson “to grant the privileges of citizenship to blacks would show prejudice against whites.” We still seem to be having the same zero sum game issues in 2016.
  • It is amazing to note his development of and unflinching support of the 14th and 15th amendments. To quote: “I will not hesitate to exhaust the powers thus vest for the purpose of securing to all citizens of the United States the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and laws.”
  • Grant’s development of a real relationship with Mexico in dealings with Benito Juarez and Matias Romero — again remarkable for the “manifest destiny” era — again have lessons for today. I’m having a hard time conceptualizing how Grant would react to a fellow American Republican president building a wall to separate the two countries.

In sum the book was an odyssey of hope. The journey of a man who evolved from being indifferent to slavery to one of the architects of a multi-racial society is dramatic and pulled off with great story telling on White‘s part. Especially insightful and compelling are White’s narrative of the how Grant confronted the Ku Klux Klan. The gem of this story is how Grant pulled in an ex-Confederate from Georgia, Amos Akerman, who would champion civil rights as U.S. attorney general and as a lawyer in Georgia when he left the cabinet.

There is a quote, though antiquated, that White pulls out that seems to sum up what a real politics could be “Treat the negro as a citizen and a voter, as he is and must remain, and soon parties will be divided, not on the color line, but on principle. Then we shall have no complaint of sectional interference.” In essence when we are all free to express our voice, not threatened with removal or invisibility by our identity but included by our humanness, then governance can enter a civil space.

The way the book dealt with the fine details as well as the broad historical context is amazing. I appreciated his understanding of Grant as an introvert who was able to provide critical leadership to a country divided.

Finally it seems to me that it is another testament to Dr King’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” When I first heard that quote, I’d no idea that it would take so long. I am learning patience.






Six years ago, I was trying to get a proposal off and my wife hooked me up with a few days of retreat time at a place called Banning Mills. It’s about an hour and half from Atlanta, but in many ways, rural Georgia has always seemed a world away.

Both of my grandfathers left small towns in the southeast — Covington, GA and Salem, AL — under a phenomenon I’ll just call “Klan duress”. Veiled and not-so veiled threats from powerful White men led them both to migrate to Atlanta before the 1920’s. So I acknowledge that I still have some biases to overcome.

Nevertheless, I was impressed by the beauty of the surrounding area. It claims a famous zip-line


and nearby there are exquisite views of the Chattahoochee that are priceless for their serenity


The image that remains with me to this day is a placard that I saw on entering the resort’s  main building to check in. It is of a Black man, a very distinguished gentleman, taken in the 1850’s/60’s. I was shocked by it’s very existence — that in Carrol County there was Black who then and to this day occupies a position of honor.


The gentleman was Horace King, an Oberlin-educated architect. He built many bridges throughout the southeast, in fact a bridge connecting Alabama and Georgia. Before the war broke out he had purchased his freedom using monies from his bridge building efforts with his owner John Godwin. He is responsible for this innovative fantastic staircase in the Alabama State Capital, was conscripted into building ships and defenses for the Confederacy, and was an active figure in the rebuilding of Alabama after the Civil War.

It was no small feat. According to the census data ( the visualizations developed by the Census Department during the pre-Tableau 1860’s is in itself a feat of imagination and an exemplar of good data design ), more than 40% of Georgia was enslaved at the time.


Though the “invisibility” of the my African slave ancestors is acknowledged, the census data paints a picture of a similarly un-empowered White population getting by on subsistence farming.

The image I left Banning Mills with was of Mr King standing with the White, Black, and Native American bridge builders near a completed project. I’ve probably imagined that image — so far I’ve not been able to locate it despite generous help from Banning Mill’s owner and founder Donna King. But I believe the impact of his life captures that impression: that he created bridges in his lifetime and today that allow us to escape the received and limited narratives that constrain our ability to connect, to see, and to grow.