Of the 50 largest cities in the United States, only seven have black majorities — Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. As of 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were only 77 majority-black counties, all in the South. Here in Calhoun County, Anniston is one of two majority-black cities. Hobson City is the other.
Anniston's population was 51.5 percent black according to the 2010 census. Whites make up 44.7 percent.
But what the new status means for Anniston’s politics, race relations and economic future is unclear.
Some people don’t think the new numbers will change anything in Anniston at all. Others think change is coming, but don’t know what that change will be.
Sam Hammock, a white resident, said he doesn’t think things will change with the population shift.
“To be honest with you, (racial relations) seem pretty normal to me,” he said. “You know, everybody has their problems.”
But that view isn’t shared by everyone.
Janet Marks, a black resident of 23rd Street, said she doesn’t believe there will be any changes, because it doesn’t seem like there is a black majority in Anniston.
“The city of Anniston is run mostly by whites,” Marks said as she corralled her children in her car outside the Anniston library. “I don’t really feel like I have a say now.”
One thing that might change is the perception of Anniston.
People outside Anniston may see the city differently based on its designation as a majority-black city, said Clarissa Arms-Chavez, assistant professor of psychology at Auburn University. Some people may judge the town on the stereotypes they hold toward the race.
“It’s the characteristics of the group, but if now that’s the majority, it just takes over the whole town,” she said. “Those stereotypes are definitely going to follow.”
Arms-Chavez notes she is from El Paso, Texas, where the majority of the population is Hispanic, and has heard many stereotypes applied to her former home because of its ethnic makeup.
Those views could influence people choosing whether to move to the area. Depending on the views a person holds, it could make them think twice about moving to the city or it could provide encouragement. For instance, more black families could choose to move to Anniston because they might feel like there would be less racial tension here.
That phenomenon might already be affecting the city’s population. While Anniston’s population as a whole fell during the last 10 years, the black population increased slightly, from 11,821 in 2000 to 11,903 in 2010.
According to William Curtis Ellis, assistant professor of political science at Auburn University, the city is in a "rare club."
“There aren’t that many cities in the United States that are majority-black," said Ellis, "and if you break it down by size, there aren’t that many in the 25,000 range either.”
Diversity a draw
However, the city’s new status as a majority-black town might also draw people of other races who are interested in living in a diverse population, Arms-Chavez said.
“Individuals that are more open to new experiences are more likely to want to move into an area like that for the experience, to experience the culture,” she said.
Residents of Anniston also may have to rethink their views based on the population change.
Isaiah Sankey, a black mayoral candidate who ran in 1996, said race can no longer be used as an excuse for the black residents who might feel they are being ignored.
“When African Americans are in the majority,” he said, “you don’t have anything to hide behind.”
Black residents may have learned helplessness, but with the changing population balance comes new power, he said. Arms-Chavez agreed. What the racial shift means to current Anniston residents moving forward depends on how they view that information, she said.
Anniston has a past marked by racial tension. Although some in the community worked for peaceful integration, there were incidents of violent resistance. Today, the issue of race is brought up in the City Council meetings, in marches and protests, in lawsuits at the Calhoun County Courthouse.
In 2004, the city’s population was still fairly segregated with the four wards split into two majority-black wards with black voting-age populations of more than 75 percent, and two majority white wards, one with a voting-age white population of 66 percent and the other 89 percent white voting-age residents. The city’s public schools are overwhelmingly populated with black students, while the city’s private schools teach a majority of white students.
But the key to melting away racial tension seems to be about an attitude of unity, Arms-Chavez said.
“Some research has found that if we … just all say we’re all American and then all of a sudden, the racial tensions will disappear,” she said.
Some residents believe that attitude is taking hold in the city.
“Frankly, I see us all as Annistonians,” said Jim Miller, general manager of the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board and member of a couple of city boards. “I think the whole purpose of the civil rights movement and everything we’ve been through is to get past all that.”
As older generations hand the reins of the city over to younger generations, Miller, who is white, said he thinks race will become less of an issue.
“To me it’s just a natural evolution of things,” he said. “As older people pass on and younger people come in, they’re just not carrying all that baggage.”
Mayor Gene Robinson also believes the town is becoming less concerned about race and more concerned about every resident’s well-being.
“I think our community is working together,” he said. “There’s basically white and black and some Hispanic on every board, every committee. Almost every meeting I go to is a meeting of the citizens where we have that diversity.”
The majority of Anniston’s residents have been minorities for a while. Even during the 2000 census, the white residents made up just 48.7 percent of the population, dead-even with the black population. In the 2010 census, the percentage had dropped to 44.7 percent for white residents, while the black population rose to 51.5 percent and the Hispanic population rose to 2.7 percent.
The drop in the percentage of white population is not only because of an increase in black and Hispanic residents, but also because the white population is smaller. In 2000, there were 11,825 white residents in Anniston. In 2010, there were 10,237 white residents.
Imbalance and tension
That’s something that worries some residents.
Rochelle Washington, a black resident who stopped to talk on his way into the library on 10th Street, believes as white residents move on, in many cases, they are taking jobs with them.
“A lot of white businesses are moving out, too, to other places,” he said. “That will affect race relations.”
Sankey agreed. He believes racial tensions can be heightened by the perception of inequity in the distribution of city resources. For instance, to some poorer residents, wealthier neighborhoods may look like they’re getting a disproportionate share of work done by the city. That’s something that has been brought up by residents. At a town hall meeting in February, a resident brought up the neglect of south Anniston, which many in the audience affirmed.
“Race always plays a factor in the decision-making process, at least that’s the perception,” Sankey said. “The perception is that the city is focused more on the more affluent areas and, in a lot of cities, the more affluent areas tend to be white. So, with that being the case, that is part of the reason you get that racial tension.”
But it’s not always an accurate perception. According to records from Anniston’s Public Works Department, over the last two years, more than one-third of the jobs completed in the city of Anniston have been in Ward 3 in southwest Anniston. Yet some residents of that ward see it as one of the neglected wards.
One thing none of the residents mentioned was whether the change in demographics could cause a change in political power. Arms-Chavez pointed out that if a new group becomes the majority, even though it is considered a minority nationally, it is still a majority in that area and has a certain amount of power just because of sheer numbers.
“The majority is the majority regardless of the race, and they have to watch and make sure that they’re not committing the same perceptual errors that might have been committed against them when they were the minority,” she said.
Charlotte Price, a white resident who talked while walking laps at the Norwood Hodges Community Center, may have been part of the city’s majority population, but when her son attended Anniston High School, he was one of only two or three white kids in the school.
“My son said it was hard for him in school being one of the few whites there,” Price said. “But once he got on the football team, the football team looked out for him, and it got easier.”
The change in majority will also mean a focus on Anniston when it comes to redistricting, said Auburn's Ellis. Any time voting districts are changed, the changes have to preserve minority voting groups and not dilute them, he said.
“If minorities are clustered, then the (U.S.) Justice Department is typically going to require that they’re able to elect a minority candidate,” Ellis said. “By nature of the way your population is broken down, there are a lot of sort of political spotlights on the city were the city to make changes in the lines of its wards. One, because we’re in Alabama, and, two, you have that sort of extra eye because you do have a large minority population.”
But the change in percentages is so small from 2000, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be political changes on the horizon.
In fact, the population shift is actually old news. Richard Hooks, chairman of the Anniston Board of Education, points out that those numbers have been coming on for years, and while they’re just being released, they are actually a year old.
“It’s possible it could lead to changes,” Hooks said.
He pointed out that as Atlanta and Birmingham’s black populations grew, the cities elected black mayors. In Atlanta, every mayor elected since 1973 has been black. But that is not necessarily going to happen.
“Blacks can support white candidates,” Hooks said. “It really depends on who’s running.”
Because the percentage of black residents has been so close to that of white residents, any candidate who runs for mayor has had to appeal to both races.
Anniston’s Mayor Robinson, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor before he was elected in 2008, hired black residents Curtis Ray and William Hutchings to campaign for him in the black wards in his 2008 campaign. They successfully pulled in the black vote for him, but the day after the election Robinson made a comment to The Star saying he had won because he bought into “the black corruption.” Ray filed suit against the mayor.
Hutchings said he supported Robinson because he thought he would represent the needs of the city’s black residents and break the racially based 3-2 vote on the council, but, he said, that comment illustrated how much Robinson didn’t understand his black constituents.
It’s still early, but the population shift hasn’t changed the political landscape much so far.
The last black candidate for mayor that Anniston Board of Education member Mary Harrington can remember is Sankey, and she remembers he didn’t have the support of all the black voters in town, nor did he bring them running to the polls.
The turnout in that 1996 election was 23 percent in Ward 2 and 19 percent in Ward 3. That was down from the 1992 election when 29 and 22 percent of the voters turned out in those predominantly black wards.
Sankey garnered 860 votes in that election and didn’t make it to the runoff. The two highest vote-getters received 1,166 and 1,139. He made a decent showing in the predominantly black wards. But, while he received the largest vote total in the two wards, he got less than half the votes.
Harrington, a black resident, believes change will come only when the majority of the voters are black. Although the majority of the population is black, the population over 18 is still nearly evenly split between minorities and whites, with whites making up 49.5 of the over-18 population, and blacks and Hispanics making up 49.6 of the over-18 population.
Hutchings, an Anniston school board member, said historically, the black voters have favored candidates who provided jobs and hired black employees. They tended to look to influential black members of the community for leadership when deciding which candidate to support, he added.
But now, as black students are better-educated and opportunities have increased, the black voters are voting differently, he said.
“They don’t have to depend on the machine,” he said.
Hutchings said he would like to see a black mayor if only to see a more unified council that could get things done.
“It could be better if you had better leadership among the blacks and the whites,” he said.
But the black community doesn’t always get involved as much as it could because of pure frustration, said Washington, the black resident at the library. Sometimes it’s fear, as illustrated by another black resident who had a lot to say about what she believes is neglect of the Anniston school system by white residents who send their children to other systems. She declined to give her name because she didn’t want to chance possible repercussions.
That hesitation reaches into both races. State Rep. Randy Wood, a white resident of Anniston, didn’t want to comment on the increase in black population in Anniston except to say that his representation won’t change and has always been color-blind.
When questioned further, he answered, “I’m not going there.”
However, Marks, the black resident who lives on 23rd Street, said, if the population wants to see change in Anniston, it must step up and get involved in the political process.
“The citizens need to get more involved,” she said.
State Rep. Barbara Boyd, who is black, said although there is a black majority in the city, the key to the political process in a diverse population is cooperation and compromise. That was one of the toughest lessons she had to learn her first year in the Statehouse, she said.
“The minority must be heard, but the majority rules,” she said. “You might lose one issue today, but next week or some other time in the future, you might win another.”
Hutchings had another way of saying it.
“You can’t hold a man in a ditch unless you get in there with him,” he said.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.