Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Marchers walk past the AT&T building on M.L. King Boulevard during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The march was held in conjunction with a variety of other Martin Luther King Jr. Day events held throughout the day.

The decrease in Black residents in Chattanooga and Hamilton County over the past decade is the result of choices made by politicians and civic elites in the area, according to a presentation Sunday by Kenneth Chilton, associate professor of public administration at Tennessee State University.

In the 21st century, Chattanooga was successful in branding itself as a destination for tourists, as well as a landing spot for young entrepreneurs and a certain demographic, Chilton said.

"Branding, creating a brand and then marketing that nationwide, Chattanooga has done an excellent job of getting their story out to The New York Times, to NPR, to tech industry people, doing tourism and things like that," Chilton said. "And part of that was to reverse white flight, to bring back higher-paying jobs, higher-paying earners back to our downtowns, back to our inner-urban neighborhoods."

Chilton's presentation launched a week of virtual events for this year's MLK Week, sponsored by the Unity Group. Eric Atkins from the Unity Group said the presentation was in response to concerns about the city following the 2020 census.

The results of the 2020 census, released in August 2021, showed the population of people identifying themselves as only Black or African American in both Chattanooga and Hamilton County declined from 2010 to 2020. The Black population in Hamilton County in 2020 was down by 3,504 people from 2010.

"We are greatly disturbed by many of the numbers that we see and some of the trends in our city," Atkins said. "So we thought that in order to better engage the community, we needed to have some in-depth discussions on some of these trend patterns that we are seeing."

(READ MORE: State of Black community in Chattanooga: 'Inequality is the new normal,' professor says)


Black Flight


The "Black flight" from the Chattanooga area is unlike what happened in Nashville in the past decade, as well as different from the trends seen in white flight during the 1960s, Chilton said. The areas around Nashville saw a net increase in Black residents between 2010 and 2020, compared to Southeast Tennessee, which saw a net decrease between Hamilton County and the counties surrounding it between 2010 and 2020.

In the 1960s, white residents in urban areas were incentivized to move by federal programs to boost suburban areas. The moves were largely a choice, unlike the past decade in Chattanooga, in which Black residents seem to be forced out of their homes.

Chattanooga losing its Black population is a trend that has been shown in more than just the census data, Chilton said.

"Why it's happening, we don't necessarily know. Where the people are going, we're not 100% sure," he said. "We do know that African-Americans in and around downtown neighborhoods have been either displaced to suburban locations or are choosing to vote with their feet and move elsewhere for better opportunities, lower costs of living or whatever."

The changes in Chattanooga in the 21st century were made largely by people who were unelected and therefore not accountable to residents who saw their neighborhoods become unaffordable, Chilton said. There appeared to be few safeguards for low-income residents and communities of color, he said.

"There wasn't a lot of thought given to, once this process starts, how do those people who've lived here for 10, 20, 30, 40 years, how are they integrated into the neighborhood? How are they protected?" Chilton said.

The loss of Black residents in the area has implications for political representation, funding for local needs and interpersonal cultural networks, Chilton said.

"Black flight, this, at least in Chattanooga from what I know and from what I've read and what I've seen, has been promoted actively by civic elites, oftentimes by elected officials and oftentimes by leaders who've spent tens of millions of dollars to create a place for a certain demographic," Chilton said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

The Unity Group of Chattanooga has announced the following virtual and in-person events for the 52nd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Week Celebration:

2022- What’s New About Voting?

Facilitator: Hamilton County Voters Coalition.

7 p.m. Monday via Zoom; register at

Community and the Courts: Criminal Justice Issues in 2022

Presenter: [CALEB] Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence.

7 p.m. Tuesday via Zoom; register at

Making Our Communities Decent & Safe Places to Live

Facilitator: Bro. Kevin Muhammad.

7 p.m. Thursday via Zoom; register at

Riots are the Voices of the Unheard

Presenter: Pastor Charlotte S. N.N. Williams.

6 p.m. Jan. 14 via Zoom; register at

Continuing the Movement for Community Control

Presenter: Community Control Now Coalition.

7 p.m. Jan. 15 via Zoom; register at

COVID-19 is not dead

Presenter: Chattanooga-Hamilton County Branch NAACP.

7 p.m. Jan. 16 via Zoom; register at

Beloved Community Gathering

1 p.m. Jan. 17 in Miller Park (Due to COVID-19 concerns, the annual MLK Day Parade for 2022 is canceled. The gathering in Miller Park will adhere to COVID-19 protocols, including masks and social distancing.)