DISCOVERY BAY -- More than 70 years ago, John the Baptist "J.B." Westbrooks joined the Great Migration of millions of African-Americans who fled the segregated South for jobs-rich cities such as Oakland, Chicago and New York.
He rode the freight rails from Jasper County, Texas, to the end of the line in West Oakland and found work in the East Bay's booming shipyards at the brink of World War II.
Today, his son Malcolm Westbrooks is one of hundreds of thousands of black Americans reversing an earlier generation's trend, departing those same urban neighborhoods and heading back toward the South or to suburban enclaves, according to new census data released Thursday. The population drops have been dramatic in places such as San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.
Oakland, where Malcolm Westbrooks grew up and lived until 2009, has lost 23 percent of its black population since 2000, one of the biggest drops nationwide.
"On my one block of 107th Avenue, I had four neighbors who moved back to the South in the last decade. In my own family, I have nieces, a little brother who moved to Texas. And they're all Oakland people," Westbrooks said.
The new U.S. Census Bureau reports show the black population in the last decade has grown fastest in the South and certain Western states such as Arizona and Nevada, but only moderately in California.
Westbrooks considered moving south to the region where his parents grew up. Instead, the 60-year-old bought his retirement home two years ago in Discovery Bay, at the far eastern edge of the suburban Bay Area.
"I bought a lot in Texas and was going to build there, but then the economy turned and California houses in places like Discovery Bay came down to the Texas prices," Westbrooks said. "That gave me an option."
As California's population grew by 10 percent in the last decade, its black population rose by just 170,873, or 6.8 percent. The numbers count all people who identify themselves as black, including those who also claim another race.
It was a more dramatic change for urban California: Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego were among the 12 cities nationwide with the largest black population losses. Smaller cities in the Bay Area also had significant shifts. Richmond's black population dropped by 23 percent, Berkeley's by 20 percent, Daly City's by 24 percent and East Palo Alto's by 31 percent.
As blacks moved out of traditional African-American hubs, they have been replaced by whites in some Bay Area neighborhoods and Latinos and Asian-Americans in many others.
"One of the major findings -- and surprises, even -- from the 2010 census was the widespread decline of black populations in cities across the country," said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. "More blacks are moving to the suburbs, but there's an increasing draw back to the South."
Fifty-five percent of all African-Americans live in the South, up from 53.6 percent a decade earlier, according to the census report released Thursday. Part of that movement is for cheaper housing, but kinship ties and cultural connections also play a role, Frey said.
"New South cities have booming economies, at least until very recently, and cultural ties," Frey said. "The black population is prominent and part of the middle class."
The South isn't a draw for everyone. Westbrooks, for example, realized that despite his familial roots, the Bay Area was where he wanted to stay. He and nearly 400 other African-Americans moved to Discovery Bay in the last decade, causing the small, gated community's black population to grow by 233 percent. The Delta hamlet and surrounding suburban communities -- especially Antioch, Brentwood and Tracy -- are among the few Bay Area places where the black population is growing fast, according to the 2010 census.
"Moving back to Texas would have been challenging in a lot of ways," he said. "It's just culturally different. I'm a California boy, born and bred and raised right here in Oakland. We're different."
California is also distinct from most southern states in another way, according to the report on the U.S. black population released by the Census Bureau on Thursday: It has the largest number of people -- about 385,000 -- and a high proportion who identify both as black and some other race.
Nationwide, the number of people who identify their race as both black and white more than doubled from 785,000 in 2000 to 1.8 million in 2010. Demographers believe the increase is partly due to a greater number of mixed-race people and partly due to changes in the way people choose to identify themselves on the census.
Cities with largest black population losses, 2000 to 2010
1. Detroit: -185,393
2. Chicago: -181,453
3. New York: -100,859
4. Los Angeles: -54,606
5. Washington, D.C.: -39,035
6. Oakland: -33,502
7. Cleveland: -33,304
8. Atlanta: -29,746
9. Baltimore: -24,071
10. San Francisco: -12,010
Source: Brookings Institution