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Entrepreneur who charted her own Great Migration finds purpose, place in Florida

The Black Progress Index reveals where Black people are doing well so we can duplicate the results

Marco Island, a town in Collier County, Florida.BestPictM/Adobe Stock

Carol Thompson-Finn had grown disillusioned with urban life in Chicago and was ready for a change. So in 2013, the lawyer and entrepreneur relocated to Collier County, Florida, where her husband has roots. Today, the couple live in an upscale gated community lined with palm trees and have a backyard swimming pool.

“We spot a lot of wildlife: alligators, deer, and the occasional black bear,” Thompson-Finn says.

Besides its tropical climate, this scenic area along the Gulf of Mexico is known for its waterfront enclaves, sailing, golf, and art galleries.

“It’s a laid-back lifestyle,” says Thompson-Finn, a Jackson, Mississippi, native who founded MyLegalEdge LLC, a legal-documents business she conceived years ago while a law clerk at the Mississippi Supreme Court. “It’s a smaller community with lots of retirees. In season, there are lots of social galas. We’ve gotten to know nice people and enjoy the lifestyle.”

Carol Thompson-Finn, at the corner of 5th Avenue and Park St. in South Naples, Florida.Chris Tilley

Indeed, groundbreaking new data reveals that Black residents in this part of the country are living their best lives, according to the Black Progress Index, a collaboration between The Brookings Institution and the NAACP. The goal is to use data to better understand the well-being of Black people and the conditions that surround their lives. The researchers define “Black” as people who self-identify as such (but not Hispanic) in the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

The Black Progress Index is an interactive research tool available to the public. Of 1,677 counties analyzed, Collier County in southwest Florida ranks highly in the index, with a predicted life expectancy of 82.6 years based on social factors that support well-being and health. It is important to note its Black population is only 7%.

The index also allows users to find major metros where Black life is better in terms of longevity. Fairfax County, Virginia, which ranks No. 1 in Black life expectancy, also tops the Black Progress Index, with a predicted life expectancy of 82.2 years. Other counties that rank highly in the index include Montgomery County, Maryland, with a predicted life expectancy of 81.3 years; Middlesex County (Boston area), Massachusetts (80.6 years); and Providence County, Rhode Island (78.2 years).

Major metros at the bottom of the index include the city of St. Louis (69.2 years); Baltimore (69.5 years); Milwaukee (71.1 years); Flint, Michigan (72.3 years); and Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan (71.6 years).

Researchers analyzed the assets and opportunities tied to quality of life based on 13 index components in key areas: family health, wealth, safety, environmental quality, and human/social capital. The latter encompasses factors such as Black college attainment rates and friendships. A plethora of statistics were mined, including data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Facebook.

“We’re generating data that will inform important policy decisions, from issues of student debt cancellation and taxation to healthcare and economic development,” says Andre Perry, Ph.D., a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, who led the effort. “Truth is the twin sister of justice.”

Jonathan Rothwell, Ph.D., principal economist with Gallup Inc., worked closely with Perry. Their goal, he said, was to “highlight strengths rather than deficits” in common narratives about Black communities.

Collier County, with a population of about 385,000 people and a median income of $70,000, has only about 7% Black residents. Yet several indicators within the Black Progress Index dovetail with those of the county.

One example is environmental quality, which the research team defined as “measured by low levels of air pollution and living in moderately or low-population-density areas.” Getting positive marks in this regard is significant, experts say.

“Too many Americans live in communities where they’re dealing with air and water pollution and the cumulative health and environmental impact,” says Michelle Mabson, an attorney and staff scientist with Earthjustice, a public-interest nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “It goes back decades to segregation and redlining. These zones are disproportionately found in communities of color and low-income communities.”

Despite being relatively small, the Black community in Collier County boasts a long, rich history.

Indeed, the history of Black people in South Florida begins in the late 1400s and intertwines with the Native Americans indigenous to the region. After slavery was abolished in 1693 in what was then Spanish Florida, the territory became a haven for those who’d escaped. In the 1730s, a Black Spanish community in St. Augustine founded a town called Fort Mose. In the 1860s, Black troops served in Florida during the Civil War. In the 20th century, the Black labor force played pivotal roles in the logging and sawmill industries and also helped build the sprawling Tamiami Trail.

These days, the local Black community is hardly a monolith. There are both established residents and newcomers, some of whom have emigrated from the Caribbean and beyond.

“When you look at ancestry, many here identify as Haitians,” says Thomas Felke, Ph.D., an associate professor of social work at Florida Gulf Coast University. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Haitian migrants made their way from Miami to Collier County.”

An officer from the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce told The Emancipator its membership base includes “successful” Haitian American business owners.

Yet Felke points out that while Collier County has wealthy enclaves, such as Naples, there are packets of poverty in places such as Immokalee, an agricultural center. The community’s residents include migrant farm workers from Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries, plus service workers employed in tourism and other industries. “Affordable housing is an issue in the county,” he says.

That said, the index suggests Collier County is among those where higher numbers of foreign-born Black adults raise the predicted life expectancy.

“The interpretation is unclear,” says Perry, noting it is “well established” that foreign-born Black immigrants to the U.S. live longer than native-born Black Americans.

Collier County also ranked well on the index in terms of Black homeownership and college attainment rate, and commuting via bike or walking.

These factors illustrate some of the reasons why Carol Thompson-Finn relishes the life she and her husband have built in this community: “I feel very blessed.”

Donna M. Owens is an award-winning, multiplatform journalist. The news veteran has covered U.S. Congress, the White House, elections, as well as race, gender, social justice, and culture.