BISMARCK — When Hukun Dabar arrived in Fargo seven years ago, the place didn’t quite feel like home.
The limited halal selection at local shops couldn’t satisfy the Somali immigrant’s appetite, necessitating frequent trips to stock up in Minneapolis. Members of Dabar’s community had trouble finding commercial space to rent to start businesses, and many longtime dwellers of the predominantly white city turned a cold shoulder to Black immigrants, he said.
But Fargo has changed — both demographically and culturally, said Dabar, executive director of the Afro American Development Association.
Black residents, many of them recent immigrants or refugees, accounted for 8.8% of the city’s population in the 2020 Census — up from 2.7% a decade prior. Fargo’s Asian, Latino and multiracial populations also grew considerably over the 10-year span.
“Right now, every place you look you see a person that looks like you,” Dabar said. “That’s not the way it was before.”
And it’s not just Fargo. A massive influx of new residents, spurred on by a booming oil industry and a burgeoning base of immigrants, has made North Dakota more racially diverse than ever, said state Census Office manager Kevin Iverson.
“We’ve never seen a shift like this in North Dakota,” Iverson said. “We became a lot more like the rest of the United States.”
North Dakota’s population expanded by more than 106,000 people between the two censuses, and it’s clear people of color drove the growth, Iverson said.
About 17% of North Dakota’s population identified as a race other than white in the latest Census — the most in any official count since statehood — while a record 4.3% of residents claimed Hispanic origin.
The added diversity has meant quality-of-life improvements for Dabar. With six halal groceries in the Fargo area, he has eliminated food-finding excursions to the Twin Cities.
Entrepreneurial Somali, Liberian and South Sudanese immigrants are received by a more welcoming business environment, and Fargoans who may have been initially hesitant to meet their new neighbors have shown a willingness to learn their cultures and facilitate integration, Dabar said.
“North Dakota itself is the world now,” Dabar said.
Oil Patch powers growth
For most of the last century, people were more likely to leave North Dakota than come to it.
From the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s until the Bakken formation’s oil boom in the late 2000s, the state lost more people through migration than it gained, Iverson said. The rare growth during that span came from residents born and raised in the state.
The 1930 Census recorded about 681,000 residents — 98.6% of them white. Iverson notes that the federal government likely undercounted the number of Native Americans living in the state back then, but the homogeneity of the population is still apparent.
North Dakota didn't become much more racially diverse over the next 80 years. The 2010 Census found 90% of the state’s residents to be white, and Native Americans were the only minority group accounting for more than 2% of the population.
But when oil production took off in western North Dakota, so too did the state’s racial diversity.
In the last 16 years, the size of the state’s economy has doubled, but a key workforce demographic, residents aged 16 to 34, has only increased by 13%, Iverson said.
“The economy just simply grew so much faster than the population,” Iverson said.
Starved for labor, employers in the Oil Patch recruited workers from out of state, including many people of color.
The more than 6,300 people identifying as Hispanic or Latino in Williams, McKenzie, Mountrail and Dunn counties accounted for 9% of the population in the core of oil country, per the 2020 Census. That’s up from 2.3% of the population in the previous national headcount.
The 2010 Census counted just 95 Black residents in the same four counties. A decade later, the Black population stood at more than 2,400.
When Father Brian Gross started at Watford City’s Epiphany Catholic Church in 2012, the demographics of the parish had already started to change, he said. Latino and Filipino transplants to the oil town began coming to Mass and engaging with the church community, though Gross notes the parish had been almost completely white just five years prior.
Gross estimates his congregation is now 20-25% Latino and 10-15% Filipino. Though he doesn’t speak Spanish, Gross said he has performed baptisms and wedding ceremonies in the language to accommodate Latino parishioners.
Fifteen years ago, Watford City would have been “like any small town in North Dakota,” but the oil rush has brought people from all around the country, Gross said. There were growing pains and native Watfordians still maintain somewhat separate social circles from the newcomers, but the city and its local economy are better for the diversity, Gross said.
As the Bakken was booming, the number of African and Asian immigrants and refugees relocating to Fargo and Grand Forks multiplied under President Barack Obama’s administration. About a fifth of each city's population identified as a race other than white on their census forms last year.
Dabar came to Fargo from Somalia because his mother lived there, and he said other African immigrants will keep coming to the city to reunite with their loved ones.
Immigrants want to buy houses, get jobs and raise families in North Dakota, Dabar said. Despite the persisting issues of systemic racism and unequal access to resources, it’s a place transplants want to stay for life, he added.
“This is the future of North Dakota whether you like it or not,” Dabar said.