Racial Segregation under Slavery

Martin Ruef, Duke University

Demographers and historians have devoted extensive research to patterns of racial segregation that emerged under Jim Crow and during the post-Civil Rights era, but have paid scant attention to the role of slavery in shaping the residential distribution of black and mixed race populations in the United States. The assumption, following C. Vann Woodward, has often been that “the very nature of [slavery as an] institution made separation of the races for the most part impracticable”. In this paper, I argue to the contrary that slavery relentlessly produced racial segregation during the antebellum period, both at the macro-level – through the uneven distribution of the nonwhite population across regions, states, and counties – and at the micro-level – through the isolation of slaves and free people of color away from the residences of whites. To explain these patterns, I draw on theories from demography, economic sociology, and the literature on perceptions of racial threat to test hypotheses using data from the U.S. Census between 1800 and 1860, as well as an architectural survey of antebellum sites. I conclude that the institution of slavery played a critical part in concentrating African Americans within a subset of counties in the U.S. South while rendering their living quarters invisible to broad segments of the white populace.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 88. Segregation and Inequality