Related Case Study
African American Mobility after Emancipation
One of the most important economic arguments in Southern history concerns the relative lack of mobility for African Americans during Reconstruction and the New South periods. In this view black labor was trapped in the South after the Civil War, prevented from northward migration and therefore open competition by northern racism. Other factors may have played a more important role, however--such as the changing composition of the railroad network across space, the birthplaces and family connections of mobile populations, and the building and construction of railroads in the region. Only World War I and the Great Migration changed this pattern of restricted geographic mobility for blacks. Yet, we know that considerable intra-regional migration took place, as freedmen moved across the South in the aftermath of slavery and by the 1880s were moving with the railroads into new opportunities made possible by the railroads. Railroad linkages between North and South were limited to four or five gateways before the Civil War--places where the South's railroads linked to roads into the Northern states--Alexandria, Virginia, Cairo, Illinois, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. We sought to combine county level population changes (race) with detailed railroad network growth data to understand the shape of mobility after emancipation. When we examine the Freedmen's Bureau labor contracts for gateway cities--Alexandria, Virginia, Petersburg, Virginia, Louisville, Kentucky, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Memphis, Tennessee--we see different patterns of work placement over time and across space.
We have included here all Freedmen's Bureau labor contracts from the following railroad places:
- Alexandria: 594 records, September 1865 through end of December 1866
- Camp Nelson: 105 records, May 1865 through November 1865
- Chattanooga: 426 records, February 1866 through April 1866
- Louisville: 124 records, June 1866 through March 1867
- Petersburg: 128 records, July 1865 through November 1865
We have no firm conclusions at this stage about mobility, but instead present here different tools for assessing where to begin looking in greater detail. It should be noted that nearly all long-distance labor contracts included a transportation voucher for travel by rail. In addition, some large numbers of contracts for dozens of freedmen were given to individual railroad companies, such as the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company.
In addition, the startling difference in railroad employment in Northern border states and Southern states revealed in our analysis of railroad workers in the 1880 NAPP data explains some of the potential limits to mobility after the Civil War--subject of a soon to be released App on Northeast industrial workers. The racial breakdown of industrial workers by county and state represents an entirely new finding, otherwise unreported in the U.S. Census aggregate reports.
This App allows us to isolate one aspect of the process of mobility after emancipation--the labor contracting activities of the Freedmen's Bureau and visualize their reach, scale, and sequence over time. In addition, we expect to layer other relevant data on population change and railroad growth to better understand spatial patterns and correlations. In the absence of location-specific data about the movements of African Americans in the years immediately following emancipation, historians have relied on textual accounts. This App seeks to hold a framework for further additional data, and focuses on exploring inter and intra regional integration of transportation networks and tracks the labor contracts of the selected Freedmen's Bureau offices in the period 1865-1868.
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