Demographic Mystery Almost Solved

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by James A. Bacon

And now for an answer to the fascinating question posed by Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog: why African-Americans living in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware have the highest median incomes anywhere in the United States (see “A Demographic Mystery“)…. Ultimately, he says, the answer can be traced to the history of slavery in the Chesapeake region that gave rise to a large population of free blacks.

At the risk of oversimplifying (I urge you to read his full blog post), Lombard’s argument goes like this: With the introduction of tobacco to Virginia in the early 1600s, Virginia was the first state on the North American mainland to develop a plantation economy. Most slaves at that time originated from Angola. Because that region of Africa had been under Portuguese influence since the 1400s, many of the slaves were Christian, which may have entitled them to different consideration than pagans. Moreover, English common law prohibited slavery. Therefore, the first Africans in Virginia, like whites, were engaged as indentured servants and gained their freedom after working for a set time.

(Lombard doesn’t mention this but it fits with his theme: Many followers of Nathaniel Bacon during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 were freed African servants and slaves, who made common cause with freed white servants and small farmers.)

The institution of slavery did not cohere into the chattel form with which we are familiar until 1705 when the Virginia House of Burgesses codified a system of forced labor for non-Europeans and non-Christians. By that point, the slave trade had shifted to West Africa where Africans were far less likely to be Christianized.

I would expand upon Lombard’s argument as follows. Chesapeake slavery was built largely around tobacco plantations. By the late 1700s, tobacco cultivation had exhausted the soils, and the industry went into sharp decline, leaving farmers and plantation owners with a large surplus of slaves. At the same time that slaves were losing value as a means of production, many slave owners were feeling the contradiction between their ownership of other human beings and their belief in egalitarian, revolutionary ideas. Manumission became a fairly common practice, peaking around 1800. (I have a Bacon ancestor living in Sussex County, Del., who, according to family lore, granted his slaves their freedom after his death.)

Everything changed around 1800. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1794, making possible the profitable cultivation of cotton — but not in the Chesapeake states, which were too far north to grow the plant. And then the United States banned the Atlantic slave trade in 1808. The institution of slavery in the Chesapeake region gained a new lease on life as slave owners sold their slaves to markets in the deep south. The end result was a demographic pattern by 1860 in which 10% to 25% or more of the black population in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware counties were free but, outside a few counties in North Carolina, free blacks were almost unknown elsewhere.

That freedom, argues Lombard, gave Chesapeake blacks a head start in the accumulation of property and wealth. A glance at the maps he produces shows that across most of Virginia, the black farm ownership rate in 1920 was over 50% across the state and over 75% for big chunks of it — far higher than anywhere else in the country, even the North. Another map shows that the black home ownership rate in 1940 exceeded 60% in much of Virginia — again, far higher than anywhere else in the country. Lombard suggests that the lack of a sharecropping economy in Virginia may explain the difference.

The analysis at this point gets a little fuzzy because, based upon an eyeballing of Lombard’s maps, the rate of farm- and home-ownership in Virginia were considerably higher than in Maryland and Delaware, so there may have been other factors at work than the percentage of free blacks and/or the lack of sharecropping institutions. Lombard doesn’t address this issue. Could Virginia’s Jim Crow laws been less restrictive than those of Maryland or Delaware? Were Virginia blacks more highly educated? Whatever, the reason, it can hardly be coincidental that Richmond, where many blacks proudly trace their ancestry back to the free black population of the ante-bellum era, became known as the “Harlem of the South.”

Any analysis also need to consider the massive early 20th-century migration of Southern blacks to cities in the Northeast and Midwest, and then the subsequent migration of blacks back to the South, both of which created a large mixing effect. While some Virginia blacks trace their roots back to free blacks living in the state in 1860, how many do?

In sum, Lombard’s argument is incomplete. Not wrong, just incomplete. His hypothesis — positing a link between the percentage of free blacks in the population in 1860 and the economic well being of Virginia blacks today — is fascinating and inherently plausible. It would make a great PhD thesis.

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7 responses to “Demographic Mystery Almost Solved

  1. That is a fascinating take on the history of American Slavery, one that is somewhat novel insofar as my reading to date.

    I was unaware of the Christian background of early American blacks from Angola. I was also unaware of there being a significant, much less large, immigration or importation of blacks into the Chesapeake Region during the early 17th Century or indeed though later mid-century of the 17th century.

    It was my understating that these “landless people in Virginia” were white indentured Europeans. And also that many of these indentured folk never in practical terms escaped their indenture until Bacon’s Rebellion. That the rather complicated social upheaval triggered the eventual shift from white European indentured folks over to permanently enslaved blacks. Thus it elevated the status of those whites, replacing them with growing shares of newly imported black slaves, as evidenced by the 1705 law change in the Va. Colonial legislature that you mention.

    The issue of early soil exhaustion for tobacco also appears overstated insofar as conventional history. Likely it has relevance to the late 17th century original Middle Plantation areas along the James and York Rivers. But surely it has none to the lands between the Rapphannock and Potomac Rivers of the Fairfax Grant on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

    Indeed Georgetown and Alexandria, the great tobacco Potomac ports, didn’t settle, much less get into into the tobacco trade business until the middle of the 18th Century, a result of the migration of plantations up the south side of the Potomac. While the growing soil depletion in the Middle Plantation area surely fed into this migration to a degree, it also was driven by the natural rise of lower gentry first in the Middle plantation area, folks like Geo. Washington, as well as extension of other families, such the Lees, together with the long delayed implementation of the 5+million acre Fairfax grant of all land between the headwaters of the Rappahannock and the Potomac which for a variety of British religious and civil wars, a regicide, and the mother of all heir disputes, did not get going, that is actively promoting land sales, and importing folks to settle there until the early part of the 18 century.

    Nevertheless, these assertions in your article are fascinating, deserve serious attention, and open up all sorts of inquiry, including the differences in Maryland and Delaware you mention.

  2. Incredibly interesting. History is much more complex than the simplistic stories constantly repeated in the media and our schools.

    That being said, an additional (obvious) reason for the skewed income levels is that many blacks in VA and MD are employed by the federal government, which has expanded substantially in recent years. As a counter to past discrimination, blacks are highly represented in our federal workforce. And unlike decades ago, federal government workers are generally more highly compensated than equivalent private jobs. Therefore, blacks living closer to DC have a large advantage over blacks from most other parts of the country.

    That is consistent with recent surveys showing that towns and counties surrounding DC are among the nation’s wealthiest. Happily, black Americans have also benefitted from this.

    • Yes, surely that is a factor. And likely that effect on Maryland and Virginia residents also spills over into those jurisdictions from those folks who are employed by the District of Columbia government but who live across the DC Line, outside of DC. I recall that at one time there was an effort by DC to limit DC government employees to residents of DC, and though I might be wrong, its my recollection that this effort was not successful.

      • It was not successful, and that well-educated suburban black population, especially of P.G. County, recently emigrated from DC, significantly employed by the feds, had a big hand in killing the concept.

        Reed, have you ever read Bernard Bailyn’s masterpiece, The Peopling Of British North America (long or short version)? It discusses those 18th century developments, especially the transition from indentures to chattel slavery. But the striking differences shown here in Lombard’s charts between VA and SC are new info. I wonder, for exsmple, why Horry County SC (around Georgetown) is such a striking outlier there, though it would have been the norm in VA?

        • I briefly rechecked what seemed to be the relevant parts of The Barbarous Years: the Peopling of British North America – The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600 – 1675.

          And, as best I can tell after that brief look:

          The evolution from indentured blacks to freedom in Virginia before 1675 was de-mininus. Very few arrived at all. Very few of those who arrived survived for long. And fewer yet lived long enough to find freedom after their indenture expired if it were granted when they did. How those survival rates compared to indentured whites is unclear, but it was surely rough for all indentured.

          Most of the blacks appeared to arrive in Middlesex County Rappahannock’s south shore or Va. eastern shore. 2000 were estimated alive in Virginia in 1670.

          This is my take after only a glance at The Barbarous Years. I might have missed somewhere in the Book. Obviously too, even a few survivors who find freedom before 1675 or later in the 17th or 18th century in Virginia, can make a very big difference over time, so this is not meant to contradict research or conclusions of others better informed with latest research.

      • Acbar –

        I will be spending two days on my way to Charleston at the Mansfield Plantation outside Georgetown S. C. There I will conduct some ‘in the field’ research on the drivers behind Horry County’s SC “striking outlier” statistics. And report back to you on my findings!

        Yes, I’ve read Bailyn’s long version, The Barbarous Years: the Peopling of British North America – The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600 – 1675.

        I agree, its a masterpiece. It’s riveting, it’s authoritative, it’s vivid and alive. A graphic and untarnished telling from the ground up. I’ll double check his take on the evolution from indentures to chattel slavery.

        The evolution of black history in DC’s Georgetown would be another interesting topic. As is the contrast between the colonial folks on the north shore of the Potomac from those on the Virginia side – the Catholics versus the Cavaliers, for instance, and how those relations evolved. Or during Bacon’s Rebellion for another earlier example, or the long competition of Georgetown versus Alexandria for another.

        A prime example of Washington’s being the indispensable man was how he alone could straddle both shores of the Potomac River. Only he could create DC with Alexandria County carved out of Virginia’ Fairfax County, then placed into DC.

        Only George Washington could reach across the river to harness Georgetown’s powerhouse merchants: people like Benjamen Stoddert up from the Charles County Md. originally, so as to make DC happen financially and then to build for Geo. Washington the US Navy that Geo. knew his nation would shortly need. Only George could confidently deed that vital task to Adams with Stoddert in command. Like always George deployed Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton to attend to the George’s details.

        Indeed George Washington and his Maryland Georgetown allies were among Americas’ greatest crony capitalists. Thank God for that. Save for them and other notable exceptions such as Hamilton and R. Morris, the United States would never had gotten airborne or stayed there after George passed on to his reward in 1799.

        The genesis of those vital north shore / south shore Potomac relations of Maryland and Virginia families, I believe were the earlier cross river connections of people like the Stodderts and Washingtons as those relations were later sealed by mutual respect forged amid the hard times during Braddock’s March. Indeed the French Indian Wars, and most particularly its Braddock’s march, sent those Potomac colonials on their inevitable march to revolution against a their British Overlords.

  3. Thank you. Posts like this are why I support here and don’t read Va. Pilot.

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