A Brief Overview of Post-Civil War Segregation


Drinking fountain on the Halifax County Courthouse (North Carolina) in April 1938. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

In the South, segregation reproduced the racial inequality found under slavery.


By Angelina Grigoryeva and Martin Ruef

Segregation took various forms across the postbellum United States, with important regional differences between the Northeast and South.  In the American Northeast, segregation largely assumed the form of racialized African-American districts, similar to those today.  By contrast, the South developed a fine-grained pattern of segregation, which took place at a smaller spatial scale than in the Northeast.

In southern cities, white families dominated front streets, whereas black servants or tenants were relegated to living on smaller streets and alleys, in the rear of affluent white families’ homes. This pattern of segregation has been referred to as the “backyard” pattern. Rooted in the legacy of slavery, the backyard pattern could be traced to the time when blacks who were engaged as slaves or servants lived in close proximity to the whites who owned or employed them.

Although blacks and whites in the postbellum South lived in reasonably close spatial proximity, physical barriers and street layout served to preserve social distance between these racial groups. In northern cities, blacks were clustered in different areas of the city from whites, whereas in southern cities blacks were relegated to living on different streets than whites but within the same districts.

Much of the regional divergence between the cities of the South and the Northeast was accounted for by structural differences, including the prevalence of the black population, its occupational structure, and a city’s historical experiences with slavery.

Street-level segregation was more likely to be observed in cities where blacks represented a larger proportion of the urban population and where blacks worked in occupations that brought them into regular contact with white employers, such as domestic service. By contrast, blacks were more likely to be segregated via racialized neighborhoods in younger cities, cities where more time had passed since the abolition of slavery, and cities where blacks represented a smaller share of the population. Thus, street-front segregation in the South reproduced the racial inequality found under slavery, while segregation through racialized districts in the North substituted residential inequality for the status inequality of slavery.


Originally published by the London School of Economics, 04.17.2015, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States license.

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