Reconstructing African American mobility after emancipation, 1865-1867

William G. Thomas, Richard Healey, Ian Cottingham

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    Historians and social scientists have relied on contemporaneous textual accounts to document African American mobility in the immediate aftermath of emancipation after the Civil War, but they have interpreted them in widely varying ways. Some emphasize large-scale migration across the South, while others suggest that most movements were local and limited. This research tracks the early or "first wave" of African American migrants between 1865 and 1867 within and out of the South in an attempt to map the motion taking place after the war and to document the scale, direction, and intensity of African American mobility in the period between 1865 and 1867. The Freedmen's Bureau records indicate certain kinds of movements within the South, while our census methodology shows that there was more movement out of the South than accounted for in the Freedmen's Bureau labor records or previously accounted for in the historiography. Further, we observe two types of movement: short-term migration based on one-year contracts, perhaps returning to the point of origin, and another movement not always mediated through the Freedmen's Bureau that was more long-term, but also subject to the freedperson's return to the point of origin. We seek to chart the process of emancipation over time and across space, detecting spatial patterns on an otherwise highly variable individual experience. No study has used the Freedmen's Bureau labor contracts to trace African American labor movements, and no study has deployed the 1880 individual census data to examine African American migration based on birthplace cohorts.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)673-704
    Number of pages32
    JournalSocial Science History
    Issue number4
    Early online date13 Oct 2017
    Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2017


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