Map: N.C. Population Density & Race, 1860–1890

Something I’ve always been fascinated by is change, the way populations shift (either location or activity) across time. One of my favorite maps I’ve made was one shortly after last year’s midterms which tracked swing among voters from 2014, the previous midterm year — it was a great map because it was able to demonstrate a clear trend toward Democrats in suburban areas of Guilford County, accounting for things like the election of Michael Garrett to the state Senate. One of the things I wanted to try with my latest set of maps is using more historical data, and so I thought something fun to look at would be racial demographics in the late 19th century.

We hear a lot about the Great Migration a few decades after Reconstruction, but I didn’t see much information out there about the movement of African-American populations during reconstruction, which I thought made it an especially interesting subject to map. GIS — digital cartography, essentially — can be a really powerful tool for visualizing data like this, and I definitely think it’s helped me create something here that I hope is illuminating. So I decided to make a set of dot density maps for each census from 1860 to 1890, giving us a full picture of the period from the Civil War through to the aftermath of Reconstruction. Dot density really helps with creating an information-rich map, because it inherently shows the density of the populations we’re talking about within counties, allowing us to visualize not just how much of a county belongs to a given racial group, but also how many people are there in the first place.

Looking at the maps, some definite trends emerge, many of which still hold true. The western half of the state gets whiter and the eastern half gets less white as time goes on. Likewise, within eastern North Carolina you get a particularly striking effect looking from 1860 (before the Civil War) to 1870 (after it). There is a shift in the state’s African-American population from rural counties to population centers like New Hanover, Beaufort, and Wake counties. It makes sense to me that this could be caused by a shift into the cities among newly freed former slaves who were finally free to seek the opportunity that exists in cities, but I’d need to do a more in-depth analysis to feel good about calling that anything more serious than idle speculation. It’s also worth noting New Hanover County’s absolutely insane population density from 1880 onward. Wilmington was one of the largest cities in the country at the time. Imagine that!

You can also see this movement maybe a little better using the choropleth versions of these maps that I actually created first, which let you see the actual percentages of each county’s population which was identified by the US Census as being white. For example, the choropleth can make it a little easier to see what the actual shift in racial demographics was for New Hanover County by separating it out from the increase in population density (augmented by the splitting off of much-less-dense Pender County in 1875 (in the 1880 census, the whole of Pender County had around two-thirds the population of just the city of Wilmington). It is my hope that maps like these can help with visualizing the way our populations move over time and can spark thoughtful discussion. When we study the past, we gain a view of our own trajectory here in the present and become more empowered to meet the future.

Data courtesy of IPUMS NHGIS

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