Monday, September 5, 2011

Fredericksburg, Virginia 1880

This exercise was intended to give us students a small taste of the work involved in doing original research, particularly with a social history focus. Because even failure can be a learning experience, I should first of all concede that by not giving myself enough time to deal with any unexpected bumps in the road, my work here has been compromised by my lack of technological skill. If I am going to be more successful manipulating and analyzing digital documents, I need to become more adept at converting and editing various file formats.

On a related note, I will also need to familiarize myself with earlier handwriting styles.

For my analysis, I simply picked a page at random, and then the next three pages, and considered this to be a reasonbly useful sample size, for reasons I will explain below. Here is one of the four census pages I used:

Each page has just over 50 individuals, which is a fair sample from a city with a population of around 5000 at the time. Secondly, according to the Sandborn map I cross-referenced my census information with, these pages cover an area right in the middle of the town at the time; unfortunately, I don't extend my area all the way to the river, which possibly skews the sample somewhat, although my experience with Fredericksburg suggests that that area was largely businesses and warehouses anyway. One last caveat--this section of town is very near the "Colored Cemetary", so that it should not be surprising that over half the individuals here are either African-American or "mixed-race" (more on that below). I would want to look at the demographics of the white population in other parts of the town before making any broader interpretations regarding the social, economic, or cultural standing of whites who live in this part of the town; especially considering I have not determined whether or not this area contains the only African-American neighborhoods in Fredericksburg circa 1880.

It was certainly a commercially-oriented city, based on the 1885 City Directory--there were a few factories as one would expect from a city built on the fall line in the 19th century, but the bulk of the businesses listed were service or consumer good oriented. It was also a very, very Southern city--over 90% of the individuals listed were born in Virginia, and of the small minority who were not, all were born either in Maryland or Washington DC. The great waves of immigration which brought foreign-born workers to the growing cities of the north didn't land at Fredericksburg.

It was also a segregated city; street from block to block were either inhabited solely by members of one race, or another, with almost no exceptions; "W" is clearly to indicate "White" and "B" is equally obviously to designate "Black." All the entries will be one race or the other, until the census taker turns a corner, and then the racial makeup very well might abruptly change. Segregation in Fredericksburg was oddly intimate and shoulder-to-shoulder.

However, there was a third racial designation--my best guess is that it is "Mulatto" since the abbreviation appears to be "Mu", although sometimes it almost appears to be "Mi", which does not really lend any cofusion since I would assume that means "Mixed" and therefore the meaning is the same.

This is interesting, because in some places and times in America, the assumption was that if one had any trace of African-American parentage, you were by default considered "Black." I am really interested to look at other census results, particularly from the years after the final triumph of Jim Crow laws shortly after the 1880 census, to see if this "bi-racial" category survived as an official census designation.

Finally, I would note that in terms of occupation, white women tended not to work unless they were widowed (whatever "widowed" actually meant), while married African-American women often worked as washerwomen or some other service sector job. African-American men usually worked as "Laborers". Whites on the other hand tending to either work in small shops or own their own businesses.


miratrinity said...

Mu does signify the term mulatto in reference to a person who is racially mixed to a confusing degree (i.e. a person who appears "white" but who has "black" blood). It also refers to a person's status before the end of slavery (or at least in Louisiana). Free people of color were referred to as mulatto regardless of actual racial mixing, while slaves were almost universally referred to as black.

silverflowseast said...

Were there any instances in the Fredericksburg census of the enumerator listing members of the same African-American family as B or M? In the Lexington census there were a couple African-American families whose children were categorized inconsistently. I am trying to understand if it was a mistake or a color (not a racial) designation. Example – Mother is B and Father is M, some children are B but others are M.

Kirk Johnson said...

@miratrinity: Thanks; this is good to know. I'm glad to have my hunch confirmed, but I especially appreciate the additional information and context.

@silverflowseast: That's a really good question; I'm going to look for an answer, or at least a better answer than "I don't know."

Katelyn said...

I worked with the same city but at a different area and so my sample's display of African American and Mulatto individuals was limited.

As someone who got a chance to work more with this subset I wanted to ask; When the individuals were black or mulatto were widowed did your section of the census list who they were a widow of? Mine did for some of the white individuals but none of the black.

Also, when it came to children of the black and mulatto families in your sample, were they more commonly listed as "at home" "at school" or working an occupation? The few in my sample, with one exception, seemed to all be working in service occupations if they were 10 or older.

@Silverfloweast: I agree with Kirk, you bring up a very good point. :) It also, for me, raises the question of how exactly they were defining mulatto as a category, since the census from this year seems to not go into detail on the categories beyond naming what the abbreviations stand for.

Dan Curry said...

silverflowseast: I also did Fredericksburg and of my sample of 35 households, 6 households were mixed black/mulatto.