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The Black Population of the Fifth District Across the Rural-Urban Continuum: A Historical Perspective

Regional Matters
February 4, 2021

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In the Fifth Federal Reserve District, we have a rural population, particularly in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with a deep African American history. Although an estimated 6 million black Americans left the South during the Great Migration from 1910 to 1970, millions more remained in the Southern states, including in rural counties across the South. This article provides some history on the Fifth District black population after the Civil War and how it evolved. How many black Americans stayed in the Fifth District through the 20th century, and what does our population look like today across urban and rural areas? This is the first in a series of posts exploring the demographic and economic environment in our rural populations and the challenges and opportunities faced by our rural, southern, black District residents.

The Fifth District Black Population Before 1910

There is much scholarly work examining the post-Reconstruction South and what faced the black population after the abolition of slavery. One view articulated by C. Vann Woodward in his book The Strange Career of Jim Crow is that from 1877 to the 1890s there was a period of relative calm and reduced racial tension. However, regardless of one’s view of the 1880s, we know that from the late 1890s through 1915, there was a proliferation of explicit and implicit rules created and implemented around where and how black Americans could travel, eat, work, recreate, and buy homes. The late 1890s and early 1900s brought, for example, constitutional changes in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia that further disenfranchised the black population. And rules about separation of races on trains were adopted in South Carolina in 1898, North Carolina in 1899, and Virginia in 1900. Violence against black Americans who violated these explicit and implicit rules was common. Interestingly, between 1869 and 1897, there were 20 black Americans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and two elected to the U.S. Senate, all representing Southern states; however, after 1897, the next black senator was not elected until 1967, and the next black Southern senator was not elected until 2013.

Despite the policies and violence, the racial distribution of the Fifth District population was relatively steady until 1910. According the 1900 census, 32 percent of the population of the Fifth District was black, compared to a slightly smaller 30 percent in 1910. Of course, the black share of the West Virginia population during this period was much smaller—only around 5 percent—but aggregated, the Fifth District had a much higher share of black Americans than the U.S. as a whole, which was around 11 percent. What is more, in 1910, the South1 accounted for 90 percent of the nation’s black population.

The Great Migration and Fifth District Demographic Changes

The share of the U.S. population living in the Fifth District, and the South, was largely steady through the 20th century—from 1910 through 1990, the Fifth District made up around 10 percent of the U.S. population and the South made up around 30 percent. However, from 1910 to 1970, the share of the U.S. black population that resided in the Fifth District fell from almost 30 percent to a little under 18 percent. The decline in the South as a whole was even more stark: In 1910, the South accounted for almost 90 percent of the nation’s black population. By 1970, that share was 53 percent.2 In the Fifth District, South Carolina saw the largest decline in its own black population share: The share of the South Carolina population that was black fell from almost 60 percent in 1900 to 30 percent by 1970. This movement of black Americans from the South to the North from around World War I to 1970 is what scholars call the Great Migration.

In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson wrote that “from the moment the first migrants set foot in the North during World War I, scholars began weighing in on the motivations….whether it was the pull of the North or the push of the South...” In fact, there is a deep literature on understanding the motivations of migrants, which range from economic forces like the expansion of employment opportunities in the North, to forces in the South like a lack of educational opportunities, racial violence, and voter disenfranchisement, and what Tolnay and Beck (1990) call “precipitating causes,” such as floods or the boll weevil infestation. Wilkerson describes a survey of migrants by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, in which respondents said that they left for reasons such as “for better wages,” “to better my conditions,” “some of my people were here,” and “to get away from the South.” Given the breadth and length of the migration, the diversity of the migrants, and the depth of the literature on migrant experiences, it seems likely that a variety of reasons contributed to the decisions of migrants to move North.

Population in the Fifth District Across the Rural-Urban Continuum

It is challenging to track rural population shares of any demographic group over time, at least in part because the definition of rural in the United States changes over time. The Census Bureau defines “rural” as “not urban,” and the definition of urban has changed “in response to changes in settlement patterns, data use needs, and technology available for use in defining urban areas.” Even today, there are many ways to define what it is to be rural. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) determinations of metropolitan statistical areas as a starting point to create a county-level classification system that it calls the Rural-Urban Continuum. This system divides counties into nine classifications based on being within or adjacent to a metro area and based on the size of the urban population, as defined by the census. The codes range from 1 (most urban and counties in metro areas with 1 million residents) to 9 (most rural and counties with less than 2,500 urban population that are nonadjacent to metro areas).

Today, the Fifth District has a higher share of black Americans than the nation as a whole across every category of the rural-urban continuum. In categories 1 and 2 (counties in metro areas with more than 250,000 residents), around 25 percent of the Fifth District population is black, compared with 15 percent of the U.S. population. In the most rural counties (categories 8 and 9), the Fifth District has almost double the share of black Americans than the most rural counties in the U.S—more than 16 percent in the Fifth District, compared with more than 8 percent in the U.S. as a whole. In South Carolina, black Americans make up almost 50 percent of the most rural population.

Of course, most Americans do not live in the most rural areas of the country. The most rural counties only house 2 percent of the Fifth District population and 1.4 percent of the U.S. population (and fewer than 10,000 people live in the most rural counties of South Carolina). Broadening the definition of rural to rural/small town (codes 3-9) is another way that the Richmond Fed has examined economic conditions geographically. In fact, for most of the 21st century—prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020—growth in population and employment was primarily in the largest urban areas (categories 1 and 2) at the expense of the less urban regions. In the Fifth District, these rural/small town counties (codes 3-9) account for 25 percent of the overall District population. Black Americans comprise more than 20 percent of the population in those counties in the Fifth District ,compared with 10 percent of the population of similarly sized counties of the nation. For much of our work, we focus on not just the most rural areas (codes 8-9), but also on the rural/small town areas that are included in codes 3-7.

What Will Come Next?

The Great Migration of the 20th century took many of our black residents north, but many also stayed in the South and stayed in the rural areas. The next post will describe how the rural black population in the South evolved and delve into the economic conditions facing our rural, and our rural black, Fifth District residents. Maximizing our economic capacity as a District and as a nation relies on ensuring that all of our citizens have access to the resources necessary to engage in productive pursuits, which is why the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond has been particularly focused in the last few years on understanding the economic environment of our rural/small town regions. The deep roots of rural black Americans are part of our history and all of our rural communities need to be included on the path to maximizing our economic potential.


The South comprises the Fifth Federal Reserve District plus the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.


Although this article does not distinguish between the native- and foreign-born black population, and most black immigrants immigrated to the North, foreign-born black people only accounted for 3 percent of the black population in the country in 1980. (See


Black American Members by Congress 1870-Present,

C. Gibson and K. Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990 for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States,” U.S. Census Bureau Population Division Working Paper No. 56, September 2002.

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

D. Tyack and R. Lowe, “The Constitutional Moment: Reconstruction and Black Education in the South,” The American Journal of Education, February 1986, vol. 94, no. 2, pp. 236-256.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2010.

R.M. Gibbs, “Reconsidering the Southern Black Belt,” The Review of Regional Studies, 2003, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 254-263.

S.E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, “Black Flight: Lethal Violence and the Great Migration, 1900-1930,” Social Science History, Autumn 1990, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 347-370.

U.S. Census Bureau, “The Great Migration, 1910-1970,” Sept. 13, 2012,

U.S. Census Bureau,

W. Collins and M.H. Wanamaker, “Selection and Economic Gains in the Great Migration of African Americans: New Evidence from Linked Census Data,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2014, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 220-252.

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Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.