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Residential Segregation at the Dawn of the Great Migration: Evidence from the 1910 and 1920 Census

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 December 2020

Hyun Hye Bae
Columbia University, USA
Lance Freeman*
Columbia University, USA


The second decade of the twentieth century is viewed as the pivotal period for ghetto formation in the United States. This decade witnessed the onset of the Great Migration and it was during this time that modern ghettos, massive agglomerations of tens of thousands of Blacks and virtually only Blacks, became visible. Despite the importance of this period for ghetto formation and the subsequent segregation experienced by Blacks, our understanding of the dynamics of segregation during this period is incomplete. We utilize recently released fine-grained census data to present a more precise and complete picture of segregation in American cities in the second decade of the twentieth century and in doing so make several contributions to the historical literature on residential segregation. First, we document how segregation varied across the full range of American cities, including Southern and smaller cities overlooked in most historical accounts. Second, we assess how the influx of Southern Black migrants into Northern cities was related to increasing segregation. Third, we ascertain the role of Blacks’ socioeconomic status in determining proximity to Whites. Fourth, we examine racial zoning’s impact on segregation. Finally, we consider how the presence of immigrants in a city was related to the residential segregation experienced by Blacks. This research thus adds to the literature on residential segregation by providing more reliable estimates of the degree of residential segregation experienced by Blacks at the beginning of the Great Migration as well as exploring other factors associated with varying levels of segregation at that time.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Social Science History Association

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