Reconstructing Race, Place, and Population: Postemancipation Migrations and the Making of the Black South, 1865–1915
McCall, Keith D.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation explores the African American search for belonging in the Reconstruction era from demographic and geographical perspectives, making three overlapping arguments. First, that migration within the South, rather than only from the South, was critical to the construction of a shared political identity among freedpeople. Second, that broader debates over where freedpeople belonged were central to late-nineteenth-century understandings of region, place, and citizenship in the United States; and third, that migration and its debates shaped intellectual frameworks of integration and pluralism by linking demographics and geography to the functioning of democracy. The dissertation bridges the histories of enslavement and Reconstruction, looking back to the antebellum period rather than forward to the Great Migration to interpret freedpeople’s migrations in the Reconstruction era. Exploring on-the-ground migration, this work builds on recent literature of the internal slave trade to show how movement restructured freedpeople’s kinship and information networks, creating networks that spanned hundreds of miles. As freedpeople told each other of distant places, they forged broader political consciousnesses and created geographical frameworks explaining how space shaped the potentialities of freedom. Those geographical ideas and information networks sustained a significant internal population movement among freedpeople, as they left the eastern and upper South for the Gulf South and Mississippi Delta. That population shift, which increased the demographic concentration of the black population in the U.S. South, eventually spawned discussions of a “population distribution” that would resettle the African American population throughout the nation as a method of socially engineering integration and, presumably, better race relations. But Booker T. Washington and others rejected the idea that becoming more fully American meant leaving the South and severing a regional identity. Ultimately, the success of freedpeople’s intra-South migrations and the related discussions of out-of-the-South migration shaped a cultural and political emphasis on black southerness by about 1900. By blending such stories, “Reconstructing Race, Place, and Population” demonstrates that ideas about spatial belonging and social belonging formed and shaped each other during the era of Reconstruction.