Social Mobility and the Legacy of Slavery in Dallas

Map of 1860 U.S. Census data on slavery by percentage of each county's population that were slaves.
Map of 1860 U.S. Census data on slavery by percentage of each county’s population that were slaves.

Readers of Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog pointed out the similarities between the social mobility map that we posted about Monday, a map of African-American population by county, and a map of the last U.S. slave census in 1860 (seen above).

There are striking similarities, especially in the dark patches along the Mississippi River in both maps. So does Dallas’ legacy as part of a slave-holding state help explain its presence on the low end of the social mobility scale today?

Percentage of North Texas residents who were slaves in 1860.
Percentage of North Texas residents who were slaves in 1860.

About 30% of Texas’ population were slaves in 1860. You can see from the shading on the slave census map (where darker means a higher percentage of the population in slavery) that North Texas had relatively few compared to the coastal regions of the state. I zoomed in on the slave census map to find out that for Dallas County the percentage was 12.4%, Tarrant was 14.1%, Collin 11.3%, and Denton 5%.

That establishes that there’s not a direct correlation between the number of slaves in 1860 and today’s social mobility in Dallas. For one, Tarrant County had more slaves, yet it’s social mobility number is slightly better than Dallas’. There’s also the matter of Harris County, which does about as well as Fort Worth on social mobility now even though it had substantially more slaves (22% of its population).

So it’s obvious that a lasting effect of slavery alone isn’t responsible. That map of the nation’s African-American population, however, is more troubling.

In the last census, Dallas County’s black population was 22.9%, Tarrant’s 15.6%, and Harris’ 19.5%, which is more in line (though not necessarily perfect) with what the social mobility numbers suggest things would be if there’s a correlation. And Atlanta’s Fulton County, which scored so poorly on social mobility (4%) is 44.6% African-American.

Though the explanation can’t be that simple either.


  • Ben S.

    Today is the 153rd anniversary of the three slave lynching on the banks of the Trinity River for the 1860 Slave Revolt that burned much of Downtown Dallas. Old Cato who ran the Overton Mill, Patrick Jennings and Sam Smith were hanged about where Dealey Plaza now stands. They would of hanged a 4th, but his master, William Miller being a wealthy Dallasite was able to spare his life.

    Heard that story told by ten different people in ten different families, passed down to their children and grandchildren.

    Interesting thing about Dallas slaves is that the majority were owned by only a handful of families in Dallas. They were brought by their masters from large old south plantations from places like Virginia. Most anglo Dallasites, 60% of whom were farmers in 1860 were dirt poor farmers from the Deep South and could not afford the luxury of captive help or even the ability to feed one much less themselves.

  • Jackson

    Jason, I think the Texas population of slaves in 1860, when added to slaves that arrived during the years of the Civil War, does suggest a stronger correlation between slaves then and social mobility now. Here’s why:

    Things were fluid during the war years, and slaves from other states were sent to Texas for safekeeping. As a result, the slave population more than doubled from the start of the war in 1860 (182,000), to an estimated 400,000 by the end of the war in 1865. By 1870, at the next census, the official population of Texas was 818,000, up only 200,000 from the 604,000 in the 1860 census. This decade showed “the smallest increase of population of any decennial period” since the census began. If the slave percentage of the total population was 30% in 1860, then surely the now-freed slave percentage in 1870 was substantially higher.

    This uneducated underclass would be left largely to its own devices by the greater Anglo society for the next 75 years, even as it continued to grow and produce offspring along with everyone else. Special thanks to the ’98-’99 edition of the Texas Almanac and the website of the Texas State Historical Association for these not-so-fun facts.

  • CaramelDrop

    Thank you so much for sharing your reference! I’ve been looking for a starting place for Dallas County history – specifically about slaves and plantations here.