Interpretations

Residential segregation was a widespread phenomenon that took place across very small spaces. Washington in 1860, for example, appeared to have bands of working class black residents living to the north and south of the city’s wealthy “core,” and these bands of settlement spanned nearly the entire length of the city. And yet these apparent race-based settlement clusters also were only a few blocks wide. In some parts of the city, such as Washington’s First Ward, the economic elite lived mere blocks away, also clustered together closely along Pennsylvania Avenue. Clearly, changes in residents’ economics and ethnicity happened within very small areas and in peculiar spatial ways that escaped the arbitrary boundaries at which historical geodemographic data are often studied.

Certainly natural landscapes and manmade features directly influenced the cultural landscapes of these cities. Mid-Nineteenth Century economic elites had constructed their homes closely together along particular sections of important thoroughfares, and they clustered in a few contiguous blocks near important civic buildings, purposefully, or at least effectively, generating small zones of dominated space. Geolocating the residents of Nashville illustrated that the railroad tracks on the north side of the city divided the rich residents from the rest of the residents just within the city’s Fourth Ward. Omaha’s wealthiest people typically chose to settle far away from the city’s railroad tracks, in essence forming a line of apparent economic transition that ran from the northwest to southeast across the city and making the areas near the tracks the de facto residence for the city’s poorest people. But more often, wealthy urban residents created small spaces, often with common demographics and implicit social status, but they do not appear to have created the equivalent of contemporary, large urban neighborhoods with clearly defined boundaries, either. Nevertheless, empirical household level data show that the small spaces of the urban wealthy were highly exclusive.

Although there were not enough free people of color to quantitatively analyze any race-based housing segregation trends in Omaha and Nashville, the example of Washington demonstrated that those same wealthy areas also would have been disproportionately white, with only a small population of people of color employed in service work residing within those spaces. Although that finding is not necessarily unexpected, given the enormous social and economic challenges historically facing black Americans, it suggests that the pattern observed in Washington probably was common to many cities already by the 1860s. And if Washington is at all representative of the country during the time period, the degree of actual racial housing segregation, as revealed in this more granular study, was astounding. Essentially, two-thirds of residents would have needed to relocate in order to make proportional the city’s free black population and its white population. Given that the city’s richest 20 percent and poorest 80 percent were far less spatially divided than the city’s black and white population, it is obvious that skin color was a major component of residential choice, even more than money alone. Relatedly, although the population of free black residents was small, nobody in the group appeared to be living among the spatial cluster of the moneyed elite in either Omaha or Nashville, also.

German and Irish immigrants who came to these three cities also lived in very different areas relative to the native-born white population. They appear to have been much more separated than other large immigrant groups, with perhaps the exception being Omaha’s Scandinavian population, which was also highly divided from the native-born population. The index of dissimilarity between the combined German and Irish immigrant population and the native-born population ranged from 44.4 in Washington, D.C. to 51.1 in Nashville in 1860, and an even higher figure of 60.0 in Omaha in 1870. These figures range from the very high end of estimated separation values for Washington, to a number for Omaha that exceeds even what would have been expected for racial segregation in other American cities at the time. Likewise, just as Washington’s free black population was much more separated from whites than the city’s wealthy had been separated from the poor, examples from Nashville and Omaha demonstrated that the degree of separation between the city’s German and Irish immigrants and their native-born counterparts exceeded the degree of separation between the city’s rich and poor: ethnic residential segregation was more important than economic differences. Furthermore, these calculations actually might be undercounting the complete extent of ethnic residential divisions, as it is not known how many people counted among the “native-born” population in this research actually were second or third-generation immigrants from these groups, people who likely would still be sharing language, culture and even residences with new immigrants.

Given that this project has included major cities from the country’s mid-South, East Coast and inland frontier West regions, it is unlikely that the extent of residential segregation was random or specifically a regional phenomenon. Overall, based on these findings alone, it appears that about half of the people in cities during the time period would have to relocate to different blocks in order to achieve any kind of proportional balance between the native-born population and the combined population of first-generation immigrants from Germany and Ireland. In all of these cities, the idea of otherness was dividing people spatially.