Slavery by the Numbers: The Deep South

Welcome back to Slavery by the Numbers. You can find the previous installments here, here, here, and a programming note here. Today we finish up with the Deep South.

The Deep South: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.
The Deep South constitutes the states that seceded, or proclaimed that they had, before Sumter. The stereotypical image of the antebellum South fits most closely here: massive cotton plantations, punishing heat, bayous and Spanish moss hanging from the trees. This picture doesn’t quite tell the whole story, as the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Louisiana produced chiefly rice and sugar, respectively. But the defining crop remains cotton.

I’ve talked briefly about how cotton cultivation differed from tobacco, and also from the mixed-crop plantations in the Upper South, but the subject warrants revisiting. Tobacco plantations could in some respects resemble modern microbreweries. Planters crafted a customized product, taking great interest in each stage of cultivation and selling it in marked, individual packages. This exerted some pressure toward smaller plantations holding fewer slaves who developed skills suited to each plantation’s style and traditions.

Aimed at the European industrial textile mills with their power looms, the cotton industry worked on volume, selling in bales. They succeeded mightily, with American cotton output nearly doubling every decade leading up to the Civil War. This favored massive operations involving much larger numbers of slaves who did not have to learn many specialized skills and saw use analogous to that of factory labor. By its nature, slavery does not respect a slave’s agency, but cotton cultivation (and especially in the West Indies, sugar cultivation) may have brought the concept of the slave as nothing more than an interchangeable part of the plantation machine to its zenith.

Cotton exhausted the soil at a prodigious rate, meaning that planters had to be seeking new frontiers relatively frequently. Once the cotton gin opened the uplands, expanding into those frontiers and then pushing them further and further west became a major part of the Southern story. It brought Americans, like Jefferson Davis, down into the Mississippi delta, and shortly thereafter to a land rush in Alabama where they built their holdings along the region’s many rivers. Those dark, rich lands came to be called black belts, after their soil.  The parallel is only approximate, but Alabama’s population exploded much the same way, and at much the same pace, as California’s did with the gold rush. The same pull drew Americans through Louisiana and into Mexican Texas.

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

Black people constituted 47.28% of the Deep South’s population, 98.43% of them enslaved. Of the 3,950,511 slaves in the United States in 1860, 2,349,233 (59.47%) lived in the region. Louisiana (5.32%) and South Carolina (2.40%) had the highest proportion of free blacks. Mississippi (0.18%) and Texas (0.19%) had the least. The Deep South held the nation’s two majority black states: South Carolina (58.60%) and Mississippi (55.28%). Louisiana stood at the tipping point, 49.49% black. The least black was Texas at 30.27%. The highest black proportion in the Upper South, North Carolina’s 36.42% is the only one outside the region to overlap.

The Charleston Mercury’s extra announcing South Carolina’s secession.

Of white Deep South residents, 181,520 (6.93%) formally owned slaves. This amounts to 37.01% of families. Mississippi had the largest slaveholding class at 49.10%, followed closely by South Carolina’s 45.53%. Texas had the smallest at 28.49%, narrowly edging out Louisiana’s 29.49%. Louisiana’s high number of free blacks, for the region, and smaller slaveholding class speak to the state’s unique history.

Even the most cursory examination of the numbers shows that the Deep South housed the plurality (46.07%) of the nation’s slaveholders and the majority of its slaves. Slavery did not originate in the Deep South, but by 1860 the region formed its greatest stronghold. That center of gravity, and its continued westward movement, drove the region’s concerns leading into each of the sectional controversies, including the election of 1860. So central had slavery become that even the election of a candidate pledged only to stand in the way of its perpetual, limitless extension became such a radical threat that South Carolina and Mississippi led the way, and the rest of the region swiftly followed, in rebelling before Lincoln could even take office.

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