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A Geographical Analysis of Housing Segregation and Inequality in American Cities, 1860 - 1870

Robert C Shepard, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


American cities historically have been places of significant residential segregation and socioeconomic inequality among neighborhoods. However, scholars rarely have attempted to map and spatially analyze household-level disparities within cities as they existed before 1880, as census takers did not record address information until that year. Meanwhile, the 1860 and 1870 censuses were unique in that they collected details about personal estate and real estate wealth of individuals, variables that were omitted from subsequent censuses. Historical urban geographers studying socioeconomic differences quantitatively in earlier years often rely instead on data aggregated at larger unit areas, often city wards, in order to draw conclusions about past cultural landscapes. This study develops an historical address locator system for three geographically disparate large cities (Washington, D.C., Nashville, TN in 1860, and Omaha, NE in 1870), and pairs descriptive location information about residents from city directories with rich datasets about those individuals in the census in order to geolocate residents (and their attributes) and investigate historical residential segregation patterns in a more granular way. The research uses the index of dissimilarity at the city block level to evaluate the relative evenness among social and racial groups in the study area. Results indicate that residential segregation along lines of race was higher than previous studies had calculated, and reveals that specific ethnic groups were also moderately separated from the native-born population, albeit at lower rates than those experienced by free people of color. Moreover, residents with higher estate values or “higher status” occupations tended to cluster into specific areas, often along important thoroughfares or near civic buildings, creating distinct patterns across and within the arbitrary political boundaries (e.g. city wards) at which historical geodemographic data are often collected and analyzed.

Subject Area

American studies|American history|Geography

Recommended Citation

Shepard, Robert C, "A Geographical Analysis of Housing Segregation and Inequality in American Cities, 1860 - 1870" (2017). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10616361.