For much of the nineteenth century, the US was a nation of farmers. Agriculture dominated American economic output, and most Americans lived in small, rural communities.

Before 1970, the US Federal Census Bureau identified an urban space as any incorporated place with a population of 2,500 or more persons, and rural spaces as any incorporated place with a population of 2,499 or less.

Although urban populations grew throughout the nineteenth century, by 1870, almost three-quarters of Americans still lived in rural communities. The proportion of the population living in rural communities was particularly high in the South.

The graphs below illustrate shifts in the American work force through the nineteenth century. More Americans in the work force labored on farms than in all other industries combined until the 1880 federal census.

Hover over the bars to find out their numerical values. 

Data Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970. Rendered by Samantha de Vera using PiktoChart.

Agricultural work played an important part in the lives of African Americans, the majority of whom lived in the South. As Selena Sanderfer notes, “Most southern Blacks before and after the Civil War were employed in agricultural work and lived a largely subsistence based existence. Their desire to become independent land owners and resist subjugation was in part influenced by this background” in agriculture.[1]

The graph below shows the total number of individuals who lived in urban and rural communities in the regions of New England (NE), North Central (NC), the South, and the West. These statistics are drawn from federal census records included in Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, and the definitions of the region are denoted on the Reconstruction Demographics page.

Although the size and proportion of the urban population increased in all regions between the 1850s and 1870s, the urban population increased much more in New England than in the South. Southern rural populations remained much larger in terms of both number and proportion than urban populations in other regions.

Hover over the bars to find out their numerical values.

The rich agricultural heritage of the South—largely made possible by the forced labor of enslaved people—distinctly shaped the attitudes of freed African Americans toward land ownership. Selena Sanderfer identifies that “For southern Blacks, land ownership was the ultimate symbol of social and economic achievement. For freedmen it represented the anti-thesis to their enslavement and could effectively preserve their freedom, making them and their progenies perpetually independent.”[2] For individuals who had recently been freed from enslavement, “A farm ‘of their own’ would end the cycle of dependency and uncertainty that the burgeoning sharecrop and crop lien systems placed upon Black farmers. Similar to the yeoman in the antebellum era, ex-slaves sought to be self-sufficient farmers who supplemented their staples with the sale of cash crops for market.”[3] The ability to maintain a stable and independent income was a key component in maintaining economic freedom.

This image is a small vignette of an agricultural scene taken from a larger lithograph entitled

This vignette is part of a larger lithograph celebrating the famed speech of Robert B. Elliott in House of Representatives in 1874 in which he advocated for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The central image of the lithograph depicts Elliott on the floor of the House of Representatives, with smaller images surrounding that show various Civil Rights advocates and the potential positive outcomes of such a bill. This image shows a recently freed African American farmer, with a caption that reads “American Slave Labour is of the Past – Free Labour is of the Present–We Toil for our Own Children and Not for Those of Others.”Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

The acquisition of land became an important component in considering broader freedoms as well. Selena Sanderfer states, “the enormous ex-slave population, though disavowing segregation were far more troubled by lack of available land after the War… Southern Blacks reasoned that land did not just mean a livelihood, but that it also led to greater independence in all areas of society.”[4] The importance of land acquisition and economic freedom sometimes outrank other modes of equality, as “southerners prioritized land and often times acquiesced to the postponement of political rights and social inequality, however they could not sacrifice economic independence… Land ownership, and with it, self-sufficiency and subsistence, demanded immediate attention.”[5] The desire to own land and act as an independent farmer shaped the choices of many Black Southerners.

The importance of land ownership is also alluded to in the minutes of several postbellum southern Colored Conventions. At the City Meeting of the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1865, delegates demonstrated a commitment to agriculture and resolved that “The surest guarantee for the independence and ultimate elevation of the colored people will be found in their becoming the owners of the soil on which they live and labor.”[6] Advocating land ownership and farming was a common refrain in many antebellum Colored Conventions, and it “remained a pressing objective for southern conventions throughout Reconstruction.”[7] For and many other Black southerners outside of the Colored Conventions movement, economic independence was the principal factor in insuring their continued freedom.

Recognizing the centrality of land and agriculture to the lives of Black southerners is a critical component of understanding the postbellum emigration movement. “The lack of land ownership opportunities after the Civil War was the most compelling reason for increased participation in territorial separatism.”[8] Emigration became an increasingly reasonable and desirable option for many Black southerners as it became more and more difficult for them to acquire their own land.

Selena Sanderfer notes that “Most southern Black emigrants belonged to the working class, consequently land acquisition and economic independence were two key objectives for the movement. Land ownership, as a strategy for racial uplift, was unique among southern Black nationalists and distinct from the [postbellum] northern manifestation, which centered on moral and civilizing missions.”[9] Land ownership became the critical key with which formerly enslaved Black southerners could unlock racial, political, and economic independence for themselves and their children, and as such became a determining factor in conversations about emigration.


[1] Sanderfer, Selena. “The Emigration Debate and the Southern Colored Convention Movement.” Forthcoming in Foreman, Casey and Patterson eds. Colored Conventions in the Nineteenth Century and the Digital Age.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Colored Citizens of Norfolk (1865 : Norfolk, VA), “Equal Suffrage. Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States. Also an Account of the Agitation Among the Colored People of Virginia for Equal Rights. With an Appendix Concerning the Rights of Colored Witnesses Before the State Courts, June 5, 1865,”, accessed January 27, 2017,

[7] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.