Can Census Data Reveal Racism in Employment?

Recently I was asked whether opportunities were any better for European immigrants in the late 1800s than for freed African Americans in the North. The asker of the question assumed that after the Civil War, opportunities had evened out. I wanted to examine this question with data, and do so specifically with relationship to my own ancestors. Can census data reveal racism in employment? As it turned out, after spending a couple of hours, I was able to use U.S. census data to investigate race and employment patterns a century ago, and to demonstrate that European immigrants had racial advantages in the labor market of the North – at least in Muscatine, Iowa, which was where I focused my research.

Here’s how I looked into the question of race and paid labor, using U.S. Census records made available through I selected Macon County, Illinois in 1880 because several of my German ancestors had immigrated to that area and were living there at the time.

To identify African Americans in Macon County, in the search box marked “Race/Nationality,” I used the terms Black and Mulatto. I tried the terms Negro and Colored, which are sometimes also used, but they didn’t yield anyone. In some census decades, there is a dropdown menu of terms indicating race or nationality, but not for 1880. Using this process, I located 236 African Americans in Macon County. I tallied the paid occupation for all 236 African Americans, excluding keeping house, at school, or at home. This resulted in a list of 140 people with paid occupations.

To identify German immigrants, in the section regarding birth of the person being searched, I entered Germany. There were over a thousand German immigrants in Macon County. Since they were listed alphabetically by surname, I figured I could easily draw a random sample, so I tallied occupations of the first 140 with paid occupations. I realized that the list of German immigrants excluded American-born spouses and children, giving a list top-heavy with adults. So, I compared only the 140 African Americans and first 140 German immigrants who had paid occupations.

The data revealed huge racial differences in employment. First, while there was some overlap in the work done by both groups (both were equally likely like to work as farm laborers, and each list had one religious worker), the data revealed significant work segmentation. African Americans were more likely to work as servants (26 compared with 3 German immigrants), washerwomen (19 African Americans compared with 1 German immigrant), laborers (24 African Americans compared with 15 German immigrants), barbers (16 African Americans compared with 1 German immigrant), and cooks (10 compared African Americans with 0 German immigrants).

Conversely, German immigrants had access to land, reflected in who were the farmers (41 German immigrants compared with 11 African Americans). German immigrants also had access to work in factories (9 compared to 0 African Americans) and in trade union work such as stone masons and carriage makers (15 German immigrants compared to 4 African American). German immigrants were also more likely to work as tailors (8 compared with 0 African Americans) and butchers (8 compared with 0 African Americans). Further, some Germans had financial resources to be merchants (8 compared with 1 African American), and education to work as teachers (1) and bookkeepers (1).

This means that when my German ancestors arrived in Macon County, they entered an environment in which they could take up lines of work from which African Americans were excluded, and which likely paid better that the work available to African Americans. The German immigrants also entered an environment in which some fellow countrymen brought financial resources to establish stores and restaurants, paving the way to build a middle class.

I encourage you to try this investigation into race and employment yourself. As noted, it is quite easy to do, and may be an eye-opener.

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