Bitter Sugar: Slavery and the Black Family

Graziella Bertocchi (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia)
Arcangelo Dimico (Queen's University Belfast)

Abstract : We empirically assess the effect of historical U.S. slavery on the African American family structure. The latter is proxied by the likelihood that a household is headed by a single woman. Our hypothesis is that the black family structure is more likely to emerge in association with the experience of slavery in sugarcane plantations. Indeed, across the Americas, sugarcane planting has been linked with extreme demographic outcomes within the slave population - involving a prevalence of men over women, low fertility, and high mortality - that may have impeded the formation of stable families adhering to the nuclear model. We test our hypotheses on U.S. Census data covering the period 1900-1940. By exploiting the exogenous variation in suitability to crops, we establish that higher sugar suitability is associated with a higher likelihood of a single female headship. We complement OLS estimates with a matching estimator and a RDD. The effect we uncover starts fading in 1930 with the Great Migration, and vanishes by 2000. By constructing a matched linked dataset, we also assess intergenerational and geographical persistence and, by merging data on Louisiana slaves' ethnic origin with ethnographic data, we exclude an alternative explanation based of African cultural traditions.

Economic Incentives, Institutional and Cultural Change: the Evolution of Slavery in the Us South

Michele Rosenberg (University Carlos III)
Federico Masera (University of New South Wales)

Abstract : This paper establishes that, under the same institutional setting, divergent local economic incentives determine divergent patterns in institutional, political and cultural environment. We first show how changes in agricultural incentives shaped the distribution of slave labor in the US South. To do so we propose a theory that links the comparative advantage in the production of different crops to the efficient use of slave labor and free labor. We then use data on land suitability for different crops and changes in the quantity and type of available land, due to the westward expansion, to predict the evolution of the counties’ relative advantage in the production of specific crops. We finally show that changes in economic incentives affected agricultural production decisions and ultimately determined the relocation of slaves across the US South. In the second part of the paper we turn to the exploration of the cultural and political implications of these economic shocks. We use Southern Newspapers and predict pattern of slave manumission to show that economic incentives affected the moral attitudes towards slavery. Finally we examine congressman roll call behavior, presidential and gubernatorial election to study the effects of economic changes on political ideology and political support for the institution of slavery.