Place  /  Digital History

Southern Journey: The Migrations of the American South 1790-2020

The maps embrace everyone —free and enslaved, from the first national census of the late 18th century to the sophisticated surveys of the early 21st century.

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We are not surprised when maps show the southeastern corner of the United States standing apart in politics, religion, health, economics, and opinion. The South, after all, has differed in fundamental ways from the rest of the country since the nation’s founding. That difference has been fed by constant movement, by restless journeys to, across, and from the South from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. The migrations of the South weave throughout American history, indigenous, enslaved, citizen, and immigrant people moving among one another, their paths tracing patterns both bold and intricate.

Today, new migrations carve channels of their own. For the first time in the nation’s history, people are choosing to move southward in large numbers, their arrival creating an American South with an unwritten and unmapped history before it. The migrations do not flow in smooth waves and currents. Instead, the movements surge and recede, rushing around seen and unseen obstacles, pushed and pulled by forces near and distant.

We have produced a book with Louisiana State University Press that explains those patterns in the context of southern, American, and global history.  Southern Journey draws on a rich literature of historical writing to tell us what the patterns mean.

The maps are of interest in and of themselves, however, and so we have produced this StoryMap to trace the journeys of people who otherwise left few marks on the historical record. The maps show clear and striking patterns: shades of copper in the places where the number of people increased and gradations of blue where they declined. The brighter the colors, the greater the change. The captions describe the most important patterns in each map.

How the maps were made

We have chosen our methods with two particular goals in mind: to reveal patterns we could not see otherwise among the lives of millions of people, and to produce maps as consistent and clear as possible across more than two hundred years of American history.  Toward those ends, we use small geographic units, straightforward numbers, and focused chronology. These high-resolution techniques reveal patterns invisible in methods that rely on state-level maps, artificially aggregated subregions, and formulas divorced from contexts of place and time.