By Leroy W. Demery, Jr.
Certain of our loyal and disloyal opponents love to quote statistics by the trainload (pun intended) – but avoid certain issues like the proverbial “third rail” (pun intended – again).
You are not likely to see anything related to, um, Amerikaanse apartheid (“American apartheid”) on websites such as this one, that one or that one. To paraphrase Oscar Bonavena, the late Argentine boxer, you’d think they were chicken (“Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!”).
By contrast, we denizens of www.publictransit.us do not shy away from such matters. Thus this post.
Yazoo City, Mississippi, is located about 40 miles (65 km) north of Jackson, the state capital. The town opened a municipal streetcar system on January 2, 1909 – thus my interest in locating population statistics for our traffic-density project tables (which will published later this year on this website). I had known that the city closed the system in 1918, evidently in May, because of heavy operating losses. However, I had not checked census population statistics.
The 1910 census population of Yazoo City was just shy of 6,800. However, the 1920 census population was little greater than 5,200. The numerical change, more than 1,500, accounted for a population decrease of nearly 23 percent.
U.S. Census Bureau population statistics are not as accurate as is often assumed. Criticisms include allegations that the Census Bureau routinely undercounts low-income and minority persons. Certain historic census data are also suspect: historians have labeled historic population statistics for a small number of cities and towns as “inflated” or “grossly inflated.” The 1900 population statistic for St. Joseph, Missouri, is a good example.
However, the Yazoo City statistics did not stand out as “unrealistic” (exactly the opposite is true of the St. Joseph, MO, statistic described above). I searched for an explanation (e.g. local economic downturn), but found nothing.
Then I checked population statistics for “Negroes.”
The African-American population of Yazoo City was nearly 4,200 at 1910 – but little more than 2,700 at 1920. The numerical change, more than 1,400, accounted for a decrease of nearly 35 percent in the town’s black population. In fact, the loss of black population accounted for all but a tiny fraction (about 1.5 percent) of the total population loss during 1910-1920.
Many of the African-Americans who departed Yazoo City were part of the “First Great Migration,” roughly 1910-1930. About 1.6 million blacks moved from South to North in search of economic opportunity, and to escape Jim Crow segregation and post-World War I racial violence. Some Mississippi cities experienced similar declines in black population from 1910 to 1920, notably Meridian and Vicksburg, but others did not (e.g. Biloxi and Gulfport).
The African-American share of the population of Yazoo City, 61 percent at 1910, fell to 52 percent at 1920 (it is about 70 percent today). Undoubtedly, some of the remaining residents were pleased by this change – but we suspect that transit system managers were not. We think that the financial position of the system was difficult from the start, and eventually became hopeless as the town lost more than two percent of its population each year after opening. The city financed construction of its municipal street railway by selling bonds. Because of operating losses, interest payments had to be covered from general tax revenues. The principal had to be paid back from the same source through the 1920s, and perhaps longer.
Given a different set of circumstances that led to an annual population increase of 2 percent per annum, Yazoo City’s streetcars might have survived for into the 1920s, perhaps to the onset of the Great Depression. That, however, is only one of many “what might have been” stories that come to mind when considering the legacy of Amerikaanse apartheid.
Brooks, Frank A. 1983. Travelling by trolley in Mississippi : stories about streetcars. San Antonio, Tex. : Texas Division, Electric Railroaders’ Association. Scanned PDF of this document available at https://misspreservation.com/streetcars/
Cummings, John, and Joseph Adna Hill. Negro population in the United States, 1790-1915: United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.
Work, Monroe N. (ed). Negro year book, Volume 6 (1921-1922). 1922. Tuskeegee (AL, US). Tuskegee Institute. Department of Records and Research.