"Copyright, 2001 by the authors, All rights reserved. This document is a draft for a presentation at the SHEAR Annual Meeting in July 2001 and is reproduced here for criticism and comment only. Please do not copy or quote from it in a scholarly work. Inquire with the authors regarding revised versions."
The proportion of township residents identified in the federal census as either black or mulatto rose from 0 percent in 1830 to 4.7 percent in 1840 and 8.8 percent in 1850. In 1860, people of color comprised 14.6 percent of the township's population and in 1870 they comprised 20.5 percent. An estimated two-thirds of Oberlin's African-American residents came from the Upper South, and the North Carolina-Oberlin connection was especially important. The paper examines in some detail the migration of the ex-slaves of Maxwell Chambers of Salisbury, North Carolina
Once they reached Russia Township, blacks, or at least black men, could prosper if they already possessed a skilled trade or a modicum of property. A comparison of mean property assessments for black taxpayers to those of all township taxpayers reveals that, although consistently lower, the fortunes of black propertyholders, on average, tended to rise and fall according to the same pattern as those of propertyholders in general between 1845 and 1870.
Taken by itself, however, the above graph of mean property assessments presents an overly optimistic view of economic opportunity for blacks in mid-nineteenth-century Russia Township. An examination of median property assessments suggests that not only does the graph of mean assessments ignore the propertyless, it also obscures important differences among black propertyholders in Russia Township. The holdings of a few very wealthy African Americans raised the mean valuation for black propertyholders as a whole. Most black propertyholders possessed far less.
Mean and median provide alternative measures of the average holdings of black taxpayers, but neither offers a good picture of individual black mobility over time. To capture better the full range of black experiences, the property valuations of black taxpayers were ranked according to their decile level among all taxpayers' valuations at each five-year interval. Once they appeared in the tax records, black propertyholders tended to hold their own or gain economic ground relative to taxpayers as whole over the ensuing five-year period. Thereafter, however, their prospects were more mixed.
Although there was no single formula for economic success, a key factor in determining which African Americans stayed and prospered in Oberlin and Russia Township was the strength of family networks. The final section of the paper examines in depth the Copeland-Leary network and the Langston-Wall network. It also looks at the structure and persistence of local African-American households in the late antebellum period. Of the twenty-seven African-American households listed for Russia Township in the 1850 census, twenty-three (85.2 percent) were headed by black men, and of those, fifteen (65.2 percent) remained in 1860. Likewise, of the seventy-nine African-American households enumerated in the 1860 census, sixty-two (78.5 percent) were headed by black men, and of those, thirty-eight (61.3 percent) could be traced into the 1870 census. While persistence alone does not indicate prosperity, the stability of core family networks was critical to African-American achievement in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.