Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Are There Individuals Alive Today with One or More Parents Born as a Slave?

In order to look at one aspect of the question, How far is slavery behind us?, I undertook a thought experiment: Are there individuals alive today with one or more parents born as a slave?

First, to be specific, I am referring to the American form of institutionalized slavery that was outlawed by the 13th Amendment (1865) and not modern and illegal forms of slavery or even institutionalized slavery in other countries such as Brazil which did not end until 1888.

So, to rephrase the question: is there someone alive today who had at least one parent who was born in the United States in 1865 or before and who was legally a slave?

My strategy to answer this question played out as follows.

#1. How many living African-Americans are there who are old enough that they could have been the children of slaves?
#1a. At the time when the individuals identified in question #1 were born, how many African-Americans were living who were born into slavery and what were their ages?
#2. For the population identified in question #1, how many of those would have been born to parents who were slaves?

Note: I have put several days of effort into hunting down answers to these questions. The initial question intrigued me enough to undertake a stubborn investigation, a lot of number hunting and crunching.

Question #1.

#1. How many living African-Americans are there who are old enough that they could have been the children of slaves? 

This first step back is well-documented and bears a degree of specificity. Although there are urban legends of people living to very old ages, surviving to over 100 is a rare phenomenon, currently describing about 1 in every 5,800 Americans.

Table #A, presented in the appendix, provides the number of African-Americans by age, year-by-year, for those who were over eighty years old in the year 2014.

For those 90 and over, I grouped this information by sets of five years. From the ages of those in Table #A, we can say,

Number of living African-Americans by birth years.

Born 1914 or before, 9,057. Time passed since the 13th Amendment: 49 years or fewer.
Born 1915 to 1919, 38,924. Time passed since the 13th Amendment: 50 to 54 years.
Born 1920 to 1924, 132,761. Time passed since the 13th Amendment: 55 to 59 years.

Question 1a. At the time when the individuals identified in question #1 were born, how many African-Americans were living who were born into slavery and what were their ages?

This is less precise for two reasons. First, the censuses from a century ago were somewhat quirky, categorizing individuals not by exact age, but by clumps of ages. In the 1910 census, respondents were grouped by each five years of age from under five up until 100 years old. Those 100 and older were lumped together. (The 1 in 3670 frequency reported for those over 100 is probably an exaggeration).

Second, as is noted in the census abstract, people were not always exact about their ages. Compared to today, it was more likely back then that people did not know their birth year. Furthermore, the census-takers did not necessarily speak to each individual, but typically to a member of a household or representative of an institution who provided the ages of the elderly occupants. The census abstract noted that people frequently rounded their ages to the nearest ten, e.g., someone who was 59 was deemed 60. Thus, there were 35.7% fewer individuals in the 55 to 59 category than in the 50 to 54 category. However, the next drop down to 60 to 64, only lost 11.0%.

Perhaps in response to this, the 1920 census categories were broader, covering ten years of age with the change of the decade in the middle. The relevant figures for those born under slavery for the 1920 census would be those 55 to 64 years old, and those 65 years and older (the latter, at that time, lumped into a single category).

To some extent, these categories do not hinder answering the questions the main question I am asking. How many of the African-Americans in the 1910 and 1920 censuses were born as slaves?

In 1910, a total of 9,827,763 individuals in the United States were identified as Negro. Of these, 1,402,227 were born in 1865 or earlier or 1 in 7. For males, the total was 748,036 and for females, 654,691. The median age was just over twenty-one.

In 1920, a total of 10,463,131 individuals in the United States were identified as Negro. Of these, 762,811 were born in 1865 or earlier or 1 in 13.7. (Could this sharp drop-off have been because of the influenza epidemic of 1918-9?) For males, the total was 415,171 and for females, 347,640.

But: Did being an African-American in pre-13th Amendment United States mean being a slave? According to the 1860 Census figures, at the time of the Civil War, counting both North and South, 89.0% of those termed black or mulatto were slaves - 91.9% of those in the South. The 89% probably underestimates the numbers. No slaves are listed in the majority of Northern states, however, any runaway slave in the North was still officially a slave.

#2. For the population identified in question #1, how many of those would have been born to parents who were slaves?

To answer question #2, we get to the more difficult-to-determine matter of "at what age do people have children?" There are three determinants that go into answering this question: fertility of the mother, fertility of the father, and cultural factors. As a general rule, women have children before age 45. The defining reason is biology with fertility quickly dropping off.

Since the child of a slave who was born 105 years ago would have had to have had a parent of at least 45 years of age, it is much more likely that that parent was male. This is reflected in the fact that, although there is a drop-off in fertility as men grow older, men can continue to father babies through middle age and, on occasion, into old age. In nations where men have multiple and young wives, the average age for male parenting is in the late forties.

To address the question at hand, it is not necessary to assess to what degree men are fertile in their fifties and beyond, but rather, what percent of African-American men do have children at an older age. Although, I can not find the numbers for the early twentieth century, these figures have been tracked for the last several decades.

Surprisingly, the rates for black males ages 50 and older becoming fathers have not changed since 1980. In comparison to white males, black males are much more likely to be older parents: three times more likely for fifty years and older, twice as likely for 45 to 49.

Rates of fatherhood by age, black males per 1000 men (2015 study, CDC, Table 17)

             1980      2013
35 to 39     62.0      69.2
40 to 44     31.2      36.1
45 to 49     13.6      15.5
50 to 54      5.9       6.0
55 plus       1.1       1.0

In this study, all of those 55 and older are counted in a single pool, i.e., the rate of a 55 year-old black man fathering a baby is mixed with that of a 90-year-old. Although I would have been preferred to have had more categories, the average figure will suffice for this analysis.

Combining the Numbers.

The combined figures are easiest to calculate for those who were born between 1915 and 1919. Here the numbers of individuals and fathering rates are specific.

Born 1915 to 1919 and still living: 38,924. Number of these likely to have had a father who was 50 to 54 years at the time of their births: 230 individuals. (89% slaves: 205 individuals). An additional 43 African-Americans (38 from slaves) would have had a male parent aged 55 years or older.

If we assume all of those born 1914 and before who are still living were born in period comprising 1910 to 1914 (an assumption which will slightly lower the number born to slave parents), we have 9057 individuals. Of those, 123 were born to male parents of 45 to 49, 53 to male parents 50 to 54, and 10 to male parents 55 and older. This totals 166 more who were likely born to slaves (89% of the total).

For the 132,761 living who were born between 1920 to 1924, the parent would have needed to be at least 55. Although it greatly underestimates the totals, taking the average rate of male parenting for those 55 and over, this would add another 146 to the figures (129 born to slaves).

Together these total 538 living African Americans with a male parent born in slavery.

A number of strained assumptions have gone into this analysis, the chief unknown being the rate of children being born to older fathers in the early twentieth century. (Although large families were common a hundred years ago with the youngest often being born to parents in their forties.) Also, there is the matter of whether those born to older fathers would be equally likely to live as long as others. These and other considerations could pare down the final totals, but the cumulative effect would unlikely to greatly lower the number. I will offer a seat-of-the-pants estimation of 538 plus or minus 200.

A final note should be made regarding exceptionality. Although a person living to 110 or more is extremely rare, as is a man fathering a child in his seventies and older, those very few exceptions would likely add several to the numbers. Interestingly, the oldest woman in the world is an African-American. Susannah Mushatt Jones was born in Alabama in 1899. Her mother and father were 32 and 25 at the time of her birth, respectively, and born just after slavery had ended.


Table A. Number of African-Americans in the United States of a particular age, U.S. Census estimate, year 2014.

80    112,825
81    105,210
82      94,601
83      85,286
84      81,362
85      70,692
86      63,666
87      57,144
88      50,522
89      44,300
90      37,159
91      31,426
92      25,877
93      20,902
94      17,397
95      12,495
96        9,762
97        7,165
98        5,409
99        4,093
100+     9,057

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. His latest mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at


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