Document 17G: S. J. Holmes, "The Negro Birth Rate," Birth Control Review, 16, no. 6 (June 1932): 172-73.

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The Negro Birth Rate


THAT birth control has played an important part and is destined to play a still more important part in the growth of our Negro population is evident to anyone who has followed the course of the Negro birth rates in the United States since the period of slavery. In the few decades following emancipation the Negro birth rate continued to be high, and the death rate actually rose. It is a curious fact that after the Civil War the period of highest mortality in the Negro population coincided roughly with the period of most rapid natural increase. We have no adequate statistics on the Negro birth rate until within the last few decades, but the decreasing proportion of children revealed by the decennial censuses from 1880 to 1920 makes it evident that, during this time, the Negro birth rate had been rapidly declining. In fact, the downward course of the birth rate among the Negroes is approximately parallel to that of the whites. For the most part, the difference is simply a case of lag.

   The Negro birth rate, like that of the whites, is lower in the North than in the South, and is lower in urban than in rural communities. It is also lower among Negroes of superior economic and educational status. There is every reason to believe that the same causes which have led to a decreased birth rate among the whites have occasioned the declining birth rate among the Negroes. As most students of this subject agree, birth control is one of the most potent of these causes. When the Negroes become more enlightened and prosperous, birth control will doubtless be more extensively employed to limit the size of families. The extent to which it may in time come to limit the growth of our Negro population is at present a matter of conjecture. For some time our Negro population will have to contend against the odds of a relatively high death rate in its struggle for numerical supremacy with the whites. We may expect that the birth rate will continue to be high in the rural South, which has heretofore been the great breeding ground of our colored population. From this region numerous migrants have gone into the Northern states and the cities of the South, where they have become relatively sterile. Were it not for the high birth rate of the rural Negroes in the South, it is probable that our Negro population would diminish in numbers at a relatively rapid rate.

   Migration to the North and into Southern cities has imposed a heavy drain upon our Negro population. The spectacular mass migrations of Negroes during the war period was followed by a reduced but still extensive migration into the North. With the curtailment of European immigration there will continue to be a demand for Negro laborers in Northern industrial centers, especially if we pull out of the present financial depression. Whether the Negroes will be able to thrive in the urban communities of a Northern climate is still uncertain. Negroes are becoming immunized to tuberculosis, one of their greatest enemies, and their infant mortality has been greatly reduced during the last decade. With the improvement of their living conditions in the North it is at least possible that they may be able to maintain themselves and become a self perpetuating group. When we have complete data on Negro birth rates and death rates based upon the 1930 census (I am afraid to trust the official rates which are now published), we shall be in a better position to draw conclusions on this important problem.

   One influence which we cannot gauge at present

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is the operation of psychological factors growing out of the Negro's relation to his social environment. With a race of less buoyant and cheerful temperament these factors would doubtless operate more strongly. Among the Polynesian and Melanesian races of the Pacific, their influence, according to several well qualified anthropologists, has been an important contributory cause of depopulation. "Why," asked an intelligent Melanesian, "should we bring children into the world only to work for the white man?" Where people feel keenly the hardship and injustice of their lot, they may be less inclined to produce children to share their undesirable social heritage. There is no doubt that the psychological attitude to which we have alluded and which is expressed more or less frequently in Negro literature, has led in many cases to the limitation of Negro families. With the further dissemination of contraceptive information it will doubtless have a greater effect upon the birth rate of our Negro population, although in the Black Belt this influence will be relatively slight.

   The effect of birth control upon the Negro population has probably been dysgenic, as it has been on the whites. According to Professor Kelly Miller, the average number of children per family in the faculty of Howard University is 1.6, and he considers that this group "is typical of like elements throughout the race so far as fecundity is concerned. The upper class is headed towards extinction, unless reenforced from the fruitful mass below."

   On the whole, birth rate problems are much the same among blacks and whites. With the exception of the psychological factors I have mentioned and which are by no means entirely absent in the white race, the forces which cause the decline of the birth rate operate alike in both races.


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