Mapping Disease, Race, and Class in New Orleans, 1877–1915: The Effects of Mortality Terrains on Socioeconomic Development

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 11:30 AM
Palladian Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
S. Wright Kennedy, Rice University
Twelve years have passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and thrust issues of environmental injustice, socioeconomic stratification, and racial segregation into the national spotlight. Yet, until recently, historians have lacked the tools and methods to study the nineteenth-century genesis of these detrimental processes. Scholars cannot understand the urban development of the United States without understanding the conditions that molded cities and influenced people. Disease, race, and class were central to this process.

This paper presents findings from the New Orleans Mortality Project, an ongoing interdisciplinary project that is pushing the methodological frontiers of history. The project uses a historical geographic information system (GIS) approach to reconstruct spatial and temporal patterns of mortality and socioeconomics in New Orleans during the Gilded Age. This paper answers two questions: how did the New Orleans mortality terrain evolve during the key historical period under investigation? What effects did the variations in mortality terrain have on the social and economic development of communities within the city?

To answer these questions, I built three datasets from primary sources. For every fifth year between 1880 and 1915, I used death certificates to build an individual-level mortality database and tax rolls to build a property value database. Additionally, I digitized city directories to build lists of city residents for each sample year. I mapped the three datasets in GIS and analyzed locations of high mortality, poverty, and residential segregation over time. Previous studies of mortality and socioeconomics used tools limited in spatial sophistication. My study addresses this shortcoming and offers an innovative approach. By pioneering technical analyses, this project allows us to rethink and investigate how different mortality penalties unfold and interact within the same city over time and space in ways that reflect and contribute to long-lasting socio-spatial inequalities that persist as fundamental features of urbanization.

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