Four Southern Cities

This is way off topic, but back in March when the new Census population estimates came out, I tweeted about slow growth in Alabama and negative growth in Mississippi. I’m wondering why they aren’t part of the “new south”, generally taken to be fast growing Sunbelt cities like Charlotte and Atlanta. Why does Atlanta boom, but Jackson doesn’t? Many of the responses boiled down to “because it’s Mississippi” which is sort of circular logic.

I thought it would be interesting to compare population growth since 1860 in four southern cities: Jackson MS, Birmingham AL, Atlanta GA, and Charlotte NC. Since municipal boundaries in the US are illogical, often changing, and hard to trace, I’m using county level data, comparing the populations, based on the 2015 definitions of the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) for each city.

I also added an “Atlanta Redux” where I threw out the 9 counties (out of 29) in the Atlanta MSA that still, as of 2016, have not reached population 30,000. These counties are way out near the edge of the city and were only recently sprawled into the Atlanta MSA. Their inclusion in the regional population back to 1860 probably unfairly inflates Atlanta’s size at the outset of the Civil War, when counties 40 miles out would not have had much plausible connection to the city but still had some population. I’m including both the full MSA and the reduced version to let readers compare.


Even the redux version of Atlanta was the biggest city of the four in 1860. Not much divergence is seen between Birmingham, Atlanta, and Charlotte until after World War 2. Jackson appears to have always grown more slowly, though this fate would not have been at all obvious to an observer in 1880, when Jackson was over 50% larger than Birmingham.

Plotting the population on a logarithmic scale can help us see patterns more easily, as the runaway growth of Atlanta makes the others look flat by comparison.


Plotted this way, the post-World War 2 growth of Atlanta and Charlotte doesn’t look unusual; it just looks like a continuation of previous trends. Atlanta, especially the redux version, starts growing a little faster than Charlotte after the war.

More interesting is Birmingham, which grew very quickly for decades after the Civil War, going from about 60% of Jackson’s size in 1870 to 120% of it in 1890. Birmingham even passed Charlotte for a few decades, going from 40% of its size in 1870 to larger by 1910. An observer in 1930 might have expected Birmingham to surpass Atlanta in another 10-20 years, especially the redux Atlanta. Jackson, meanwhile, experienced a strong decade from 1870-1880, but never grew very quickly again.

After 1930, Birmingham, which had been the rising star, began to fade, and was surpassed by Charlotte by 1960. So, what happened to Jackson after 1880? And what happened to Birmingham in 1930? I’ve yet to find out.

Another way to look at this data is to look at the amount of growth in the central county (where the main city is located) and compare that to the growth of suburbs. Here’s the breakdown for these four cities, with the central county on the bottom of the graph.


It is interesting that in Birmingham and Jackson, the central county stopped growing when the MSA as a whole started growing more slowly. However, it’s important to not try to read too much into this – did the MSA grow slowly because the central county was being neglected, or did the central county stop growing because there wasn’t much growth to be accommodated anyway?

One unappealing answer is that there is simply a great deal of luck in these outcomes. Obviously it helps for the city to be well run, but there are many factors making a complex result, and sometimes you just get bad luck. This rudimentary look is obviously not enough to tell us much about why these cities grew at different rates, but if anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.


7 thoughts on “Four Southern Cities

  1. Chris Bradford

    It’s useful to consider what’s fueling the population boom in dynamic places like Austin or Nashville, Houston or Atlanta. It’s domestic transplants (and in Houston’s case at least) international migration. Most domestic migrants to, say, Austin are from Texas. Texas is a huge state, so there are lots of domestic migrants to split between the big 4 (ATX, SA, DFW & Houston).
    But Alabama and Mississippi are relatively small states. They don’t have a large domestic immigrant pool. On the contrary, the natives who should be moving to Jackson and Birmingham are likely to move to larger, more dynamic cities in other states. There are lots of Mississippians in Texas. (I was born, raised and educated in Mississippi but I, like my wife, brother, sister in law and her family live in Texas.) There are lots in Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, etc.
    So a cause, then, is that Jackson and Birmingham have the misfortune of being in a region with larger, more dynamic cities (which has long been the case).

  2. Ian Mitchell

    Reconstruction built jackson and Jackson had little investment after reconstruction ended in 1877.

    Birmingham had the largest black laborforce before the first great migration, and had coal and iron ore. Making steel there made sense for a while. Birmingham had ~100,000 black workers when chicago had under 40,000. In terms of steel production, Detroit surpassed Birmingham sometime between 1910 and 1930. There were markets in every direction from Detroit- booming populations across the midwest. From birmingham everything just went to atlanta first (occasionally to memphis). The population boom of the great lakes, the relative ease of transport there compared to the south, was what shifted focus away from Jackson and Birmingham.

    1. keaswaran

      Maybe we should think of Birmingham as a part of the Rust Belt that happens to be geographically farther south, if this is really the history of its industry. I don’t know the history of Atlanta industry, but I believe North Carolina was largely tobacco, textiles, and furniture, which have had very different patterns from the sort of heavy industry that the Rust Belt, and perhaps Birmingham, were based on.

      1. Steven Harrell

        “North Carolina was largely tobacco, textiles, and furniture”

        That was true in North Carolina in general up until the 1980’s, but Charlotte was also a banking center because of an early 19th century gold rush. Charlotte’s financial sector started to boom in the late ’80s and ’90s as deregulation and the introduction of *really* lax state laws allowed NC banks to merge with and acquire financial institutions across the country–perhaps to our own detriment thirty years later during the great recession. That may be one of the reasons that Charlotte’s growth curve began to shift in the ’80s relative to other sunbelt cities.

        That’s only true of Charlotte, though.. other North Carolina cities began to boom at the same time for other reasons. Raleigh-Durham probably saw a similar shift in the early to mid ’90s, but because of changes in the tech and biomed fields coupled with earlier massive government investments in higher education (investments that were at least partly fueled by tobacco settlements). Meanwhile, parts of the state that were heavily dependent on textiles and furniture began to flag as those industries were decimated by globalization. Tobacco was both helped and hurt by globalization, but fewer North Carolinians work in agriculture anyway. Boom for some, bust for others.

      2. Ian Mitchell

        Yes, in that way Birmingham is a bit like the rust belt. Wheeling, Baltimore, there are quite a few places geographically separated from the great lakes area which are still fundamentally rust belt.

  3. DD

    i’d always anecdotally heard, through planning school, that Atlanta’s growth was related to it’s ability to successfully navigate race relations in the 20th century leading up to the civil rights movement. While Alabama’s governor was barring the door to letting black students into universities, Atlanta had successful black and white business communities. This gave Atlanta a broader appeal for investment than Birmingham. I’m not as familiar with the politics in Charlotte or Jackson, but I’d guess there’s something similar at play.

  4. ChristopherATL

    You need to consider other variables, such as political values. Atlanta attracted and continues to attract people because of its progressive values. The state usually falls in line. Business friendly policies along with a focus on attracting a diverse pool of talent have led Atlanta to where it is today. Alabama and Mississippi are known for their racist, homophobic and backwards politicians. This is a deeply embedded cultural flaw. Most people would not want to be in a state where these things are still on the level they are as problems. Companies will not locate there because of it.


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