Alabama’s Population at the Dawn of the 21st Century: The Product of a Century of Change

Alabama’s Population at the Dawn of the 21st Century: The Product of a Century of Change

  • August 7th, 2019

Alabama’s Population at the Dawn of the 21st Century:
The Product of a Century of Change

With a population of 4,447,100 on April 1, 2000, Alabama had added 406,513 residents in the 10 years since the 1990 census.  The state’s population more than doubled during the 100 years between 1900, when 1,828,697 Alabamians were counted, and 2000.  While the most recent census ranked Alabama 23rd among the 50 states, it was the 18th most populous state 100 years ago.  At that time, Florida tallied only 528,542 residents and California counted just 1,485,053.  Alabama’s population growth was most rapid in the first half of the century, increasing 67.4 percent between 1900 and 1950, compared to 45.2 percent from 1950 to 2000.

Alabama’s transition from a predominantly rural, agrarian state in 1900 into a largely urban one, dependent on nonagricultural jobs, has defined the patterns of change seen across the 20th century.   In 1900 just 216,714 Alabamians lived in urban areas and more than seven out of eight residents were in rural settings.  Urban areas were defined in 1900 as incorporated places of 2,500 or more, plus areas classified as urban under special rules relating to population size and density.  After a slight definitional change in 1950, Alabama’s urban population reached 43.8 percent of the total.  By 1990 over 60 percent of the state’s residents lived in urban areas.  Although urban/rural numbers for 2000 have not been released, the share of Alabama’s urban population is expected to have continued to increaseVisit the table of Population of Alabama Counties, 1900-2000

The state’s urbanization has been driven by its economic transformation.  In 1910 there were 669,033 Alabamians aged 10 and over “gainfully employed” in agriculture.  Another 574 worked in forestry and fishing.  By mid-century just 248,121 of the state’s workers aged 14 and over worked in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.  By 1998 the number of workers 16 and over in agriculture, forestry, and fishing had dwindled to 64,980.  (Notice the differences in the lower limit of the workforce:  age 16 in 1998, but age 14 in 1950, and age 10 in 1910.)  At the same time, employment in manufacturing climbed from 107,854 in 1910 to 213,500 in 1950 and 384,525 in 1990, before falling to 363,392 in 2000.  Trade employment rose from 42,743 in 1910 to 118,700 in 1950 and 453,800 in 2000.  And employment in services climbed from 33,657 in 1910 (not counting 76,054 domestic and personal service workers aged 10 and over) to 52,100 in 1950 and 467,383 in 2000.  Both the economic shift to the service producing sectors and the continuing decline in certain manufacturing industries favor the state’s urban areas.  In particular, textiles and apparel jobs, which were frequently located in rural Alabama, are disappearing.

While much of the state’s land area remains rural, many rural economies have withered as people have left in search of economic opportunity.  Several of today’s urban counties, including Jefferson, Montgomery, Mobile, Madison, and Tuscaloosa, have ranked in the state’s ten most populous from 1900 through 2000.  However, two of Alabama’s ten most populous counties in 1900, Henry and Lowndes, have remained predominantly rural.  Those counties have also witnessed the exodus of over half of their residents during the century.  Other counties, all predominantly rural, that also saw their populations reduced to less than half the 1900 number by 2000 include Bullock, Greene, Perry, Sumter, and Wilcox.  Thirty of Alabama’s 67 counties more than doubled in population during the 20th century.  Only two, Covington and Marion, are not either in or adjacent to a metropolitan area county.  Just two metro area counties, Lawrence and Russell, did not double in population during the last 100 years.

Looking back across the 20th century, seven Alabama counties grew in every decade.  They were Baldwin, Madison, Marshall, Mobile, Morgan, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa.  Another nine counties missed just one decade of growth.  And no counties saw their population drop in every decade.  During the last decade, twelve counties experienced losses ranging from a 0.6 percent decline in Choctaw to 8.5 percent in Sumter.

In 2000 Alabama remains a state of few large cities and many small cities and towns.  Identifying the state’s 67 counties by the size of the largest city or town in 2000 reveals just eleven counties with cities of 25,000 or more residents.  All these counties saw overall population gains across the 20th century.  Of the 20 counties with a largest city or town with 10,000 to 25,000 people, 18 saw population increases for 1900 to 2000.  And 11 of 13 counties with the largest city housing 5,000 to 10,000 experienced population growth during the century.  The largest city or town in 23 of Alabama’s counties had fewer than 5,000 residents in 2000.  Just nine of these counties gained population across the 100 years.  However, trends may be changing as nine counties in the small city category that failed to post an overall gain between 1900 and 2000 showed a population increase during the decade of the 1990s.

The racial composition of Alabama’s population has changed throughout the 20th century.  Although population growth and change has been affected by the age structure and fertility characteristics of white, black, and other residents, interstate migration has been the major factor.  Historically, population losses due to out-migration or relatively weak net migration gains have accounted for Alabama’s below average population growth rate.  In only two of the last 10 decades have more people moved into Alabama than moved out.  From 1970 to 1980, the state added 115,014 residents due to migration (both international and from other states).  The influx during the 1970s was entirely of white residents, however, as nonwhites continued to leave the state.  Only in the decade of the 1990s did both groups show substantial increases from net migration.  Alabama gained a total of 210,267 more residents than it lost due to migration between 1990 and 2000.  This includes a gain of approximately 89,306 white residents and 120,961 nonwhite residents, assuming all Alabamians who marked more than one race on the 2000 census are included in nonwhite.

Alabama Net Migration, 1900-2000

Years Total White Nonwhite
1900-1910 -52,362 -28,275 -24,087
1910-1920 -149,272 -64,898 -84,374
1920-1930 -212,231 -113,433 -98,798
1930-1940 -184,614 -112,372 -72,242
1940-1950 -301,376 -115,348 -186,028
1950-1960 -368,151 -144,130 -224,021
1960-1970 -229,681 -2,033 -227,648
1970-1980 115,014 150,236 -35,222
1980-1990 -89,120 -17,046 -72,074
1990-2000 210,267 89,306 120,961
Note:  The category of nonwhite migrants for 1990-2000 includes
individuals who marked more than one race on the
Census 2000 form.
Source:  Estimates by Center for Business and Economic Research,
The University of Alabama based on census and vital
statistics data.

At the beginning of the 20th century, 54.7 percent of Alabama’s residents were white.  This share steadily increased to 73.6 percent in 1970 and peaked at 73.8 percent in 1980.  From 1990 to 2000, however, the aging of Alabama’s white population relative to its nonwhite residents, coupled with a larger net in-migration of nonwhites, resulted in much stronger growth in the nonwhite population.  In 2000 Alabama was 71.1 percent white and 26.0 percent black.  Members of other racial groups have never had substantial numbers in Alabama.  From fewer than 250 in 1900 and just over 2,500 in 1950, residents who identified themselves as neither white nor black increased to 84,183 in 2000.  This is less than two percent of the population.  Another 44,179 Alabamians selected two or more races on the 2000 census.

As Alabama begins to move through the 21st century, economic development will strongly influence the location of population growth while migration will help determine racial and ethnic trends.  Gains throughout the 1900s have been concentrated in the state’s urban and adjoining suburban counties, and in rural counties that either are becoming an extension of suburbia or have developed their own economic strengths and identities.  In Alabama, as in much of the nation, population declines in mostly rural high-minority counties reflect their economic disadvantage.  Changing the population trends of the 20th century in the 21st century will depend on improving economic opportunity and quality of life in distressed areas of the state.

Carolyn Trent