In 1989, Erol Ricketts, a researcher with the Rockefeller Foundation, found that between 1890 and 1950, blacks had higher marriage rates than whites, according to the U.S. Census. The report, titled “The Origin of Black Female-Headed Families,” published in the Spring/Summer issue of Focus(32-37), provides an overview that highlights an important question.
Ricketts observes that between 1960 and 1985, female-headed families grew from 20.6 to 43.7 percent of all black families, compared to growth from 8.4 to 12 percent for white families. The rates of marriage for both black and white women were lowest at the end of the 1800s and peaked in 1950 for blacks and 1960 for whites. Furthermore, according to Ricketts, “it is dramatically clear that black females married at higher rates than white females of native parentage until 1950.” National data covering “decennial years from 1890 to 1920 show that blacks out-married whites despite a consistent shortage of black males due to their higher rates of mortality. And in three of the four decennial years there was a higher proportion of currently married black men than white men.”
According to Ricketts, this data helps us to see that the Moynihan Report was wrong to intimate that slavery made marriage worse among blacks. In fact, the “legacy of slavery,” according to the data, does not explain the obliteration of marriage that we’ve seen in the black community over the past 30 years. It is clear from the data, observes Ricketts, that 1950 is a watershed year for black families as black female-headed families grow rapidly in concert with blacks becoming more urbanized than whites. Between 1930 and 1950 the rates of black female-headed families, regardless of geographical environment, are parallel to the corresponding rates for whites.