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Legacy of slavery and life expectancy

Life Expectancy for Black People Living in Former Slave Counties Is Considerably Lower Than the Life Expectancy for White People, Even after Taking a Whole Host of Factors into Account

Robert L. Reece


Research on the long-term impacts of chattel slavery in the United States has yielded some important new understandings of the connections between the country’s past and present. This “legacy of slavery” research has demonstrated direct links between slavery and contemporary social and economic outcomes such as poverty, home ownership, and educational inequality. Researchers have only recently begun to study health outcomes. This brief reports on a recent study that seeks to continue this expansion of legacy of slavery research to investigate the long-term impacts of slavery on contemporary health outcomes.

Slavery in the American South was not merely an economic institution, nor was it merely a labor institution. Instead, slavery was what authors have described as a “total institution” that engulfed nearly every aspect of local life. Across the South after Emancipation, White landowners and others who benefited from the institution of slavery sought to imbue emerging social and economic institutions with the structures that facilitated their dominance over Black people. That is, behaviors and priorities established during chattel slavery often became entrenched in local communities and continued to influence social and economic outcomes long after slavery was dismantled. These new institutions, in turn, continued to shape social, economic, and health outcomes for Blacks from the 1860s into the present day.

Health is one of the primary ways through which Black Americans embody racism; Black people’s quality of life and length of life are often significantly less than their White counterparts. Life expectancy, in particular, captures the totality of health experiences. Therefore, Black people’s lower life expectancy relative to White people’s represents the culmination of a lifetime of inequality. These differences are particularly acute in the Southern U.S.

Local variations in the concentration of enslaved people across counties in the South in 1860 – which ranged from no slaves at all to 90 percent of the population enslaved – can inform our understanding of how slavery may continue to shape life expectancy and racial differences in Southern life expectancy. For example, a previous study found that, on average, Southern counties with higher relative proportions of enslaved people in 1860 currently experience higher rates of stroke mortality among Black people and lower rates of stroke mortality among White people. This suggests that Black people continue to suffer the health consequences of places’ slave pasts while White people continue to benefit from places’ slave pasts.

In this study [1], the author examined the connection between the number of enslaved people in counties in former slave states and life expectancy among Black and White people living in those same places today. The author used a variety of data sources, including the U.S. Census, American Community Survey, and the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings was the source for life expectancy data. Using calculations of the proportion of enslaved people in a county relative to the entire county population in 1860, the last Census available before slavery was abolished, the author analyzed the data using geospatial techniques. Statistical models controlled for demographics, health access, local racial animus, occupational hazards, health behaviors, and neighborhood safety to try to isolate the effect of historical slavery on contemporary life expectancy.

Key Findings

  • Relative to counties with fewer enslaved people in 1860, counties that had more enslaved people in 1860 have lower Black life expectancies and higher White life expectancies today, which exacerbates life expectancy inequality in those places.
  • When accounting for slavery and other factors, on average, White life expectancy in former slave counties is two percent longer than Black life expectancy, but the gap can be as large as nine percent. These differences translate to:
    • 40 percent of counties have a Black life expectancy of 73 years or below, while less than 6 percent of counties have a White life expectancy below that age.
    • Conversely, only 9 percent of counties have a Black life expectancy of 77 years or higher, while over 26 percent of counties have a White life expectancy of 77 years and above. See Figure
  • Slavery was a stronger predictor of contemporary life expectancy than other traditional factors such as health access, neighborhood safety, and health behaviors.
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Policy Implications

This research shows how public health outcomes are embedded in historical structures that can overpower the relevance of individual behaviors. These results suggest that slavery is a stronger predictor of contemporary life expectancy than health behaviors and healthcare access. This suggests that even when Black people have access to healthcare and even when they exhibit positive health behaviors, those factors are overshadowed by the ongoing impact of slavery. So, while policies that increase healthcare access and encourage positive health behaviors are important, it is perhaps more important to disrupt the historical structures that continue to disadvantage Black Americans, such as an historical indifference to the quality of Black healthcare. This can be at least partially rectified by improving the quality of care Black Americans receive. Ways to accomplish this goal include directing more funding to healthcare facilities that serve Black people, making sure that those facilities’ healthcare providers include Black providers, and that all are trained in the importance of reducing racial health disparities and improving quality care for Black people.


[1] Reece, R.L. (2022). Slave past, modern lives: An analysis of the legacy of slavery and contemporary life expectancy in the American South. Journal of Black Studies. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00219347221095167

Suggested Citation

Reece, R.L. (2022). Life expectancy for Black people living in former slave counties is considerably lower than the life expectancy for White people, even after taking a whole host of factors into account. PRC Research Brief 7(5). http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/41400

About the Authors

Robert L. Reece (robert.l.reece@austin.utexas.edu) is an assistant professor of sociology and faculty scholar at the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.


This work was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2C HD042849), awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.