1920 census data hints at today’s Texas

By Jorjanna Price

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The 1892 Bexar County Courthouse photographed during the 1920s. At the time, Texas was on the cusp of rural to urban transformation. The 1920 census reported San Antonio as the state’s largest city, with 161,300 residents. Photo: Courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation.

As the results from the 2020 census are released, expect Texas to generate headlines. A decade of driving growth and business expansion has pushed the population close to 30 million and probably nabbed the state another berth among the top 10 U.S. cities. Austin is expected to leap ahead of San Jose, California, for 10th place, giving Texas four of the 10 largest cities in the country, including Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. The past decade was one of phenomenal growth as well as expanding diversity. The state's updated demographic profile will likely find Texans growing older and more ethnically diverse. To understand the changing dynamics of Texas today, it helps to look back a full century to understand the state as it was, and what it was about to be.

The U.S. census in 1920 recorded 4.6 million people in the state, placing it fifth nationally. The population had grown by a brisk 19.6% since 1910.

The decennial head count was conducted on the heels of a tumultuous time for Texas and the rest of the country. Texas and other states were deeply affected by World War I; Lone Star families ended up burying more than 5,100 war dead. Layered on top of war, the Spanish flu epidemic swept through all regions, claiming thousands more Texans.

In those days, the state's populace overall was young, and two-thirds of Texans lived on farms, according to the census. Those farm dwellers either grew agricultural goods or worked in the production or marketing of those goods. More than 436,000 farms were in operation, averaging 261 acres in size. Typically farming families were large, and the census reported that 60 percent of the rural population was 14 years old or younger. Cotton remained central to the state’s economy, as did ranching, timber and corn.

Despite its overwhelming agrarian aspect, Texas had entered a period of major transition — from rural to urban. In 1920, about one-third of Texans lived in metropolitan areas (2,500 inhabitants or more), and the largest cities were on the verge of a population boom. In fact, the first three decades of the 20th century saw considerable movement to urban areas.

Walter Buenger, Ph.D., at the University of Texas at Austin, said Texas in 1920 was on the cusp of developing what would become megacities. San Antonio at the time was the state’s largest with 161,379 people, followed by Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and El Paso (see chart on Texas cities among top 100 U.S. cities).

"Urbanization really kicked in during the decade of 1910-1920," explained Buenger, a history professor and the chief historian for the Texas State Historical Association.

He pointed out that World War I encouraged some segments of the population to become city dwellers — women, for one. Usually it was young single women who left the family farm to find urban-based jobs left vacant when men were sent to fight in Europe. 

“What you saw was the emergence of a professional class of women as they became more accepted in the public sphere," Buenger said. “Women took jobs outside of traditional areas during World War I, particularly in cities."

As men returned from war, many of the women who had been filling men's jobs moved on to become teachers and telephone switchboard operators in order to remain in the cities, he said.

Black Texans also were on the move, mostly to Houston or Dallas, or even leaving the state, Buenger said. The 1920 census recorded blacks as representing 16 percent of the state population.

On demographics, the census did not delineate between whites and Hispanics, but it simply showed "whites" at 84 percent of the state population. By doing so, the census failed to register a sizable influx of Spanish-speakers when Mexico went through a revolution starting in 1910, Buenger said.

Adding to Texas' cultural diversity were distinct European ethnic groups — people who often spoke the language their parents or grandparents brought with them as immigrants, he said. About a dozen counties were dominated by German or Czech communities, as reflected by their old-country customs, churches and businesses.

During this period, Texas scored one achievement that resonates to this day. In 1919, the Legislature, with the backing of Gov. William P. Hobby, ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Texas became the first state in the South to support women's suffrage and the ninth in the country to do so. The constitutional amendment was adopted the following year, allowing women to cast votes for president in 1920.