The Northern Migration


Studies of African-American migration most often focus on the twentieth century, when millions of black people left the South, moving northward to industrial cities of the East and West. Yet an earlier migration was also important. Although not as dramatic in sheer numbers, it too had a profound impact on the course of American history. This was the migration that took place during the decades before and just after the Civil War. In the antebellum period, much of this movement was forced and occurred in the South, as people from the Upper South were sold into the domestic slave trade. But there was also a voluntary migration of runaways, and of free African Americans leaving the South for a perceived better, less restricted life in the Northern states.

In the North, they clustered in small communities in the larger cities. They established stable families, built their own institutions, and, although most were denied full citizenship, nevertheless became a vigorous force in regional and national politics. Free African Americans represented only about 10 percent of the total black population at the time of the Civil War, but their role in the issues that led to Southern secession was in great disproportion to their numbers.

Free Blacks in the South

For free African Americans, the South was never a comfortable place. In a slave society their presence was always suspect, and slaveholders went to great lengths to limit their numbers.

In the 1830s, for example, Virginia was one of a number of Southern states whose laws required that a freed slave must leave the state within a year of emancipation. States like North Carolina prohibited free African Americans from entering their territory. In several states, including Maryland, free blacks convicted on the most minor charges were sold into slavery. In 1858, one free black man in South Carolina was convicted for stealing a pot valued at less than a dollar; he escaped after he was delivered to a slave dealer for sale. In the 1850s, Charleston's free African Americans were forced to wear badges in order to work, and their entrance into the mechanical trades was severely limited. In Washington, D.C., they were subject to curfews and other restrictions. In Charleston and New Orleans, black sailors were imprisoned during the time their ships were in port to prevent them from making contact with local bondspeople. In 1859, South Carolina's legislature established the Committee on the Colored Population, which seriously considered enslaving all the state's free African Americans.

Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many free men and women seriously considered leaving the South. Although some would cast their lot with those advocating immigration to Africa and the West Indies, the overwhelming majority of voluntary migrants moved into established African-American communities in the North.

Going North

Those Northern cities closest to the South experienced the largest growth. By 1860, Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from slaveholding Kentucky, was essentially a Southern city in a Northern state. Its black population was much smaller than those in New York or Philadelphia but it was overwhelmingly Southern-born. Of Cincinnati's 3,700 African Americans, 70 percent were Southerners.

Interestingly, demographic studies show that African Americans in Cincinnati's black neighborhoods clustered together in a manner largely determined by the color of their skin. By 1860, mulattos, who made up more than half of the city's black population, were over represented in three of the five districts with the largest numbers of African Americans. In two of those districts - a substantial distance from the worst areas of black poverty - they comprised 63 percent and 85 percent of the population. On the other hand, darker African Americans constituted 60 percent and 70 percent in other, less attractive areas, and were concentrated most heavily in "Bucktown," a poor, undesirable neighborhood with little sanitation and a generally unhealthy environment.

In cities more distant from the South than Cincinnati, the number of Southern-born blacks grew steadily during the antebellum years. By 1860, 65 percent of Detroit's African American population had been born in the South. In other Northern cities, too, southern migrants were becoming a more significant proportion of the African-American population. In Boston, almost 30 percent of the city's blacks were migrants, as were more than half in Chicago, almost one-third in Philadelphia, and close to 40 percent in Buffalo. Migration from their Southern homes was not easy, but as the antebellum period wore on, more and more African Americans made the move.

Some, like the Hodges family from Virginia, maintained households in both the North and South. In the early 1830s, William Hodges, a free man, left his home in Virginia bound for the North. He traveled all the way to Canada before retracing his steps, finally settling in New York City. William kept in close contact with his brother Willis in Virginia through letters and messages delivered by friends. Shortly after William settled in New York, five of his nephews arrived and were enrolled in school, an opportunity they would have been denied in Virginia. Willis and his wife soon followed.

Their travel between the Virginia and New York homes was so frequent that various family members might be found living together in either location at any given time. They not only depended on one another for room and board during their extended stays, but William, who lived in New York semi-permanently, also helped other members of the family find employment. Willis remembered that his first impressions of New York came when his brother took him on a tour of the city, pointing out the various jobs available to African Americans.

The Search for Work

For African Americans, finding employment in Northern cities was no easy task. Their job possibilities were limited by discriminatory labor practices demanded by European immigrants competing with blacks for skilled jobs. Racial limitations imposed on jobs in the North differed from those in the South, where enslaved people were forced to perform all types of labor.

Southern white men were expected to strive for the independence that land owning brought. If they could not all be planters, at the very least they were expected to be small farmers. Except in the few localities where European immigrants formed a substantial part of the Southern population, all labor in the South was considered "nigger work," and free blacks were employed at many levels, even in skilled jobs. It was not unusual to find African Americans working as carpenters, blacksmiths, and barrel makers in Charleston or New Orleans, especially prior to the late 1850s when foreign workers were less numerous in those cities. In New Orleans, one reporter observed, skilled work was performed by some white workers but also by a substantial number of African Americans, "and of the negroes employed in these avocations a considerable proportion are free."

In the North, however, African Americans were generally denied skilled jobs. Southern migrants were particularly disadvantaged since they were more likely than Northern-born blacks to have job skills.

Employment records for Philadelphia reveal that during the late 1850s, "Less than two-thirds of [black workers] who have trades follow them" and "the greater number are compelled to abandon their trades on account of the unrelenting prejudice against their color." The situation in Boston, with its large immigrant population, was even worse. There, one foreign visitor reported seeing almost no black skilled workers in 1833. The few exceptions were "one or two employed as printers, one blacksmith and one shoemaker."

In New York City, although officials announced that they would "issue licenses to all regardless of race," they soon buckled under pressure from white workers to exclude African Americans from jobs requiring special permits.

African Americans found it almost impossible to obtain licenses as hack drivers or pushcart operators, denying them important opportunities to become small businessmen. Willis Hodges reported in the 1840s that in Virginia both enslaved and free blacks had trades and he "had expected to find the people of color in free New York far better off than those in Virginia." Instead, he found that "many tradesmen the [i.e., he] knew from the South were cooks and waiters."

Cincinnati was no different. There, one white mechanic was reprimanded by the Mechanical Association for taking on a black apprentice, and a leader of another labor organization was called to account by his group for having helped a young African-American man learn a trade.

The Lives of Women

The rampant discrimination against black men in the Northern labor markets made it unlikely that a family could be supported on one salary. The domestic work open to African-American women was often steady, unlike the seasonal nature of many of the laboring jobs available to men. One attractive feature of domestic work in the homes of others, or of "taking in" washing or sewing at one's own home, was that such an arrangement allowed for the care of children at the workplace. Black women were often very influential within the household.

The story of Chloe Spear provides an interesting account of one African-American "Wonder Woman." Born in Africa and enslaved in Boston until the end of the eighteenth century, Chloe married Cesar Spear, also a slave. After the family was freed, the Spears operated a boardinghouse in the city. In addition, Chloe did domestic work for a prominent family. While she was at work, Cesar saw to the cooking and other duties associated with the boardinghouse but when she returned in the evening he turned the operation over to her while he was "taking his rest." After working all day, Chloe cooked dinner for her family and for the boarders and cleaned the house. In order to make extra money, she took in washing, which she did at night, setting up lines in her room for drying the clothes. She slept a few hours while the clothes dried, then ironed them and prepared breakfast for the household before going off to work for the day.

Although one might easily conclude that women like Chloe were cruelly exploited by their husbands, the reality was not quite so simple. Chloe did not routinely hand over her wages to her husband, as did most white working women of the period. She controlled her own money, as is usual among African women. At one point she decided to purchase a house despite the fact that the law prohibited married women from buying property in their own name. Chloe was forced to ask her husband to make the purchase for her. Told that it cost $700, Cesar determined that he could not afford it. "I got money," Chloe announced, and Cesar agreed to sign for the house.

Studies of the black family have long noted the increased independence and authority women exercised within the household because of their crucial role in the family economy. Chloe is an excellent example of the way African-American women asserted that role.

Racial Restrictions

Northern anti-black discrimination was hardly limited to matters of economics. Limits imposed on the basic civil rights of African Americans were, in some places, almost as debilitating as those they experienced in the South.

Except in a few localities in New England, Northern blacks were not generally allowed the right to vote, to serve on juries, or even to bring suits in courts of law.

In most Northern communities, African-American children were denied public education or were segregated in underfunded, substandard schools. The public schools in Boston, integrated in 1855, and the black school system that functioned in Cincinnati in the 1840s were among the small number of exceptions.

Public accommodations, too, were segregated. In theaters, on trains and stagecoaches, in restaurants and hotels, African-American patrons were either relegated to inferior conditions or not admitted at all.

In some states, the racial restrictions were more severe and all-encompassing. Oregon, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois either banned black immigration outright, imposed discriminatory state regulations, or required African Americans to post bonds that could amount to hundreds of dollars to ensure their "good conduct." Black migrants sometimes found ways to circumvent such legal constraints, but clearly Northern migration posed considerable problems.

Not the least of these was the fact that no African American was free from enslavement. Slavery reached out from the South to threaten all black people, not only fugitives. Even legally free blacks were in danger from kidnappers selling them into servitude. Some reports indicate that the majority of blacks captured as fugitives after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 were apprehended without the aid of legal authority and were denied any semblance of due process of law.

The vulnerability of free African Americans to kidnapping was perceived as being so great that several black leaders suggested that people of color carry weapons for self-defense. Members of one group arrested for carrying guns on Boston Common explained their actions by citing the need to protect themselves and other blacks from slave catchers. In New York, African-American abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnett and Samuel Ringgold Ward armed themselves; other leaders advised those threatened by slave catchers to "act as they would to rid themselves of any wild beast."

In their local communities, Northern blacks made clear their intention to work for freedom and justice for themselves and those still in bondage. In cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, free African Americans regularly called protest meetings to communicate their outrage and to plot strategy to deal with the evils of racial injustice. These town meetings were important forums for the interchange of ideas and provided a training ground for local leadership. Black newspapers were filled with notices of community meetings called to discuss abolition, civil rights, educational issues, and general concerns of social and political reform.

Even in Cincinnati, where public protest was more restricted than in cities farther north or east, neighborhood meetings were important for reinforcing the conviction of the grass roots community that those in bondage must never be forgotten and the fugitive must always be protected.

Although Southern migrants often had friends and relatives living in the North, they were not always welcomed by the African-American population that had been living there for generations. Sometimes black Northerners believed the newcomers to be unsophisticated, loud, superstitious, and uneducated. Many felt that they reinforced stereotypes of black people. In New York, elite African Americans founded the Sons of New York in 1884 to publicly mark their distance from the Southerners.

New Households

Often the problems faced by migrants to the North were simply too difficult to overcome. As many Southern blacks left to make new lives for themselves, a few returned. One Virginian explained that she could not live in Ohio "in the least happiness or contentment." The South was an oppressive place for African Americans, but it was also home. "I feel this is my country," one free Charlestonian told a foreign visitor; "leaving it will come hard." The thought of leaving loved ones and all that was familiar was enough to keep most free African Americans in the South. Those who left would make every possible effort to recreate their familiar lives in unfamiliar places. These endeavors help to explain migration patterns.

The story of the Hodges family, discussed earlier, illustrates an important point about the pattern of African-American migration during the antebellum period. Like most migration, it was generally not random. Life for African Americans in the North was so difficult that without contacts and support it could be all but impossible. So people who had a choice of destination usually selected one where they could depend on contacts with friends and family. In a classic pattern of chain migration, they went where others they knew had gone before.

In the black communities of the North, the households of those who had been born out of state were likely to expand beyond the nuclear family to include boarders, family, and friends arriving from out of town. Boarding provided an important means for new arrivals to become acclimated to life in a new place. Through their hosts, boarders could be introduced to employment opportunities, social groups, the church, and friends. This network enhanced the mobility of poor people and provided financial assistance for the unemployed, while supporting those who faced discrimination and delivering newly arrived migrants from social isolation.

The Hodges household consisted mainly of family members, but migrants were almost as likely to seek the aid of friends or acquaintances. During the years before the American Civil War, one key characteristic of free black households was the significant proportion of the boarders who had been born in the same state as members of the host family. In over half the households that had boarders with listed occupations, at least one was employed in the same occupation as a member of the host family. Boarding also served an important function for the host family, providing necessary additional income from fees for household services like washing and ironing. In providing such amenities, many married women earned wages while working at home.

Maintaining Communication

For migrants in the North, maintaining communication with enslaved family and friends in the South - a matter of critical importance - was a complicated proposition. Despite the difficulties, there was a steady stream of messages along an underground network linking those in and out of bondage. Black and white interregional travelers - many of whom would not have considered themselves part of an "underground" - were the means of transmission. In many instances, this communication was as simple as "telling of thems at the home place": spreading news or gossip about familiar people and places.

In Northern communities where Southern migrants clustered, African Americans expected newcomers to share their knowledge about family and friends. Black travelers were closely questioned. In antebellum Cincinnati, African Americans knew that the Dumas Hotel was a place to gather information on people and conditions in the South. Visiting slaveholders often lodged their personal servants at the Dumas. While the owners pursued their business in the city, their slaves sought the company of Cincinnati African Americans. Information was regularly exchanged, and many migrants maintained contact with loved ones through this link. For thirty years, Willie Mathis kept in touch with her mother, enslaved in Virginia, in this manner. Another Cincinnati woman used this communication service to smuggle letters to her children in bondage in North Carolina. During the antebellum decades, the Dumas became a kind of underground post office.

In Boston, much farther north than Cincinnati, there were fewer contacts to encourage large numbers of black migrants to settle. Yet many came despite the distance, for African Americans were not ignorant of that city's possibilities for freedom. Peter Randolph was born enslaved in Virginia. After he secured his freedom, he traveled with sixty-six others to Boston, led there by the underground communication network. "The name Boston," he explained, "always had a musical and joyous sound to the colored people of the South." Although several Southern whites attempted to convince Randolph and his party that the North generally, and Boston in particular, was a dangerous place, Southern blacks knew better. They understood, as one said, "that this city is foremost in advocating the Negro's cause and vouchsafing to him the immunities of citizenship."

Although Boston was far from being a "promised land," the existence of an established and active black community also attracted migrants to the city. Newcomers, barred from many city facilities, found support within this community. With hotels and white boardinghouses closed to them, job opportunities severely limited, and sections of the city unsafe for them, migrants relied on the established African Americans. They sought out friends and relatives in the area who provided housing and social contacts. Migrants to antebellum Boston confronted many of the same problems as European immigrants and used many of the same coping techniques to aid their adjustment to urban life.

The Development of Networks

Unskilled and semi-skilled workers who traveled frequently in search of jobs developed a network of acquaintances and contacts in Northern cities. By the 1850s, a travel circuit had developed. For East Coast black migrants, the circuit included Philadelphia, New York City, Providence (Rhode Island), New Bedford (Massachusetts), and Boston. Often a worker was enticed from one of these cities to another by favorable reports from a friend who had gone before.

Down South, slaveholders were ever vigilant in attempting to isolate their chattel from "Northern information," but generally they were unsuccessful. African-American institutions, particularly churches, always suspect as centers of subversion, were closely watched. Despite the slaveholders' best efforts, however, Southern black churches were an integral part of the interregional underground.

Even though Richmond's First African Baptist Church had a white minister (this was not an unusual situation; slaveholders hoped that white pastors could maintain control over their black congregations), its members kept in touch with those gone North through a clandestine mailing system based in the church. Several who had fled from bondage wrote back to their former comrades, giving information to help others follow their example. Messages and letters were brought to the church and distributed to enslaved and free blacks in the city. The system was shut down in the mid-1850s, after local slaveholders discovered it.

The efficiency of the underground network is exemplified by the case of Henry Williams, who escaped from slavery in Louisiana in the 1830s and traveled to Cincinnati, where he worked, maintained his freedom for a number of years, and met and married a woman from another town. Members of his church who knew that Williams was already married, and that his wife, still in bondage, was living in New Orleans, were outraged. They charged him with bigamy and desertion. The congregation demanded a signed release from her before they would sanction his new marriage. Henry faced a grave problem. How could a fugitive in Cincinnati contact his first wife, who was enslaved in New Orleans, to obtain a signed document? The underground communication network was the answer. A boatman who regularly traveled to New Orleans found the first Mrs. Williams and secured her "X" on the paper as well as her enthusiastic support for dissolving the marriage. The church then recognized Henry's second nuptials.

Black seamen and boatmen were vital message carriers. The tradition of African-American sailors dates back to colonial times when they manned whaling ships and oceangoing merchant vessels as well as riverboats. In seaport and river port cities such as Boston and Cincinnati, the water routes offered an important source of income for African Americans.

These mariners traveled frequently and were well versed in what one historian referred to as "travel craft" - the ability to seek out those with information vital to the survival of a black traveler in strange and possibly hostile places. Despite the efforts of authorities, many free sailors from the Northern states, the West Indies, and England came ashore and spent time between voyages in black communities in Southern ports. Some slaves also crewed on riverboats or coastal vessels. Contact between free and enslaved African Americans was thus relatively easy, despite white Southerners' fears that it threatened their efforts to keep their bondspeople in ignorance. Seamen were pivotal to the operations of the interregional communication system.

Free African Americans and fugitives in the North depended on the sailors to bring information about family and friends whenever they came north and to carry news back to the Southland. One Cincinnati woman kept in touch with her enslaved mother for more than three decades through messages smuggled by black boatmen. During those years she consulted her mother about her choice of a husband and informed her of the birth of her children. In 1843, the news of her grandchild's enrollment at Oberlin Collegiate Institute reached the proud grandmother in a Mississippi slave cabin, bound in body, she reported, but free in spirit.

Consequences of the Migration

By the end of the antebellum years, free African Americans in the urban North had established well-defined communities providing formal and informal supports and services not generally available elsewhere. The institution of slavery was a focal point among a diverse black populace, even for those who had not personally experienced its horrors. Its presence profoundly shaped the relationships, activities, and ideas of the free black society.

The Civil War ended slavery, but the political and economic failures of the postwar period foreclosed the possibility for true freedom and brought a new structure of racial control. For Northern blacks, the demise of slavery meant fewer restrictions for Southern relatives and friends, although they were far from totally free from the inhumane consequences of the South's peculiar institution.

Many former slaves exercised their new mobility and migrated to the cities of the North and Midwest. Their numbers did not approach those of the World War I Great Migration, but they did significantly increase the urban black population of the North. Detroit's African-American population ballooned by two-thirds during the 1860s with the vast majority of its new arrivals coming from the South.

There were similar population explosions in Cleveland, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

The presence of slavery greatly complicated the lives of free blacks before the Civil War, and emancipation made its own demands. Urban African-American communities strained to cope with the needs of the incoming rural migrants. Northern white workers, uncomfortable with the growing black urban population and always sensitive to any increased occupational competition, resisted the hiring of African Americans in any skilled jobs. Northern society at first resisted the participation of black workers in the emerging factory economy, then limited the protections afforded them by labor unions.

So it was that economic and social pressures, aggravated by racial prejudice, continued to narrow opportunities and intensify differences within the African-American community. African Americans remained united in their commitment to racial progress, but their conflicts over means and even short-term ends became more visible. The fierce struggles between the forces of protest and those of accommodation symbolized by W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington moved from the interior of black society to the public stage.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the South had written its racial hostility and violence into its laws, with the blessing of the Supreme Court. Racial discrimination was codified in the South, and practiced almost as effectively by custom in the North.

Yet despite the thousands who migrated, African Americans remained regionally stable. By the dawn of the twentieth century, over seven million of the nation's almost nine million blacks lived in the South. African Americans remained a Southern people. They were more likely now to live in the cities and small towns, but most were, as they had been for many generations, rural people working land they did not own - then as slaves, now as sharecroppers - bound by debt and legalized discriminatory practices.


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Web Links

Nineteenth-Century Maine

Maine's African-American community lifestyle and notable citizens during the 19th century. There is reference to Williamburg's large percentage of former slaves who migrated to work at slate quarries by invitation of General Oliver O. Howard after the Civil War.

Hartford, Connecticut

This exhibits chronicles the creation of Hartford's African-American community from the fifteenth century. Section on "the first wave of immigration" during the Northern Migration.

African American Odyssey: Reconstruction and Its Aftermath

This Library of Congress site exhibit features some migration trends of African Americans during Reconstruction including the Northern Migration.

The Migration to Ohio

This online scrapbook of Ohio history details important dates and figures in African-American migration movements to the North.

Portal on the African-American presence in Southeastern Ohio

Very detailed Web Site on the African-American Experience in Ohio.


This site focuses on the role of religion and the founding of churches, South and North, during that time period.