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Did You Know?…

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 blacks 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 1850’s, Charleston’s free blacks were forced to wear badges in order to work, and their entrance into the mechanical trades was severely limited.  In Washington, D.C. free African Americans 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 slaves.

In 1859, South Carolina’s legislature established the Committee on the Colored Population, which seriously considered enslaving all the states’ free African Americans.

Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many free blacks 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.

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 bondspeople were forced to perform all types of labor.

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 blacks 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 {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 black man learn a trade.


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