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African Americans on the Move:
A Look at the Forced and Voluntary Movement of Blacks Within America

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

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Historical Review 2.2   
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Introduction

Economy, politics, immigration, and war have dictated American migration patterns for centuries. These patterns, though complex, are important historical indicators that portray the direct effects of political and economic situations on peoples' lives. The migration and settlement of African Americans throughout the country also followed patterns that were influenced by current events, but because of slavery and racism, the patterns were often unique. By looking at the beginnings of slavery and its expansion throughout the South, we can begin to understand the settlement patterns of blacks throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Emancipation was not the only factor that dictated the settlement of blacks, nor was it the first time blacks were mobile in America. African American migration was also influenced by the same events that affected the population as a whole, such as the availability of homesteads and the California Gold Rush. Through these events we can follow the patterns of African American migration, which provides some explanation for the American demographic as it exists today.

The Slave Trade

In 1619, twenty Africans were brought to Jamestown as indentured servants. More were brought to Boston in 1639. These people were the first of 10,000 Africans that would be brought to the British Colonies during the 17th century. Although they were the first Africans in the British Colonies, they were not the first brought to North America. During the 1500s, African slaves accompanied the Spanish explorers in Florida and Texas. Runaway slaves even reached as far north as South Carolina. But it was the slave trade in the British Colonies that determined further expansion throughout America. As more servants arrived in the colonies, plantation owners feared they might lose control. This fear led to the institutionalized slavery of Africans that would last until the Civil War.

African slaves were acquired (kidnapped) by members of rival kingdoms within Africa and sold to European traders. Sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean demanded the most slaves. Work on the sugar plantations was the harshest of all the labor Africans were forced into, which caused a higher death rate, and thus a higher demand for slaves. As tobacco proved to be a valuable cash crop in North America, British colonists also took advantage of the slave trade. Between 1619 (when the first Africans were brought to America) and 1808 (when the slave trade ended in America), over 400,000 Africans were forcefully transported to what is now the United States. (1)

Table 1: Slave Population by Colony, 1680 - 1770 (2)
Colony
1680
1740
1770
Massachusetts
110
3,305
5,698
New Hampshire
75
500
5,698
Rhode Island
175
2,408
5,698
Connecticut
50
2,598
5,698
New York
1,200
8,996
63,818
New Jersey
200
4,366
63,818
Delaware
55
1,035
1,836
Pennsylvania
200
2,062
5,761
Maryland
1,611
24,031
63,818
Virginia
3,000
60,000
187,605
North Carolina
210
11,000
69,000
South Carolina
200
30,000
75,178
Georgia
---
---
10,625

The majority of slaves in North America were brought to the Chesapeake region, particularly Virginia and the Carolinas. This major tobacco-growing district demanded the most slave labor and would remain the leading slave-holding region until the emergence of cotton near the end of the 18th century.

The slaves that were captured came from many different ethnic groups and locations in Africa. The majority of the Africans were farmers, herders, or fishermen before becoming enslaved. Most were familiar with tobacco and rice farming, which were the principle crops in America. They each had their own religious and cultural beliefs that they brought with them to the New World. The ports in North America that received slaves were located in New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, New York, Newport, and Boston. Each of these areas took in slaves from different parts of Africa, but the ratios of African ethnicities varied in each region of America. For example, almost 40% of the slaves in the Chesapeake region came from the Bight of Biafra, but in Louisiana, the majority came from Senegambia. These ethnic differences shaped African culture in the respective areas.

Table 2: Origins of Africans in Chesapeake, Carolina, and Louisiana (3)
American
Region
% From
Mozambique
% From
Central
Africa
% From
Bight of
Biafra
% From
Bight of
Benin
% From
Gold
Coast
% From
Upper
Guinea
% From
Senegambia
Chesapeake
4%
16%
38%
---
16%
11%
15%
Carolina
---
40%
7%
3%
9%
18%
23%
Louisiana
2%
25%
8%
25%
2%
6%
32%

The majority of slaves in America were concentrated on the tobacco fields in the Chesapeake region and the rice and indigo plantations in Georgia and Carolina. Slaves in the north, such as in New York and Boston were more likely to do domestic and other non-agricultural work. The end of the 18th century brought a decline in tobacco and the need for slaves. Many slaves were manumitted by their owners, giving way to what historians call the First Emancipation.

The First Emancipation

The growth of tobacco took its toll on the Chesapeake's soil, and by the end of the 18th century, the tobacco industry was in a state of decline. Some farmers migrated to the south and west, planting on new land. Others tried to find new uses for their slaves, such as renting them out as domestic servants and urban laborers. Many owners failed to find uses for their slaves and as a result, set them free. This was most common in Maryland and Delaware, but it happened throughout all of the colonies. In Virginia, the number of free blacks rose from 12,766 in 1790, to 30,570 in 1810.(4) It was during this time that the northern states abolished slavery, creating an even larger number of free blacks. These free blacks often lived in the urban centers of the North.


Table 3: Emancipation Dates for Northern States (5)
Colony
Emanicpation
Massachusets
1780
New Hampshire
1783
Vermont
1777
Rhode Island
1784
Connecticut
1784
New York
1799
New Jersey
1804
Pennsylvania
1780
Northwest Territories
1787


The Recommitment to Slavery

The First Emancipation was cut short by the invention of the cotton gin. Short Staple cotton grew well along the lower Atlantic coast and in the Deep South, but was not profitable because of the large amount of time and labor required to remove the seeds. In 1793 Ely Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that quickly separated the seeds from cotton; America instantly gained a new cash crop to replace tobacco. Cotton was in high demand and brought large profits, especially with the use of free labor. The increase of cotton farming single-handedly rejuvenated and solidified slavery in the South.

This high demand for cotton caused a high demand for slaves. Farmers who lived too far north to plant cotton sold their slaves to Southerners at high prices. The slave trade was scheduled to end in 1808, (as decided by the United States, England, and other European countries) so slave traders made the most of the time they had left and imported as many slaves as possible. Between 1788 and 1808, 250,000 slaves were brought directly from Africa to America, mostly to the ports in Savannah and Charleston.(6) The concentration of slaves shifted from the Chesapeake region to the Deep South, especially Georgia and South Carolina. Heavy concentrations of slaves also developed in the newly opened lands of Mississippi and Alabama. The fertile soil that surrounded Alabama's rivers developed a plantation economy as soon as lands became available from the Native Americans. Called the Black Belt because of its dark, rich soil, this region could have easily taken its name from the large concentration of black slaves as well.

 


(1)Jonathan Earle, The Routledge Atlas of African American History, (New York: Routledge, 2000), 23.
(2) Earle, 29-31.
(3) Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed. The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migration into North America From the Ice Age to the Present, (New York: MacMillan, 1995), 50.
(4) John M. Murrin, et al., Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People, (Orlando: Hartcourt College Publishers, Inc., 2002), 268.
(5) Earle, 35.
(6) Murrin, 270.
By Rickie Lazzerini
Historian
Kindred Trails Worldwide Genealogy Resources

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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