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African Americans on the Move:

A Look at the Forced and Voluntary Movement of Blacks Within America

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 2

Historical Review 2.2   
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The Slave South

The 19th century saw the shift in agricultural dominance from Chesapeake tobacco to Deep South cotton. Therefore there was also an accompanying shift in the settlement of slaves from the Chesapeake to the Deep South. By 1860, 95% of America's slaves lived in the South.(7) Due to the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, many of these slaves were American born. This Americanization combined with slavery and native African beliefs produced a cultural identity unique to American slaves.

Most of the slaves in America worked on cotton plantations, but some worked on rice plantations in Georgia and sugarcane plantations in Louisiana. Tending the sugarcane crops, due to harvesting procedures, was the most demanding and dangerous agricultural job slaves were forced to do. Slaveholders would often threaten misbehaving slaves by telling them they would be sent "down the river," which referred to the Mississippi River, the route to the sugarcane plantations. The rice plantations also proved dangerous. The water used to flood the rice fields put the slaves in danger of contracting malaria or yellow fever. Despite long hours of work, slaves were able to make time for family and religion, further developing their own culture.

The slaves were given personal time at night, on some Saturday afternoons, and usually all of Sunday. During this time, the slaves tended to their families and friends. Many slaves married and had children, so this free time was vital to developing a family life. There were no laws regulating slave marriages, and often slaveholders had no qualms separating families. It is estimated that 300,000 marriages were interrupted by the slaveholder selling the husband or wife.(8) Despite this fear, families were still created and held a very important role in slave life and culture.

Another important feature of slave culture was religion. During the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves held on to their native beliefs. This changed with the end of the slave trade and the evangelization of Christianity during the Great Awakening. After the American Revolution, Baptists and Methodists began to convert slaves. By the mid-19th century, approximately 25% of the slaves claimed church membership and many more considered themselves to be Christians.(9) Evangelical slave owners saw it as their Christian duty to convert their slaves. They also held the belief that it made their slaves more obedient. Slaves worshiped at home or held secret church meetings at night. Eventually, black congregations formed throughout the South. The story of Moses provided slaves with the hope of freedom and the teachings of Jesus gave them a belief in human equality. Despite their bondage in life, they knew they would be free in heaven.


Escaping slavery by running away was always an aspect of slavery. Tracing the runaways' routes and destinations provides further insight into African American settlement patterns. During the Colonial period, slaves did not escape as frequently as they did in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Those who did escape during this time usually went to the towns and posed as freemen. Successful runaway slaves had to form new identities and possess a marketable skill, such as carpentry. Runaway slaves found jobs as laborers, masons, mechanics, and shoemakers. Runaway slaves who did not venture into the cities formed rural communities on the frontier, known as maroon communities. Runaway slaves used isolation as a defense mechanism. The first maroon town was called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose and was located near St. Augustine in Spanish Florida. The community functioned between 1739 and 1763. Others were formed in South Carolina and Alabama. Many runaway slaves lived among the Seminole Indians in Florida. During the 19th century, a maroon community called the Great Dismal Swamp was established on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. It is estimated that over fifty maroon communities operated between 1672 and 1864.(10)

War also had an impact on the amount and direction of runaway slaves. During the American Revolution many slaves took advantage of the war and lack of supervision to leave the plantations. Also, thousands of slaves fled to the British side. In 1775, Lore Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, offered freedom to any slave who would fight for the British. As many as 600 slaves took his offer. Unfortunately, many were sold back into slavery in the West Indies. During the War of 1812, the British again offered freedom to slaves who would fight for them. This led to many blacks fighting on the British side against Americans in Louisiana. During both wars, slaves fought for both the British and the Americans.

The Underground Railroad became the most famous tool used by slaves to reach their freedom. The routes described as the Underground Railroad became active in western states after the War of 1812, and by the 1830s, routes were available in fourteen northern states. Paths existed through Pennsylvania and New York en route to Boston. Another used the Ohio River to get to Louisville, Cincinnati and Cleveland. Black communities and Quaker settlements were very helpful aspects of the Underground Railroad. Canada became a popular destination. Between 1830 and 1860, it is estimated that between one and two thousand fugitive slaves entered Canada each year.(11) The slaves who were successful in escaping to the north were usually from the Upper South, such as Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. Some refugees from the Deep South succeeded in reaching freedom as well, but it was far less common. These runaway slaves created larger populations in the northern states and Canada and created a base of urban blacks in America.

The Second Emancipation

The Civil War and the 13th Amendment brought full emancipation for all slaves in the 1860s. With their new freedom blacks were able to move freely about the country for the first time. Post-war African American migration was significant, but was not as massive as one would suspect. Only between one and three percent of southern blacks left the South during the late 19th century. The Freedmen's Bureau in Washington D.C. began a program that sent blacks to the north to fill labor shortages. Between 1865 and 1867, over 9,000 former slaves from Washington D.C. and 500 from Virginia were sent north. The Bureau hoped that this program would inspire blacks to move to the North on their own accord, but that did not happen. The types of jobs available in the North were usually for single men and did not pay very well. Families thought that it would be better to look for jobs in the South.

The heaviest northward migration of former slaves after the Civil War went to the Midwest. It was more common for people to migrate to nearby places; therefore, those who migrated to Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and the Dakotas were mostly from Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Virginia was a big contributor of African American migration to the North as well.

Table 4: State of Birth of Southern-Born Blacks Living in the North and West, 1870(12)
State of Birth
East North
West North
Maryland, Delaware or
Washington DC
North Carolina
South Carolina
Georgia, Florida
Louisiana, Texas,

African American migration from the South increased after 1880 as industrialization became more widespread. With industrialization came the need for labor. African Americans filled this need in many cities throughout the North. The rate of blacks leaving the South doubled during the 1890s. One of the most common non-agricultural jobs blacks took was coal mining. Many also took jobs as factory workers or lumbermen.

Another aspect of post-Civil War African American migration was the movement of blacks to Africa. This movement to Africa began with the American Colonization Society in 1817. The society was composed of men, some of which had abolitionist thoughts, others were more racist, who thought that blacks in America, slave or free, should be returned to Africa. The idea was more selfish than humanitarian; these men wanted racial purity in America, and believed that blacks and whites could not live together in the same country. To carry out their mission, they created the colony of Liberia in Africa, which later became an independent country. At first they found it hard to find blacks who wanted to relocate to Liberia. Their racist views and the fact that blacks had become Americanized hindered the society's progress. Black interest in Liberia was heightened during the time before and during the Civil War. Between 1820 and 1865, 6,301 former slaves and 4,501 free blacks were relocated to Liberia.(13)

Mobility for newly freed slaves was difficult in the post-war South. Most did not have enough money to move. Also, jobs in the North were not abundant enough to facilitate a large-scale migration. Most of the mobility of blacks in the South occurred locally. Blacks moved around the South in search of jobs. By 1910, only 10.4% of blacks were living in the North and the West.(14) The rest would have to wait until new opportunities would be made available by the First World War before they too could leave the South.

(7) James L. Roark, et. al., The American Promise: A History of the United States, Compact Edition, (Boston & New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000), 289.
(8) Roark, 305.
(9) Roark, 305.
(10) "Runaway Journeys," <www.inmotionaame.org> .
(11) "Runaway Journeys," <www.inmotionaame.org>.
(12) William Cohen, At Freedom's Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861-1915, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 90.
(13) Cohen, 139.
(14) Arvarh E. Strickland and Robert E. Weems, Jr., ed. The African American Experience: A Historiographical and Bibliographical Guide, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001), 2.
By Rickie Lazzerini
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University of California, Santa Barbara

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2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
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