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.