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.