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 enslaved people were forced to perform all types of labor.
Southern white men were expected to strive for the independence that land owning brought. If they could not all be planters, at the very least they were expected to be small farmers. Except in the few localities where European immigrants formed a substantial part of the Southern population, all labor in the South was considered "nigger work," and free blacks were employed at many levels, even in skilled jobs. It was not unusual to find African Americans working as carpenters, blacksmiths, and barrel makers in Charleston or New Orleans, especially prior to the late 1850s when foreign workers were less numerous in those cities. In New Orleans, one reporter observed, skilled work was performed by some white workers but also by a substantial number of African Americans, "and of the negroes employed in these avocations a considerable proportion are free."
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 African Americans 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 the [i.e., 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 African-American man learn a trade.