Northern anti-black discrimination was hardly limited to matters of economics. Limits imposed on the basic civil rights of African Americans were, in some places, almost as debilitating as those they experienced in the South.
Except in a few localities in New England, Northern blacks were not generally allowed the right to vote, to serve on juries, or even to bring suits in courts of law.
In most Northern communities, African-American children were denied public education or were segregated in underfunded, substandard schools. The public schools in Boston, integrated in 1855, and the black school system that functioned in Cincinnati in the 1840s were among the small number of exceptions.
Public accommodations, too, were segregated. In theaters, on trains and stagecoaches, in restaurants and hotels, African-American patrons were either relegated to inferior conditions or not admitted at all.
In some states, the racial restrictions were more severe and all-encompassing. Oregon, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois either banned black immigration outright, imposed discriminatory state regulations, or required African Americans to post bonds that could amount to hundreds of dollars to ensure their "good conduct." Black migrants sometimes found ways to circumvent such legal constraints, but clearly Northern migration posed considerable problems.
Not the least of these was the fact that no African American was free from enslavement. Slavery reached out from the South to threaten all black people, not only fugitives. Even legally free blacks were in danger from kidnappers selling them into servitude. Some reports indicate that the majority of blacks captured as fugitives after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 were apprehended without the aid of legal authority and were denied any semblance of due process of law.
The vulnerability of free African Americans to kidnapping was perceived as being so great that several black leaders suggested that people of color carry weapons for self-defense. Members of one group arrested for carrying guns on Boston Common explained their actions by citing the need to protect themselves and other blacks from slave catchers. In New York, African-American abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnett and Samuel Ringgold Ward armed themselves; other leaders advised those threatened by slave catchers to "act as they would to rid themselves of any wild beast."
In their local communities, Northern blacks made clear their intention to work for freedom and justice for themselves and those still in bondage. In cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, free African Americans regularly called protest meetings to communicate their outrage and to plot strategy to deal with the evils of racial injustice. These town meetings were important forums for the interchange of ideas and provided a training ground for local leadership. Black newspapers were filled with notices of community meetings called to discuss abolition, civil rights, educational issues, and general concerns of social and political reform.
Even in Cincinnati, where public protest was more restricted than in cities farther north or east, neighborhood meetings were important for reinforcing the conviction of the grass roots community that those in bondage must never be forgotten and the fugitive must always be protected.
Although Southern migrants often had friends and relatives living in the North, they were not always welcomed by the African-American population that had been living there for generations. Sometimes black Northerners believed the newcomers to be unsophisticated, loud, superstitious, and uneducated. Many felt that they reinforced stereotypes of black people. In New York, elite African Americans founded the Sons of New York in 1884 to publicly mark their distance from the Southerners.