The journey north was made by train, boat, bus, sometimes car, and even horse-drawn cart. It was most often a long, grueling experience; the travelers confronted segregated waiting rooms, buses, and train coaches, as well as unfamiliar procedures and unfriendly conductors. Very little food or drink was available. Fares were expensive, deterring many would-be migrants from making the trip. Regular passenger fares - 2¢ per mile in 1915 - skyrocketed within three years to 24¢ a mile.
Getting to "the Promised Land" did not come cheap, so many migrants made the journey in stages, stopping off and working in places in the South, then continuing on their way. This so-called step migration could take a very long time. Painter Jacob Lawrence recalled that his family was "moving up the coast, as many families were during that migration . . . . We moved up to various cities until we arrived - the last two cities I can remember before moving to New York were Easton, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia."
During the early period, northern employers assisted the migrants with transportation. Their agents gave out travel passes whose cost was often deducted from future wages. These agents, who were paid a flat fee for each worker they produced, were selective, favoring those who appeared in good health, men over women, the young over the old.
The railroads, in dire need of workers to transport war material and maintain the rail lines, were among the first employers to recruit. In the summer of 1916, the Pennsylvania Railroad brought sixteen thousand southern African Americans north to do unskilled labor. The agents from the Illinois Central Railroad issued passes to bring workers to Chicago. Other industries central to the burgeoning war economy, such as the steel mills, made great and unprecedented promises to prospective African-American employees. These workers were poor and eager to take advantage of any opportunity. "Just give us a chance" was their common refrain.
So many southerners made their way north on their own that employers soon cut back on travel passes. Meanwhile, local authorities were trying to deny the agents access to the black community. In some cases, their passes were not honored at the depots. On many occasions, travelers were pulled off trains to prevent them from leaving the South.