The Northern Migration
Free Blacks in the South
Going North
The Search for Work
The Lives of Women
Racial Restrictions
New Households
Maintaining Communication
The Development of Networks
Consequences of the Migration

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Often the problems faced by migrants to the North were simply too difficult to overcome. As many Southern blacks left to make new lives for themselves, a few returned. One Virginian explained that she could not live in Ohio "in the least happiness or contentment." The South was an oppressive place for African Americans, but it was also home. "I feel this is my country," one free Charlestonian told a foreign visitor; "leaving it will come hard." The thought of leaving loved ones and all that was familiar was enough to keep most free African Americans in the South. Those who left would make every possible effort to recreate their familiar lives in unfamiliar places. These endeavors help to explain migration patterns.

A City of Refuge     , Chapter 5Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720-1840A City of Refuge , Chapter 5 from Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720-1840 by Gary B. Nash

The story of the Hodges family, discussed earlier, illustrates an important point about the pattern of African-American migration during the antebellum period. Like most migration, it was generally not random. Life for African Americans in the North was so difficult that without contacts and support it could be all but impossible. So people who had a choice of destination usually selected one where they could depend on contacts with friends and family. In a classic pattern of chain migration, they went where others they knew had gone before.

In the black communities of the North, the households of those who had been born out of state were likely to expand beyond the nuclear family to include boarders, family, and friends arriving from out of town. Boarding provided an important means for new arrivals to become acclimated to life in a new place. Through their hosts, boarders could be introduced to employment opportunities, social groups, the church, and friends. This network enhanced the mobility of poor people and provided financial assistance for the unemployed, while supporting those who faced discrimination and delivering newly arrived migrants from social isolation.

The Hodges household consisted mainly of family members, but migrants were almost as likely to seek the aid of friends or acquaintances. During the years before the American Civil War, one key characteristic of free black households was the significant proportion of the boarders who had been born in the same state as members of the host family. In over half the households that had boarders with listed occupations, at least one was employed in the same occupation as a member of the host family. Boarding also served an important function for the host family, providing necessary additional income from fees for household services like washing and ironing. In providing such amenities, many married women earned wages while working at home.

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