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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< New Households The Development of Networks  >

For migrants in the North, maintaining communication with enslaved family and friends in the South - a matter of critical importance - was a complicated proposition. Despite the difficulties, there was a steady stream of messages along an underground network linking those in and out of bondage. Black and white interregional travelers - many of whom would not have considered themselves part of an "underground" - were the means of transmission. In many instances, this communication was as simple as "telling of thems at the home place": spreading news or gossip about familiar people and places.

In Northern communities where Southern migrants clustered, African Americans expected newcomers to share their knowledge about family and friends. Black travelers were closely questioned. In antebellum Cincinnati, African Americans knew that the Dumas Hotel was a place to gather information on people and conditions in the South. Visiting slaveholders often lodged their personal servants at the Dumas. While the owners pursued their business in the city, their slaves sought the company of Cincinnati African Americans. Information was regularly exchanged, and many migrants maintained contact with loved ones through this link. For thirty years, Willie Mathis kept in touch with her mother, enslaved in Virginia, in this manner. Another Cincinnati woman used this communication service to smuggle letters to her children in bondage in North Carolina. During the antebellum decades, the Dumas became a kind of underground post office.

In Boston, much farther north than Cincinnati, there were fewer contacts to encourage large numbers of black migrants to settle. Yet many came despite the distance, for African Americans were not ignorant of that city's possibilities for freedom. Peter Randolph was born enslaved in Virginia. After he secured his freedom, he traveled with sixty-six others to Boston, led there by the underground communication network. "The name Boston," he explained, "always had a musical and joyous sound to the colored people of the South." Although several Southern whites attempted to convince Randolph and his party that the North generally, and Boston in particular, was a dangerous place, Southern blacks knew better. They understood, as one said, "that this city is foremost in advocating the Negro's cause and vouchsafing to him the immunities of citizenship."

Although Boston was far from being a "promised land," the existence of an established and active black community also attracted migrants to the city. Newcomers, barred from many city facilities, found support within this community. With hotels and white boardinghouses closed to them, job opportunities severely limited, and sections of the city unsafe for them, migrants relied on the established African Americans. They sought out friends and relatives in the area who provided housing and social contacts. Migrants to antebellum Boston confronted many of the same problems as European immigrants and used many of the same coping techniques to aid their adjustment to urban life.

< New Households
The Development of Networks  >