The Successful Migrant

The reader will naturally be interested in learning exactly what these thousands of Negroes did on free soil. To estimate these achievements the casual reader of contemporary testimony would now, as such persons did then, find it decidedly easy. He would say that in spite of the unfailing aid which philanthropists gave the blacks, they seldom kept themselves above want and, therefore, became a public charge, afflicting their communities with so much poverty, disease and crime that they were considered the lepers of society. The student of history, however, must look beyond these comments for the whole truth. One must take into consideration the fact that in most cases these Negroes escaped as fugitives without sufficient food and clothing to comfort them until they could reach free soil, lacking the small fund with which the pioneer usually provided himself in going to establish a home in the wilderness, and lacking, above all, initiative of which slavery had deprived them. Furthermore, these refugees with few exceptions had to go to places where they were not wanted and in some cases to points from which they were driven as undesirables, although preparation for their coming had sometimes gone to the extent of purchasing homes and making provision for employment upon arrival. 1 Several well-established Negro settlements in the North, moreover, were broken up by the slave hunters after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. 2

The increasing intensity of the hatred of the Negroes must be understood too both as a cause and result of their intolerable condition. Prior to 1800 the Negroes of the North were in fair circumstances. Until that time it was generally believed that the whites and the blacks would soon reach the advanced stage of living together on a basis of absolute equality. 3 The Negroes had not at that time exceeded the number that could be assimilated by the sympathizing communities in that section. The intolerable legislation of the South, however, forced so many free Negroes in the rough to crowd northern cities during the first four decades of the nineteenth century that they could not be easily readjusted. The number seeking employment far exceeded the demand for labor and thus multiplied the number of vagrants and paupers, many of whom had already been forced to this condition by the Irish and Germans then immigrating into northern cities. At one time, as in the case of Philadelphia, the Negroes constituting a small fraction of the population furnished one half of the criminals. 4 A radical opposition to the Negro followed, therefore, arousing first the laboring classes and finally alienating the support of the well-to-do people and the press. This condition obtained until 1840 in most northern communities and until 1850 in some places where the Negro population was considerable.

We must also take into account the critical labor situation during these years. The northern people were divided as to the way the Negroes should be encouraged. The mechanics of the North raised no objection to having the Negroes freed and enlightened but did not welcome them to that section as competitors in the struggle of life. When, therefore, the blacks, converted to the doctrine of training the hand to work with skill, began to appear in northern industrial centers there arose a formidable prejudice against them. 5 Negro and white mechanics had once worked together but during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, when labor became more dignified and a larger number of white persons devoted themselves to skilled labor, they adopted the policy of eliminating the blacks. This opposition, to be sure, was not a mere harmless sentiment. It tended to give rise to the organization of labor groups and finally to that of trades unions, the beginnings of those controlling this country today. Carrying the fight against the Negro still further, these laboring classes used their influence to obtain legislation against the employment of Negroes in certain pursuits. Maryland and Georgia passed laws restricting the privileges of Negro mechanics, and Pennsylvania followed their example. 6

Even in those cases when the Negroes were not disturbed in their new homes on free soil, it was, with the exception of the Quaker and a few other communities, merely an act of toleration. 7 It must not be concluded, however, that the Negroes then migrating to the North did not receive considerable aid. The fact to be noted here is that because they were not well received sometimes by the people of their new environment, the help which they obtained from friends afar off did not suffice to make up for the deficiency of community cooperation. This, of course, was an unusual handicap to the Negro, as his life as a slave tended to make him a dependent rather than a pioneer.

It is evident, however, from accessible statistics that wherever the Negro was adequately encouraged he succeeded. When the urban Negroes in northern communities had emerged from their crude state they easily learned from the white men their method of solving the problems of life. This tendency was apparent after 1840 and striking results of their efforts were noted long before the Civil War. They showed an inclination to work when positions could be found, purchased homes, acquired other property, built churches and established schools. Going even further than this, some of them, taking advantage of their opportunities in the business world, accumulated considerable fortunes, just as had been done in certain centers in the South where Negroes had been given a chance. 8

In cities far north like Boston not so much difference as to the result of this migration was noted. Some economic progress among the Negroes had early been observed there as a result of the long residence of Negroes in that city as in the case of Lewis Hayden who established a successful clothing business. 9 In New York such evidences were more apparent. There were in that city not so many Negroes as frequented some other northern communities of this time but enough to make for that city a decidedly perplexing problem. It was the usual situation of ignorant, helpless fugitives and free Negroes going, they knew not where, to find a better country. The situation at times became so grave that it not only caused prejudice but gave rise to intense opposition against those who defended the cause of the blacks as in the case of the abolition riots which occurred at several places in the State in 1834. 10

To relieve this situation, Gerrit Smith, an unusually philanthropic gentleman, came forward with an interesting plan. Having large tracts of land in the southeastern counties of New York, he proposed to settle on small farms a large number of those Negroes huddled together in the congested districts of New York City. Desiring to obtain only the best class, he requested that the Negroes to be thus colonized be recommended by Reverend Charles B. Ray, Reverend Theodore S. Wright and Dr. J. McCune Smith, three Negroes of New York City, known to be representative of the best of the race. Upon their recommendations he deeded unconditionally to black men in 1846 three hundred small farms in Franklin, Essex, Hamilton, Fulton, Oneida, Delaware, Madison and Ulster counties, giving to each settler beside $10.00 to enable him to visit his farm. 11 With these holdings the blacks would not only have a basis for economic independence but would have sufficient property to meet the special qualifications which New York by the law of 1823 required of Negroes offering to vote.

This experiment, however, was a failure. It was not successful because of the intractability of the land, the harshness of the climate, and, in a great measure, the inefficiency of the settlers. They had none of the qualities of farmers. Furthermore, having been disabled by infirmities and vices they could not as beneficiaries answer the call of the benefactor. Peterboro, the town opened to Negroes in this section, did maintain a school and served as a station of the Underground Railroad but the agricultural results expected of the enterprise never materialized. The main difficulty in this case was the impossibility of substituting something foreign for individual enterprise. 12

Progressive Negroes did appear, however, in other parts of the State. In Penyan, Western New York, William Platt and Joseph C. Cassey were successful lumber merchants. 13 Mr. W.H. Topp of Albany was for several years one of the leading merchant tailors of that city. 14 Henry Scott, of New York City, developed a successful pickling business, supplying most of the vessels entering that port. 14 Thomas Downing for thirty years ran a creditable restaurant in the midst of the Wall Street banks, where he made a fortune. 15 Edward V. Clark conducted a thriving business, handling jewelry and silverware. 16 The Negroes as a whole, moreover, had shown progress. Aided by the Government and philanthropic white people, they had before the Civil War a school system with primary, intermediate and grammar schools and a normal department. They then had considerable property, several churches and some benevolent institutions.

In Southern Pennsylvania, nearer to the border between the slave and free States, the effects of the achievements of these Negroes were more apparent for the reason that in these urban centers there were sufficient Negroes for one to be helpful to the other. Philadelphia presented then the most striking example of the remaking of these people. Here the handicap of the foreign element was greatest, especially after 1830. The Philadelphia Negro, moreover, was further impeded in his progress by the presence of southerners who made Philadelphia their home, and still more by the prejudice of those Philadelphia merchants who, sustaining such close relations to the South, hated the Negro and the abolitionists who antagonized their customers.

In spite of these untoward circumstances, however, the Negroes of Philadelphia achieved success. Negroes who had formerly been able to toil upward were still restricted but they had learned to make opportunities. In 1832 the Philadelphia blacks had $350,000 of taxable property, $359,626 in 1837 and $400,000 in 1847. These Negroes had 16 churches and 100 benevolent societies in 1837 and 19 churches and 106 benevolent societies in 1847. Philadelphia then had more successful Negro schools than any other city in the country. There were also about 500 Negro mechanics in spite of the opposition of organized labor. 17 Some of these Negroes, of course, were natives of that city.

Chief among those who had accumulated considerable property was Mr. James Forten, the proprietor of one of the leading sail manufactories, constantly employing a large number of men, black and white. Joseph Casey, a broker of considerable acumen, also accumulated desirable property, worth probably $75,000. 18 Crowded out of the higher pursuits of labor, certain other enterprising business men of this group organized the Guild of Caterers. This was composed of such men as Bogle, Prosser, Dorsey, Jones and Minton. The aim was to elevate the Negro waiter and cook from the plane of menials to that of progressive business men. Then came Stephen Smith who amassed a large fortune as a lumber merchant and with him Whipper, Vidal and Purnell. Still and Bowers were reliable coal merchants, Adger a success in handling furniture, Bowser a well-known painter, and William H. Riley the intelligent boot maker. 19

There were a few such successful Negroes in other communities in the State. Mr. William Goodrich, of York, acquired considerable interest in the branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad extending to Lancaster. 20 Benjamin Richards, of Pittsburgh, amassed a large fortune running a butchering business, buying by contract droves of cattle to supply the various military posts of the United States. 21 Mr. Henry M. Collins, who started life as a boatman, left this position for speculation in real estate in Pittsburgh where he established himself as an asset of the community and accumulated considerable wealth. 22 Owen A. Barrett, of the same city, made his way by discovering the remedy known as “B.A. Fahnestock’s Celebrated Vermifuge”, for which he was retained in the employ of the proprietor, who exploited the remedy. 23 Mr. John Julius made himself indispensable to Pittsburgh by running the Concert Hall Cafe where he served President William Henry Harrison in 1840. 24

The field of greatest achievement, however, was not in the conservative East where the people had well established their going toward an enlightened and sympathetic aristocracy of talent and wealth. It was in the West where men were in position to establish themselves anew and make of life what they would. These crude communities, to be sure, often objected to the presence of the Negroes and sometimes drove them out. But, on the other hand, not a few of those centers in the making were in the hands of the Quakers and other philanthropic persons who gave the Negroes a chance to grow up with the community, when they exhibited a capacity which justified philanthropic efforts in their behalf.

These favorable conditions obtained especially in the towns along the Ohio river, where so many fugitives and free persons of color stopped on their way from slavery to freedom. In Steubenville a number of Negroes had by their industry and good deportment made themselves helpful to the community. Stephen Mulber who had been in that town for thirty years was in 1835 the leader of a group of thrifty free persons of color. He had a brick dwelling, in which he lived, and other property in the city. He made his living as a master mechanic employing a force of workmen to meet the increasing demand for his labor. 25 In Gallipolis, there was another group of this class of Negroes, who had permanently attached themselves to the town by the acquisition of property. They were then able not only to provide for their families but were maintaining also a school and a church. 26 In Portsmouth, Ohio, despite the “Black Friday” upheaval of 1831, the Negroes settled down to the solution of the problems of their new environment and later showed in the accumulation of property evidences of actual progress. Among the successful Negroes in Columbus was David Jenkins who acquired considerable property as a painter, glazier and paper hanger. 27 One Mr. Hill, of Chillicothe, was for several years its leading tanner and currier. 21

It was in Cincinnati, however, that the Negroes made most progress in the West. The migratory blacks came there at times in such large numbers, as we have observed, that they provoked the hostile classes of whites to employ rash measures to exterminate them. But the Negroes, accustomed to adversity, struggled on, endeavoring through schools and churches to embrace every opportunity to rise. By 1840 there were 2,255 Negroes in that city. They had, exclusive of personal effects and $19,000 worth of church property, accumulated $209,000 worth of real estate. A number of their progressive men had established a real estate firm known as the “Iron Chest” company which built houses for Negroes. One man, who had once thought it unwise to accumulate wealth from which he might be driven, had, by 1840, changed his mind and purchased $6,000 worth of real estate.

Another Negro paid $5,000 for himself and family and bought a home worth $800 or $1,000. A freedman, who was a slave until he was twenty-four years of age, then had two lots worth $10,000, paid a tax of $40 and had 320 acres of land in Mercer County. Another, who was worth only $3,000 in 1836, had seven houses in 1840, 400 acres of land in Indiana, and another tract in Mercer County, Ohio. He was worth altogether about $12,000 or $15,000. A woman who was a slave until she was thirty was then worth $2,000. She had also come into potential possession of two houses on which a white lawyer had given her a mortgage to secure the payment of $2,000 borrowed from this thrifty woman. Another Negro, who was on the auction block in 1832, had spent $2,600 purchasing himself and family and had bought two brick houses worth $6,000 and 560 acres of land in Mercer County, Ohio, said to be worth $2,500. 28

The Negroes of Cincinnati had as early as 1820 established schools which developed during the forties into something like a modern system with Gilmore’s High School as a capstone. By that time they had also not only several churches but had given time and means to the organization and promotion of such as the “Sabbath School Youth’s Society”, the “Total Abstinence Temperance Society” and the “Anti-Slavery Society”. The worthy example set by the Negroes of this city was a stimulus to noble endeavor and significant achievements of Negroes throughout the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. Disarming their enemies of the weapon that they would continue a public charge, they secured the cooperation of a larger number of white people who at first had treated them with contempt. 29

This unusual progress in the Ohio valley had been promoted by two forces, the development of the steamboat as a factor in transportation and the rise of the Negro mechanic. Negroes employed on vessels as servants to the traveling public amassed large sums received in the form of tips. Furthermore, the fortunate few, constituting the stewards of these vessels, could by placing contracts for supplies and using business methods realize handsome incomes. Many Negroes thus enriched purchased real estate and went into business in towns along the Ohio.

The other force, the rise of the Negro mechanic, was made possible by overcoming much of the prejudice which had at first been encountered. A great change in this respect had taken place in Cincinnati by 1840. 30 Many Negroes who had been forced to work as menial laborers then had the opportunity to show their usefulness to their families and to the community. Negro mechanics were then getting as much skilled labor as they could do. It was not uncommon for white artisans to solicit employment of colored men because they had the reputation of being better paymasters than master workmen of the favored race. White mechanics not only worked with the blacks but often associated with them, patronized the same barber shop, and went to the same places of amusement. 31

Out of this group came some very useful Negroes, among whom may be mentioned Robert Harlan, the horseman; A. V. Thompson, the tailor; J. Presley and Thomas Ball, contractors, and Samuel T. Wilcox, the merchant, who was worth $60,000 in 1859. 32 There were among them two other successful Negroes, Henry Boyd and Robert Gordon. Boyd was a Kentucky freedman who helped to overcome the prejudice in Cincinnati against Negro mechanics by inventing and exploiting a corded bed, the demand for which was extensive throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. He had a creditable manufacturing business in which he employed twenty-five men. 33

Robert Gordon was a much more interesting man. He was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia. He ingratiated himself into the favor of his master who placed him in charge of a large coal yard with the privilege of selling the slake for his own benefit. In the course of time, he accumulated in this position thousands of dollars with which he finally purchased himself and moved away to free soil. After observing the situation in several of the northern centers, he finally decided to settle in Cincinnati, where he arrived with $15,000. Knowing the coal business, he well established himself there after some discouragement and opposition. He accumulated much wealth which he invested in United States bonds during the Civil War and in real estate on Walnut Hills when the bonds were later redeemed. 34

The ultimately favorable attitude of the people of Detroit toward immigrating Negroes had been reflected by the position the people of that section had taken from the time of the earliest settlements. Generally speaking, Detroit adhered to this position. 35 In this congenial community prospered many a Negro family. There were the Williams’ most of whom confined themselves to their trade of bricklaying and amassed considerable wealth. Then there were the Cooks, descending from Lomax B. Cook, a broker of no little business ability. Will Marion Cook, the musician, belongs to this family. The De Baptistes, too, were among the first to succeed in this new home, as they prospered materially from their experience and knowledge previously acquired in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as contractors. From this group came Richard De Baptiste, who in his day was the most useful Negro Baptist preacher in the Northwest. 36 The Pelhams were no less successful in establishing themselves in the economic world. Having an excellent reputation in the community, they easily secured the cooperation of the influential white people in the city. Out of this family came Robert A. Pelham, for years editor of a weekly in Detroit, and from 1901 to the present time an employee of the Federal Government in Washington.

The children of the Richards, another old family, were in no sense inferior to the descendants of the others. The most prominent and the most useful to emerge from this group was the daughter, Fannie M. Richards. She was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, October 1, 1841. Having left that State with her parents when she was quite young, she did not see so much of the antebellum conditions obtaining there. Desiring to have better training than what was then given to persons of color in Detroit, she went to Toronto where she studied English, history, drawing and needlework. In later years she attended the Teachers’ Training School in Detroit. She became a public school teacher there in 1863 and after fifty years of creditable service in this work she was retired on a pension in 1913. 37

The Negroes in the North had not only shown their ability to rise in the economic world when properly encouraged but had begun to exhibit power of all kinds. There were Negro inventors, a few lawyers, a number of physicians and dentists, many teachers, a score of intelligent preachers, some scholars of note, and even successful blacks in the finer arts. Some of these, with Frederick Douglass as the most influential, were also doing creditable work in journalism with about thirty newspapers which had developed among the Negroes as weapons of defense. 38

This progress of the Negroes in the North was much more marked after the middle of the nineteenth century. The migration of Negroes to northern communities was at first checked by the reaction in those places during the thirties and forties. Thus relieved of the large influx which once constituted a menace, those communities gave the Negroes already on hand better economic opportunities. It was fortunate too that prior to the check in the infiltration of the blacks they had come into certain districts in sufficiently large numbers to become a more potential factor. 39 They were strong enough in some cases to make common cause against foes and could by cooperation solve many problems with which the blacks in dispersed condition could not think of grappling.

Their endeavors along these lines proceeded in many cases from well organized efforts like those culminating in the numerous national conventions which began meeting first in Philadelphia in 1830 and after some years of deliberation in this city extended to others in the North. 40 These bodies aimed not only to promote education, religion and morals, but, taking up the work which the Quakers began, they put forth efforts to secure to the free blacks opportunities to be trained in the mechanic arts to equip themselves for participation in the industries then springing up throughout the North. This movement, however, did not succeed in the proportion to the efforts put forth because of the increasing power of the trades unions.

After the middle of the nineteenth century too the Negroes found conditions a little more favorable to their progress than the generation before. The aggressive South had by that time so shaped the policy of the nation as not only to force the free States to cease aiding the escape of fugitives but to undertake to impress the northerner into the service of assisting in their recapture as provided in the Fugitive Slave Law. This repressive measure set a larger number of the people thinking of the Negro as a national problem rather than a local one. The attitude of the North was then reflected in the personal liberty laws as an answer to this measure and in the increasing sympathy for the Negroes. During this decade, therefore, more was done in the North to secure to the Negroes better treatment and to give them opportunities for improvement.Citations:

  1. “Cincinnati Morning Herald”, July 17, 1846.[]
  2. Woodson, “The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861”, p. 242.[]
  3. Turner, “The Negro in Pennsylvania”, p. 143; “Correspondence of Dr. Benjamin Bush”, XXXIX, p. 41.[]
  4. DuBois, “The Philadelphia Negro”, pp. 26-27.[]
  5. “The Journal of Negro History”, I, p. 5; and “Proceedings of the American Convention of Abolition Societies”.[]
  6. DuBois and Dill, “The Negro American Artisan”, p. 36.[]
  7. Jay, “An Inquiry”, pp. 34, 108, 109, 114.[]
  8. “The Journal of Negro History”, I, pp. 20-22.[]
  9. Delany, “Condition of the Colored People”, p. 106.[]
  10. “The Liberator”, July 9, 1835.[]
  11. Hammond, “Gerrit Smith”, pp. 26-27.[]
  12. Frothingham, “Gerrit Smith”, p. 73.[]
  13. Delany, “Condition of the Colored People”, pp. 107-108.[]
  14. “Ibid.”, p. 102.[][]
  15. “Ibid.”, pp. 103-104.[]
  16. Delany, “Condition of the Colored People”, pp. 106-107.[]
  17. DuBois, “The Philadelphia Negro”, p. 31; “Report of the Condition of the Free People of Color”, 1838; “ibid.”, 1849; and Bacon, “Statistics of the Colored People of Philadelphia”, 1859.[]
  18. Delany, “Condition of the Colored People”, p. 95.[]
  19. DuBois, “The Philadelphia Negro”, pp. 31-36.[]
  20. Delany, “Condition of the Colored People”, p. 109.[]
  21. “Ibid.”, p. 101.[][]
  22. “Ibid.”, p. 104.[]
  23. “Ibid.”, p. 105.[]
  24. “Ibid.”, p. 107.[]
  25. “The Journal of Negro History”, I, p. 22.[]
  26. Hickok, “The Negro in Ohio”, p. 88.[]
  27. Delany, “Condition of the Colored People”, p. 99.[]
  28. “The Philanthropist”, July 21, 1840, gives these statistics in detail.[]
  29. “The Philanthropist”, July 21, 1840.[]
  30. “The Cincinnati Daily Gazette”, Sept. 14, 1841.[]
  31. Barber’s “Report on Colored People in Ohio”.[]
  32. Delany, “Condition of the Colored People”, pp. 97, 98.[]
  33. Delany, “Condition of the Colored People”, p. 98.[]
  34. These facts were obtained from his children and from Cincinnati city directories.[]
  35. “Niles Register”, LXIX, p. 357.[]
  36. Letters received from Miss Fannie M. Richards of Detroit.[]
  37. These facts were obtained from clippings taken from Detroit newspapers and from letters bearing on Miss Richard’s career.[]
  38. “The A.M.E. Church Review”, IV, p. 309; and XX, p. 137.[]
  39. “Censuses of the United States”; and Clark, “Present Condition of Colored People”.[]
  40. “Minutes and Proceedings” of the Annual Convention of the People of Color.[]


Woodson, Carter G. A Century of Negro Migration. Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. 1918.

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