The Black North: A Social Study

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The Black North: A Social Study  (1901) 
by W.E.B. DuBois

The negro problem is not the sole property of the South. To be sure, it is there most complicated and pressing. Yet north of Mason and Dixon's line there live to-day three-quarters of a million men of negro lineage. Nearly 400,000 of these live in New England and the Middle-Atlantic States, and it is this population that I wish especially to study in a series of papers.

The growth of this body of negroes has been rapid since the war. There were 150,000 in 1800, 225,000 in 1880, and about 385,000 to-day. It is usually assumed that this group of persons has not formed to any extent a "problem" in the North, that during a century of freedom they have had an assured social status and the same chance for rise and development as the native white American, or at least as the foreign immigrant.

This is not true. It can be safely asserted that since early Colonial times the North has had a distinct race problem. Every one of these States had slaves, and at the beginning of Washington's Administration there were 40,000 black slaves and 17,000 black freemen in this section. The economic failure of slavery as an investment here gave the better conscience of Puritan and Quaker a chance to be heard, and processes of gradual emancipation were began early in the nineteenth century.

Some of the slaves were sold South and eagerly welcomed there. Most of them stayed in the North and became a free negro population.

They were not, however, really free. Socially they were ostracized. Strict laws were enacted against intermarriage. They were granted rights of suffrage with some limitations, but these limitations were either increased or the right summarily denied afterward.

North as well as South the negroes have emerged from slavery into a serfdom of poverty and restricted rights. Their history since has been the history of the gradual but by no means complete breaking down of remaining barriers.

To-day there are many contrasts between Northern and Southern negroes. Three-fourths of the Southern negroes live in the country districts. Nine-tenths of the Northern negroes live in cities and towns. The Southern negro were in nearly all cases born South and of slave parentage.

About a third of the Northern negroes were born North, partly of free negro parentage, while the rest are Southern immigrants. Thus in the North there is a sharper division of the negroes into classes and a greater difference in attainment and training than one finds in the South.

From the beginning the Northern slaves lived in towns more generally than the Southern slaves, being used largely as house servants and artisans. As town life increased, the urban negro population increased. Here and there little villages of free negroes were to be found in the country districts of the North tilling the soil, but the competition of the great West soon sent them to town along with their white brothers, and now only here and there is there a negro family left in the country districts and villages of New England and of the Middle States.

From the earliest settlement of Manhattan, when the Dutch West India Company was pledging itself to furnish the new settlers with plenty of negroes, down to 1900, when the greater city contained 60,000 black folk, New York has had a negro problem. This problem has greatly changed from time to time. Two centuries ago it was a question of obtaining "hands" to labor. Then came questions of curbing barbarians and baptizing heathen. Long before the nineteenth century citizens were puzzled about the education of the negroes, and then came negro riots and negro crime and the baffling windings of the color line.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century there were 1,500 negroes in New York City. They were house servants and laborers, and often were hired out by their masters, taking their stand for this purpose at the foot of Wall Street. By the middle of the century the population had doubled, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century it was about 9,000, five-sixths of whom were free by the act of gradual emancipation.

In 1840 the population was over 16,000, but it fell off to 12,500 in 1860 on account of the competition of foreign workmen and race riots. Since the war it has increased rapidly to 20,000 in 1880 and to 36,000 on Manhattan Island in 1900. The annexed districts raise this total to 60,000 for the whole city.

The distribution of this population presents many curious features. Conceive a large rectangle through which Seventh Avenue runs lengthwise. Let this be bounded on the south by a line near Sixteenth Street and on the north by Sixty-four or Sixty-fifth Street. On the east let the boundary be a wavering line between Fourth and Seventh Avenues and on the west the river.

In this quadrangle live over 20,000 negroes, a third of the total population. Ten thousand others live around the north end of the Park and further north, while 18,000 live in Brooklyn. The remaining 10,000 are scattered here and there in other parts of the city.

The migration of the black population to its present abode in New York has followed the growth of the city. Early in the eighteenth century the negroes lived and congregated in the hovels along the wharves and of course in the families of the masters. The centre of black population then moved slowly north, principally on the east side, until it reached Mulberry Street, about 1820. Crossing Broadway, a generation later the negroes clustered about Sullivan and Thompson Streets until after the war, when they moved northward along Seventh Avenue.

From 1870 to 1890, the population was more and more crowded and congested in the negro districts between Twenty-sixth and Sixty-third Streets. Since then there has been considerable dispersion to Brooklyn and Harlem districts, although the old centres are still full.

The migration to Brooklyn began about 1820 and received its greatest impetus from the refugees at the time of the draft riots. In 1870 there were 5,000 negroes in Brooklyn. Since then the population has increased very rapidly, and it has consisted largely of the better class of negroes in search of homes and seeking to escape the contamination of the Tenderloin.

In 1890 the Brooklyn negroes had settled chiefly in the Eleventh, Twentieth, and Seventh Wards. Since then they have increased in those wards and have moved to the east in the Twenty-third, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-fifth Wards and in the vicinity of Coney Island.

Let us now examine any peculiarities in the colored population of New York. The first noticeable fact is the excess of women. In Philadelphia the women exceed the men six to five. In New York the excess is still larger- five to four- and this means that here even more than in Philadelphia the demand for negro housemaids is unbalanced by a corresponding demand for negro men.

This disproportion acts disastrously today on the women and the men. The excess of young people from eighteen to thirty years of age points again to large and rapid immigration. The Wilmington riot alone sent North thousands of emigrants, and as the black masses of the South awaken or as they are disturbed by violence this migration will continue and perhaps increase.

The North, therefore, and especially great cities like New York, has much more than an academic interest in the Southern negro problem. Unless the race conflict there is so adjusted as to leave the negroes a contented, industrious people, they are going to migrate here and there. And into the large cities will pour in increasing numbers the competent and the incompetent, the industrious and the lazy, the law abiding and the criminal.

Moreover, the conditions under which these new immigrants are now received are of such a nature that very frequently the good are made bad and the bad made professional criminals. One has but to read Dunbar's "Sport of the Gods" to get an idea of the temptations that surround the young immigrant. In the most thickly settled negro portion of the Nineteenth Assembly District, where 5,000 negroes live, the parents of half of the heads families were country bred. Among these families the strain of city life is immediately seen when we find that 24 per cent of the mothers are widows- a percentage only exceeded by the Irish, and far above the Americans (16.3).

In these figures lie untold tales of struggle, self-denial, despair, and crime. In the country districts of the South, as in all rural regions, early marriage and large families are the rule. These young immigrants to New York cannot afford to marry early. Two-thirds of the young men twenty to twenty-four years of age are unmarried, and five-eighths of the young women.

When they do marry it is a hard struggle to earn a living. As a race the negroes are not lazy. The canvass of the Federation of Churches in typical New York tenement districts has shown that while nearly 90 per cent of the black men were wage earners, only 92 per cent of the Americans and 90 per cent of the Germans were at work.

At the same time the work of the negroes was the least remunerative, they receiving a third less per week than the other nationalities. Nor can the disabilities of the negroes be laid altogether at the door of ignorance. Probably they are even less acquainted with city life and organized industry than most of the foreign laborers. In illiteracy, however, negroes and foreigners are about equal- five-sixths being able to read and write.

The crucial question, then, is: What does the black immigrant find to do? Some persons deem the answer to this question unnecessary to a real understanding of the negro. They say either that the case of the negro is that of the replacing of a poor workman by better ones in the neutral competition of trade or that a mass of people like the American negroes ought to furnish employment for themselves without asking others for work.

There is just enough truth in such superficial statements to make them peculiarly misleading and unfair. Before the civil war the negro was certainly as efficient a workman as the raw immigrant from Ireland or Germany. But, whereas the Irishmen found economic opportunity wide and daily growing wider, the negro found public opinion determined to "keep him in his place."

As early as 1824 Lafayette, on his second visit to New York, remarked "wish astonishment the aggravation of the prejudice against the blacks," and stated that in the Revolutionary War "the black and white soldiers meshed together without hesitation." In 1836 a well-to-do negro was refused a license as drayman in New York City, and mob violence was frequent against black men who pushed forward beyond their customary sphere.

Nor could the negro resent this by his vote. The Constitution of 1777 had given him full rights of suffrage, but in 1821 the ballot, so far as blacks were concerned, was restricted to holders of $250 worth of realty- a restriction which lasted until the war, in spite of efforts to change it, and which restricted black laborers but left white laborers with full rights of suffrage.

So, too, the draft riots of 1863 were far more than passing ebullitions of wrath and violence, but were used as a means of excluding negroes all over the city from lines of work in which they had been long employed. The relief committee pleaded in vain to have various positions restored to negroes. In numerous cases the exclusion was permanent and remains so to this day.

Thus the candid observer easily sees that the negro's economic position in New York has not been determined simply by efficiency in open competition, but that race prejudice has played a large and decisive part. Probably in free competition ex-slaves would have suffered some disadvantages in entering mechanical industries. When race feeling was added to this they were almost totally excluded.

Again, it is impossible for a group of men to maintain and employ itself while in open competition with a larger and stronger group. Only by co-operation with the industrial organization of the Nation can negroes earn a living. And this co-operation is difficult to effect. One can easily trace the struggle in a city like New York. Seventy-four per cent of the working negro population are common laborers and servants.

From this dead level they have striven long to rise. In this striving they have made many mistakes, have had some failures and some successes. They voluntarily withdrew from bootblacking, barbering, table waiting, and menial service whenever they saw a chance to climb higher, and their places were quickly filled by foreign whites.

Some of the negroes succeeded in their efforts to rise, some did not. Thus every obstacle placed in the way of their progress meant increased competition at the bottom. Twenty-six per cent of the negroes have risen to a degree and gained a firmer economic foothold. Twelve per cent of these have gone but a step higher: these are the porters, packers, messengers, draymen, and the like- a select class of laborers, often well paid and more independent than the old class of upper house servants before the war, to which they in some respect correspond.

Some of this class occupy responsible positions, others have some capital invested, and nearly all have good homes.

Ten per cent of the colored people are skilled laborers- cigarmakers, barbers, tailors and dressmakers, builders, stationary engineers, &c. Five and one-half per cent are in business enterprises, chiefly real estate, the catering business, undertaking, drug stores, hotels and restaurants, express teaming, &c. In the sixty-nine leading establishments $800,000 is invested- $13,000 in sums from $500 to $1,000 and $200,000 in sums from $1,000 to $25,000.

Forty-four of the sixty-nine businesses were established since 1885, and seventeen others since the war. Co-operative holders of real estate- i.e., hall associations, building and loan associations, and one large church, which has considerable sums in productive real estate- have over half a million dollars invested. Five leading caterers have $30,000, seven undertakers have $32,000, two saloons have over $50,000, and four small machine shops have $27,500 invested.

These are the most promising enterprises in which New York negroes have embarked. Serious obstacles are encountered. Great ingenuity is often required in finding gaps in business service where the man of small capital may use his skill or experience.

One negro has organized the cleaning of houses to a remarkable extent and has an establishment representing at least $30,000 of invested capital, some ten or twelve employees, and a large circle of clients.

Again, it is very difficult for negroes to get experience and training in modern business methods. Young colored men can seldom get positions above menial grade, and the training of the older men unfits them for competitive business. Then always the uncertain but ever present factor of racial prejudice is present to hinder or at least make more difficult the advance of the colored merchant or business man, in new or unaccustomed lines.

In clerical and professional work there are about ten negro lawyers in New York, twenty physicians, and at least ninety in the civil service as clerks, mail carriers, public school teachers, and the like. The competitive civil service has proved a great boon to young aspiring negroes, and they are being attracted to it increasing numbers. Already in the public schools there are one Principal, two special teachers, and about thirty-five classroom teachers of negro blood. So far no complaint of the work and very little objection to their presence have been heard.

In some such way as this black New York seeks to earn its daily bread, and it remains for us to ask of the homes and the public institutions just what kind of success these efforts are having.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1963, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.