(The Black Side of Immigration History) DISPLACEMENT of Freed Slaves PRE-Civil War

Updated: January 18th, 2011, 7:52 pm


  by  Roy Beck

When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, he soon discovered that recently arrived immigrants were nearly as tenacious as slavemasters and bounty hunters in trying to keep a black man from freely competing in the labor markets of the North.

The rising tide of European immigrants who began to arrive in the 1820s found a considerable population of skilled free black Americans in the North.

  • Some of the black workers were from families who had been free since the mid-1600s after the first Africans in Virginia and Maryland had worked out their terms of indentured servanthood.
  • Many others had come as slaves and bought their freedom or been released by conscience-stricken owners, especially through wills upon their deaths.
  • And others like Douglass simply had escaped.

This modest army of black artisans and domestic workers had managed to stake a tenuous claim on the mainstream economy during the decades of relatively low immigration. But with the rapid increases of immigration in the 1820s and 1830s, free black Americans began to lose ground. Where most of New York City's domestic servant jobs had been filled by free black workers, the majority eventually were occupied by Irish immigrants. And the reason for the shift was not that black workers had moved to higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs.

The text of this blog comes from my book, The Case Against Immigration, published by W.W. Norton & Co. (New York, 1996).  During this week of Martin Luther King's birthday, I think it helpful to remind Americans that the victimization of the descendants of slaves (and of freed slaves themselves) by thoughtless, unrestrained immigration policies has been a constant stain on our country's history, including this period BEFORE the Civil War about which I write here.

-- Roy Beck, 2011

W.E.B. Du Bois later would note that the new immigrants proceeded methodically to drive northern black workers from their jobs of all kinds and to replace them.

Violence was not an uncommon instrument.


For eight days in July 1834, for example, the immigrants' antagonism toward free black Americans in New York City boiled over into a full-scale riot, with attacks on black homes and churches.

Immigrants feared that the free black Americans would undercut their chances for jobs and wage increases. In fact, it was the free black Americans who were being undercut by the immigrants, as the historian Adrian Cook has pointed out: "Employers preferred to hire immigrants, especially Germans, who would work long hours for low pay.”

Similar but much more violent and widespread riots by immigrants against free Black Americans occurred DURING the Civil War in New York City.  The chief cause again was job competition.  The U.S. government allowed so many immigrant workers to enter the city that the competition for jobs turned bloody. And, as has occurred in almost every case of such competition, Black Americans came out the losers, even though their roots in this country ran generations deeper.


Frederick Douglass witnessed the job competition firsthand, even before his escape from slavery.

As a teenager he had been transferred by his rural slavemaster to a relative in Baltimore, where he was hired out to work among the immigrant shipbuilders on Fell's Point. He learned the caulking trade at a shipyard that had a number of free black carpenters.

The European-American workers at his Baltimore shipyard got rid of the free black workers by taking advantage of a tight deadline their employer was facing in building two large man-of-war brigs for the Mexican government. The white carpenters staged a walk-out, saying they would work no more unless the free black carpenters were fired, which they were.

Conditions also grew more strained for the slaves on site, with the whites talking about the "niggers taking the country." Eventually, four of the men attacked Douglass with bricks, sticks, and handspikes, while some fifty others watched and shouted, "Kill the damned nigger! Kill him! kill him!"

Douglass later became a leading orator and author of the abolition movement-as well as an ardent supporter of women's suffrage. A confidant of President Lincoln and holder of several distinguished federal offices, Douglass remained until his death in 1895 an uncompromising proponent of equal economic opportunities for black Americans.

He towered over all other Americans in his advocacy of a colorblind, unified national society, and contended regularly with the pressures from immigration to drive black Americans out of the mainstream.

Like many other black leaders over the last two centuries, Douglass saw mass immigration as a destructive tool in blocking African Americans from full economic and political freedom. Douglass escaped to New York in 1838, then moved to Massachusetts. But as immigration continued to increase, the conditions for free black Americans in the North grew worse and slavery in the South was administered more harshly.

Douglass would write: "The old employments by which we have heretofore gained our livelihood are gradually, and it may be inevitably, passing into other hands. Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived immigrant whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place.”

Among the sources for this history are Adrian Cook's The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1974) and Frederick Douglass' My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Dover Books, 1969).


Rising immigration from the 1820s to the Civil War drove down wages for free black Americans and immigrants alike.

Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert's macroeconomic history shows that between 1816 and 1856, the American Northeast was transformed from the "Jeffersonian ideal" to a society more typical of developing economies with marked income inequality and very low wages for laborers.

As badly as new immigrants often were treated by established Americans, even worse treatment was meted out to black Americans by the immigrants. Organizing themselves into trade unions, immigrant laborers helped set the terms of hiring at many urban workplaces. Not only would they not allow black workers into their unions, but they usually would refuse to work alongside them if they were hired. Many firms decided not to hire black workers, or to fire the ones already on the site, because of that refusal on the part of the more numerous immigrant workers. 

By the 1850s, for example, free black workers had been driven out of most jobs on the New York City waterfront by the Irish immigrants who had gained control over the trades.

Denied work through organized labor channels, black workers increasingly had to resort to gaining jobs by serving as strikebreakers -- an unsavory role they had to endure for another century, and one that engendered further hatred from the immigrant workers.

Blacks also were restricted in their social life. A gang culture was much in control, with each immigrant group fighting for its own culture, and to determine who could live near them, sell in their neighborhoods, and socialize in their pubs.

The point here is not to demonize the immigrants in the big migrations of the 1830-1860 period but to illustrate what happens when a government does not regulate the flow according to the needs of its existing workers.

Most Americans are not aware of the thriving free Black communities that had begun to exist in northern cities long before the Civil War led to the outlawing of slavery.  If not for mass immigration, those Black communities would have flourished far more and created much better models for economic development for the slaves freed after the war.  But mass immigration retarded and sometimes destroyed those tenuous footholds on prosperity and led to a very different history. 

It is not difficult to see the parallels in many parts of the country in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in which predominantly Black-run communities were overhwelmed with immigration and often saw power transferred away from them as many Black Americans lost jobs to foreign workers and as many more saw their occupations collapse into low wages because of the high availability of immigrant labor.

 ROY BECK is Founder & CEO of NumbersUSA

Black Americans