African American History: Free Black Population (Discrimination Faced by Free Blacks)
The first federal census in 1790 recorded nearly 60,000 free blacks, compared to more than 690,000 who lived in slavery. Although most African Americans lived in the South (about 90 percent), 27,000 lived in the North. South and North, free blacks tended to concentrate in urban areas, since cities afforded employment opportunities, greater freedom of movement, and larger concentrations of people to support churches, schools, and other organizations.
However, African Americans faced many obstacles and prejudices not encountered by whites, even in areas where slavery had been abolished. They were barred from most educational institutions, limited to the least desirable residential and farming areas, often prohibited from practicing trades and opening businesses, and generally segregated in public conveyances and public worship. Except in a few New England states where their numbers were small, black voting was restricted. In many states, especially in the Midwest, they could not serve on juries or testify against whites in court.
Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa prohibited black immigration, and Illinois threatened bondage for blacks who attempted to locate there permanently. In 1807 Ohio passed a series of ‘black codes‘ requiring free blacks to post a $500 bond assuring their good conduct and self-support before they could settle in the state. Although these restrictive laws were irregularly enforced, free blacks lived under their constant threat.
African Americans’ job opportunities were always restricted, and poverty was a continuing problem. Ironically, black skilled artisans were more likely to find employment in the South than in Northern cities where they faced competition from European immigrants. Most free black men in the North worked as servants, as day laborers finding temporary work where they could, or as sailors aboard trading ships or whalers. Black women most often worked as maids, laundresses, or cooks in homes, hotels, restaurants, or other businesses.