Has America historically shut its doors to African immigrants? INDEED!!!
Immigration is largely deemed a Latino issue but it affects black immigrants as well. While their numbers are relatively low, their history in this country is layered. Of course, the largest migration of people of African descent into this country was far from voluntary.
In the 19th century, many free African-Americans tried to flee the United States and this resulted in some surprising alliances.
The American Colonization Society, whose membership included slaveholders, for example, was created to transport free African-Americans “back to Africa,” specifically to modern-day Liberia. President Lincoln even considered emigrating former slaves back to their homeland.
But prior to the ACS’s formation in 1816, Paul Cuffee, a black man, began exploring transporting African-Americans to Sierra Leone, which Great Britain had selected in the 1780s for relocating black British settlers, many who were former U.S. slaves who had sided with the British during the American Revolution. Just before the Civil War, African-Americans like prominent businessman James Forten even championed settlement in Haiti, plus runaway slaves had long favored Canada.
Only ‘free white persons’ need apply
Congress made its preference for white immigrants clear with the passage of the Naturalization Act of 1790, offering citizenship to all “free white persons” after two years of residency. But black immigrants, especially from Saint-Domingue or modern-day Haiti, found their way to the United States during the late 1790s and early 1800s when that country was in the throes of revolutionary action. Most ended up in Louisiana prior to it becoming a part of the U.S. in 1803.
Pushback by individual states restricting persons from Saint Domingue, even those who were enslaved, from entering the U.S. occurred before then, however. Fearing slave insurrections inspired by the revolutionary activity in present-day Haiti, South Carolina began passing laws in 1791 restricting the importation of slaves from Saint Domingue.
Only two slaves per owner from Saint Domingue were permitted into the state. Other Southern states followed their lead, expanding the pool.
The city of Baltimore passed an ordinance in 1797 requiring slave owners to remove slaves imported from the West Indies between 1792 and 1797 from the city.
Shutting the door to Africans
After the Civil War, black immigration picked up significantly. An estimated 108,000 Caribbean immigrants, many literate and highly skilled, came to the United States between 1899 and 1932 and their presence didn’t go undisturbed.
In the 1920s, Congressman Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina was among those who debated whether the U.S. should “shut the door” to the “denizens of Africa.”
The Quota Act of 1921, limiting foreign-born immigrants to three percent of their population already in the U.S. as counted in the 1910 Census, also impacted Caribbean immigration along with the Immigration Act of 1924, which went even further by lowering that number to two percent.
An amendment proposed by Senator James Reed of Missouri aimed to outright ban black immigration period, but Booker T. Washington and many others worked to defeat it.
Still the Immigration Act of 1924 had devastating effects, as Caribbean immigration numbers plummeted from 10,630 in 1924 to just 321 in 1925.
Stereotypes stand in the way of progress
During World War II, Caribbean immigration picked up and was, once again, met by resistance, primarily in the form of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act or McCarran-Walter Act which targeted Caribbean migration to the U.S. through Great Britain.
Still, Caribbean immigration, thanks in large part to close relatives already living in the U.S., continued to rise steadily. The Immigration Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, helped contribute to that rise through its greatly reduced restrictions on geography-based immigration and emphasis on family re-unification.
In the 20th century, Haitian immigrants have especially had it hard.
Although John F. Kennedy welcomed those fleeing the tyranny of President François “Papa Doc” Duvalier just before his assassination and definitely after, the invitation was rescinded, even though they kept coming, primarily to South Florida and New York.
Plagued by damaging stereotypes, Haitians were associated with tuberculosis in the 1970s and HIV/AIDS in the 1990s. When the democratically-elected Jean Bertrand-Aristide was overthrown by a military coup in 1991, Haitians began seeking refuge in the U.S. in even greater numbers, only to be returned to the turmoil by the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 2008, the Bush Administration denied Temporary Protective Status to Haitians fleeing deplorable conditions but the tide turned after the massive Haiti Earthquake in 2010.
A wave of refugees
According to In Motion, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture website dedicated to black migration, voluntary African immigration to the U.S. picked up in the 1970s. Leaving war-torn areas and repressive regimes, refugees came in waves from Ethiopia and Eritrea in the mid-1980s and Sudan and Somalia in the 2000s.
A 2005 New York Times article proclaimed that “For the first time, more blacks are coming to the United States from Africa than during the slave trade.”
Since 1990, an estimated 50,000 Africans annually have come to the U.S. legally, a number scholars say trumps that of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in peak years. But voluntary African migration did occur before the 20th century.
In the 1860s, a steady stream of Cape Verdeans came to New England to work in the shipping industry.
On the heels of decolonization and widespread African independence in the 1960s, a trickle of Africans came to the U.S., with many pursuing higher education.
‘Diversity Visa’ future in doubt
Boons to African immigration include the Refugee Act of 1980, which allowed thousands of Africans fleeing civil and international conflicts in their own countries entry into the U.S., the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 resulted in over 31,000 illegal Africans applying for legal status, and the Immigration Act of 1990 established a lottery system, known as the “Diversity Visa,” that favors underrepresented nations and includes all African countries.
GOP plans to eliminate the “Diversity Visa” has placed immigration reform at the top of the Congressional Black Caucus priority list.
In January, Ayofemi Kirby, the CBC communications director told The Daily Caller that eliminating the Diversity Visa “would lower the number of [black] immigrants from countries who already have low number of immigrants . . . [in the United States], especially sub-Sahara and Africa.”
It would also affect Caribbean countries, she noted.
Caribbean is huge part of black community in U.S.
Black immigrants, especially from the Caribbean, have made significant contributions to the domestic African-American community as entrepreneurs and professionals.
Using Who’s Who in Colored America entries from 1915 to 1932, In Motion found that “over 8 percent of doctors, 4.5 percent of lawyers, more than 14 percent of businessmen, 4.5 percent of clergymen, over 3 percent of professors, and 4 percent of writers/authors had come from the Caribbean” despite a foreign-born black population of only.8 percent of the overall African-American population.
According to many reports, African and Caribbean immigrants are among the most educated in the overall immigrant pool. Nigerians reportedly lead all immigrants in educational attainment prior to entry in the U.S.
As the wealth gap widens between black and white Americans, losing such economic resources could devastate the U.S.’s overall black economy, especially since African and Caribbean immigrants tend to be very entrepreneurial.
But the U.S. has historically had a poor track record in welcoming black immigrants regardless of their talents, and it doesn’t seem to be changing.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha