At Re-imagining Migration, we are proud to celebrate black history month by recognizing the contribution of the African diaspora in the United States. The migrations of people with African ancestry are deeply tied to the United States. According to scholar Henry Louis Gates, “Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World…12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.” Of those, about 400,000 were taken to the United States against their will.
Writing in the New York Times for the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah Jones explains:
Those individuals and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. Through backbreaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, accounting for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island “slave trader.” Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. It was the relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of their bodies and the products of their labor that made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world.
Before the civil war, Africans forced to migrate to the United States resisted the brutality of enslavement, used the law when possible, and in turn, created new identities for themselves. Not simply Africans in America, they became African Americans, people whose contributions to the nation were rarely recognized by their fellow Americans.
In the years after the civil war, black Americans began a second country-defining migration, the Great Migration of African Americans to the North. Between 1916 and 1970, scholars estimate that over six million black Americans migrated from the South to the North and West.
Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, writes that black residents who fled North during the Great Migration,
“had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, desserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.”
Until 1965, strick quotas limited foreign-born black migrants from settling in the United States. Since that time, the number of blacks born outside of the U.S. who have made the country their home has risen. While the number of black immigrants remains relatively low, the percentage has quadrupled since 1980.
After Jamaica and Haiti, Nigeria is the third largest birth country of black immigrants to the United States. However, the number of African migrants to the United States is likely to shrink after President Trump expanded a travel ban to include six new countries, including four African nations – Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Eritrea.
Scholars at the Migration Policy Institute note that there were more than two million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in the United States in 2018. However, it would be a mistake to assume they all came the same way or for the same seasons.
There were very few sub-Saharan Africans in the United States just a few decades ago, with under 150,000 residents in 1980. Since then, immigrants from some of the largest sub-Saharan countries, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Somalia, and South Africa, have settled in the United States. Overall, more than 2 million immigrants have come from the 51 countries that comprise sub-Saharan Africa, making up 84 percent of the 2.4 million immigrants from the entire African continent. The remainder are from the six countries of North Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia.
Figure 1. Sub-Saharan African Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2018
The diversity in origins for this population is mirrored by the diversity in reasons for coming to the United States, with the arrival of refugees from conflict-ridden countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); high-skilled immigrants and foreign students from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa; Diversity Lottery visas recipients from countries such as Liberia and and Cameroon; and, more recently, family members reuniting with immigrants already residing in the United States.*
While black immigrants do not share the same history as families of black Americans who came in earlier generations, it does not mean that people do not lump them together or attempt to define them with ideas about race. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian immigrant, and author of the book Americanah warns about such labeling in her TED talk, the Danger of a Single Story. In 2013, she spoke to NPR’s Terry Gross about the way that American ideas about race have shaped her sense of self as an African in the United States.
I remember when I first came to the U.S., I really didn’t consciously think of myself as black because I didn’t have to. I thought of myself as Igbo, which is my ethnicity. And then in the U.S., there’s a moment when I had just arrived, and an – and I was in Brooklyn, and this African-American man called me sister. And I remember reacting almost viscerally and thinking no, I am not your sister. And then I think also at the time I had very quickly absorbed all the negative stereotypes of blackness in America, and so I didn’t want to associate myself with that. And I also remember in undergrad, when a professor of mine came into class and said who is Adichie because this person called Adichie, which is the way Americans often pronounce my last name, had written the best essay in class. And I remember raising my hand, and for a fleeting moment, there was a surprise on my face. And I realized that the person who wrote the best essay wasn’t supposed to look like me.
Below we have curated several key resources that you can use to explore black history through the lens of migration:
*Source: Data from U.S. Census Bureau 2006, 2010, 2015 and 2018 American Community Surveys (ACS), and Campbell J. Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-2000” (Working Paper no. 81, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, February 2006), available online