Classroom Resource – In-Motion: The African American Migration Experience

In the U.S., migration is both history and destiny. From the arrival of the First Nations of native peoples, to European explorers seeking treasure and religious freedom, to the mass involuntary migrations of enslaved Africans, to the trans-oceanic migrations of yesterday and the ongoing global migrations of today, migration defines the American experience. Migration is an important story of how the country came to be in its present form and a determinant of our future. Yet, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library notes:

“Until recently, people of African descent have not been counted as part of America’s migratory tradition. The transatlantic slave trade has created an enduring image of black men and women as transported commodities, and is usually considered the most defining element in the construction of the African Diaspora, but it is centuries of additional movements that have given shape to the nation we know today. This is the story that has not been told.”

The web collection “In-Motion: The African American Migration Experience” seeks to fill the void. The website includes more than 16,500 pages of texts (many of them are primary sources), 8,300 illustrations, and more than 60 maps. Beyond the experience of slavery, which is often given cursory attention, few classrooms explore the rich histories of African American migration and how they shaped the United States. The author’s of the In-Motion website explain,

“In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience presents a new interpretation of African-American history, one that focuses on the self-motivated activities of peoples of African descent to remake themselves and their worlds. Of the thirteen defining migrations that formed and transformed African America, only the transatlantic slave trade and the domestic slave trades were coerced, the eleven others were voluntary movements of resourceful and creative men and women, risk-takers in an exploitative and hostile environment. Their survival skills, efficient networks, and dynamic culture enabled them to thrive and spread, and to be at the very core of the settlement and development of the Americas. Their hopeful journeys changed not only their world and the fabric of the African Diaspora but also the Western Hemisphere.


These journeys did not originate in the east with the1619 arrival of Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, as is commonly believed, but almost a century earlier, further south. Indeed, African-American history starts in the 1500s with the first Africans coming from Mexico and the Caribbean to the Spanish territories of Florida, Texas, and other parts of the South. And as early as 1526, Africans rebelled and ran away in South Carolina.

These precursors were followed by successive generations of runaways who did not confine themselves to running North and to Canada on the Underground Railroad as traditional history teaches us. With pragmatism and efficiency, they also moved south to Mexico, or took their canoes to the Bahamas. They left the plantations and settled, secretly, in the urban centers of the South or found refuge in the swamps and among Native populations.

The new interpretation of African-American history that we present here also puts the Caribbean, Haitian, and contemporary African immigrations into the unfolding of the African-American migration experience. Peoples of the African Diaspora have contributed immensely to the fabric of African America and the nation. They too, with their specificities, are part of the African-American experience. Whether they came from Saint Domingue in 1791 and settled in Louisiana, left the Bahamas in the nineteenth century to develop Miami and Key West, Florida, or recently moved from Nigeria to Texas.

Migration has been central in the making of African-American history and culture and in the total American experience.”