As we commemorate Black History Month, Caribbean National Weekly is taking this opportunity to present its readers with the series “Caribbean Influence on American Black History.” We regard this series as important not only to commemorate Black History Month, but to apprise our readers of the significant impact Caribbean immigrants have made to American history, particularly in light of degrading remarks recently made regarding immigrants from a Caribbean nation and Africa.
Part 1: 1650 – 1930’s
History relates that people from the Caribbean began migrating, albeit forcibly, and in chains, to America as slaves in the 17th century. Around 1650 British slave masters took slaves from Barbados to work on plantations in South Carolina and Virginia, creating the beginnings of a formidable Caribbean community in both states. Up to 1700 virtually all the slaves in South Carolina came from Barbados. During the 18th century it was estimated that up to 20 percent of the slaves in South Carolina were from the Caribbean, and the majority of the slaves in the northern states were of Caribbean origin, with slaves in New York originating from the Caribbean outnumbering those imported directly from Africa by three to one.
Along with South Carolina, Virginia and New York, a strong Caribbean community also grew in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1860 it was estimated that one of five Bostonians were born in Barbados, or elsewhere in the Caribbean.
After the American Civil War ended in 1865, the foreign-born black population in the U.S, was determined to be of predominantly Caribbean origins, increasing between 1850 and 1900 from some 4,000 to over 20,000. As the Caribbean population took roots in the U.S. it started to make significant contributions from relative unheralded people like, Robert Campbell, Jamaican, assistant principal of Philadelphia’s Institute of Colored Youth, in 1855; David Augustus Straker, Barbadian, lawyer, educationalist, journalist and civil rights proponent; Jan Earnst Matzeliger, from Surinam, inventor of a shoe making machine in the 1870’s; William Crogman, St Martins, Latin and Greek scholar, former president of Clark College and a founder of the American Negro Academy; and Joseph Atwell, Barbadian, who in 1867 was the first Blackman, after the Civil War, to be ordained in the U.S. Episcopal church. In fact, according to one historian West Indian immigrants at the turn of the nineteenth century were regarded “as paragons of intelligence and men of breeding.”
At the dawning of the 20th century there was a significant increase in the migration of Caribbean nationals to America. According to historian Winston James, “The History of Caribbean Migration to the U.S.” the trend peaked in the 1920’s then slowed during the Great Depression in the 1930’s.
The U.S. population of black foreigners and their descendants grew from 55,000 in 1900 to 178,300 in 1930, with the overwhelming majority coming from the Caribbean, including Cuba. Although large numbers of Bahamians settled in Florida, New York City became the primary destination, especially Manhattan and Brooklyn. Almost a quarter of the black population in Harlem was said to be of Caribbean origin and was reputed to be the largest West Indian city outside of Kinston, Jamaica.
In the 1920’s Caribbean migrants were increasingly attracted to the United States by its high employment and wages, while, simultaneously, the British Caribbean (in particular) was experiencing economic hardships from the decline in the demand for sugar with competition from Cuba and Brazil. However, the new migrants not only consisted of laborers, but a middle-class consisting of teachers, nurses and civil servants who were dissatisfied with the low income these careers attracted in the Caribbean. This latter group who advanced their education on coming to the U.S. increased the pool of literate, skilled, white-collared and professional Caribbean-Americans.
In the first three decades of the 20th century succeeding waves of Caribbean migrants entered the U.S. through New York City, significantly increasing the Caribbean-American population. Unfortunately since most of the migrants were black, not much recognition was given to a defined Caribbean population. However, notwithstanding, this resourceful and resilient population quickly gained their own identity in all spheres of American life, and especially in business politics, education, sports, entertainment and the arts. The Caribbean community, produced outstanding people like: Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, C.L.R. James, Sidney Poitier, Julian ‘Canonball’ Adderly, and Hubert Harrison regarded as the Father of Harem Radicalism.
Several historians of the Caribbean-American heritage regard the waves of Caribbean immigrants in the early twentieth century, as formulating the infrastructure of Caribbean-American life in the U.S., particularly in New York City. In the 1930’s a significant percentage of New York City’s black professionals and business-people, found mostly in Harlem, were of Caribbean origin.
This wave of Caribbean immigrants fostered a Who-Is-Who in American, particularly black American, history, and includes: Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Harry Belafonte, Colin Powell, Cicely Tyson, Shirley Chisholm, Constance Burke Motley, Kareem Abdul Jahbar, Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan, Yaphet Kotto, Marion Jones, Lauderdale Lakes Mayor Hazelle Rogers and US Senator Kamala Harris.
Next Week: The 1930’s to 1970’s.