News Americas, NEW YORK, NY. June 1, 2012: Today marks the 6th year since the launch of Caribbean American Heritage Month in the United States and despite what some may believe, Caribbean nationals migration to the U.S. may be subdivided into four distinct phases, according to Winston James in “The History of Afro-Caribbean Migration to the United States.”
The first stretches from the colonial period to 1900; the second from 1900 to the Great Depression of the 1930s; the third from the late 1930s to 1965; and the final one stretches from 1965 to the present.
Caribbeans figured prominently among the free people of color in the North. Prince Hall established black freemasonry in the United States and was a distinguished leader of black Boston during the eighteenth century. Up to the 1970s Hall was generally said to have been Barbadian, but modern scholarship expresses uncertainty as to precisely where he was born.
But given the preponderance of Barbadian slaves in Boston in the early eighteenth century (Hall is believed to have been born around 1735), it is likely that he was in fact born on the island. Despite substantial black migration from the South, from Canada, and from Europe, as late as 1860 one in five black Bostonians had been born in Barbados and other Caribbean islands.
The Caribbean population in the United States was relatively small during the nineteenth century, but it grew significantly after the Civil War. Indeed, the foreign-born black population, which was almost wholly Caribbean in origin, increased fivefold between 1850 and 1900, from 4,067 to 20,236.
And distinguished Caribbean migrants populate the annals of nineteenth-century Afro- America. Since most of them have been so undeservedly forgotten, a brief reminder is in order.
Denmark Vesey (c.1767-1822) in 1822 organized in Charleston, South Carolina, what one authority accurately described as the most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves. In boldness of conception and thoroughness of organization there has been nothing to compare with it.
The conspiracy was betrayed and Vesey, along with his coconspirators, executed. Vesey was from the Virgin Islands.
Alexander Hamilton, (1757 – 1804): None of the U.S. Founding Fathers came from such unpromising origins: three years before the American Revolution, Hamilton was an illegitimate orphan who was born in Nevis and then worked in the Virgin Islands as a merchant’s clerk. Few achieved as much as he did in such a compact career. Hamilton held his first important public office (colonel on George Washington’s staff) when he was 20 years old, and retired from his last one (Inspector General of the army) when he was 43. None suffered such a spectacular death — shot in a duel by the Vice President of the United States. Hamilton overcame huge odds, left behind ideas and institutions that have lasted for centuries, and never quite escaped the shadows of his past.
John B. Russwurm (1799-1851) of Jamaica, one of the early New World settlers of Liberia, was also one of the first three black people to graduate from an American college, Bowdoin College, in Maine, in 1826. In the spring of 1827, Russwurm, with his Afro-American colleague Samuel E. Cornish, started Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper published in the United States, and a militant one at that. Russwurm’s compatriot, Peter Ogden, organized in New York City the first Odd-Fellows Lodge among the black population. Robert Campbell (1827-84), another Jamaican, left the island for Central America in 1852, then moved to New York in 1853. By 1855 he had become assistant principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth. He served with distinction and was respected and admired by his colleagues and students. But exasperated by the racism he encountered in the United States, he resigned his post in 1858 to join Martin Delany in a two- man Niger Valley Exploring Party. Frustrated in his attempts to raise funds and attract Afro- American settlers for Africa but with the new hope that came with the outbreak of the Civil War, Delany abandoned his African dream and became an officer in the Union Army. Campbell, like Russwurm, before him was less optimistic about the prospects for black people in the United States. In August 1861, with his wife and four children, he left American shores, bound for what he called his Motherland.
Despite setbacks in his new country, Campbell never regretted his decision and made Nigeria his home up to his death in 1884. Robert Brown Elliott (1842-84), the brilliant fighter and orator of the Reconstruction era, claimed Jamaican parentage. David Augustus Straker (1842-1908), a law partner of Elliott’s, a fighter for civil rights, educationalist, journalist, chronicler of the dark post-Reconstruction days, and a distinguished lawyer in his own right, was from Barbados.
Jan Earnst Matzeliger (1852-89), the inventor of a revolutionary; shoe-making machine, had migrated from Suriname.
Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), a brilliant man and major contributor to the stream of black nationalist thought in America and abroad, was born in the Virgin Islands. He had left his native Saint Thomas in 1850 to study theology in the United States but found it impossible to gain a place in an American school—he was rejected by Rutger’s Theological College and two others—on account of his color. Frustrated by these racist barricades and seized by the dread of being kidnapped as a slave under the Fugitive Slave Law passed that year, Blyden left seven months later, in December 1850, bound for Liberia, where his legendary talents flourished.
William Henry Crogman (1841- 1931), Latin and Greek scholar, former president of Clark College, and one of the founders of the American Negro Academy, came from Saint Martin. Joseph Sandiford Atwell, a Barbadian, in 1867 became the first black man after the Civil War to be ordained in the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Bert Williams (1875-1922), the famous comedian, was born in Antigua. And at the beginning of the new century Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin (1855-1900), journalist, editor, lawyer, and writer, was gunned down, shot in the back six times, in Lexington, Kentucky, because of his work of uplifting the race, including writing and speaking out against lynching, and defending the constitutional right of black people to vote. Benjamin had emigrated from Saint Kitts.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), his brother Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), William Stanley Braithwaite (1878-1962), and Grace Campbell (1882-1943) were among some of the most distinguished sons and daughters of these nineteenth century Caribbean immigrants to America.
Before there was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was Jamaican national Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr., whose beliefs inspired many to push forward the rights of blacks across the U.S. and the world.
Many remember Garvey as the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, but lost largely in the recognition is the roots of Garvey and the Caribbean immigrant contribution to the United States, especially in Black History Month. He promoted business development and black pride in the era before the civil rights movement.
Prior to the twentieth century leaders who advocated the involvement of the African Diaspora in African affairs, Garvey was unique in advancing a Pan-African philosophy to inspire a global mass movement focusing on Africa known as Garveyism.
Garveyism would eventually inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam, to the Rastafari movement and fought to develop Liberia.
A UCLA historian argues in the first book of a multi-volume series on the Garvey movement and the Caribbean that Garvey’s Caribbean links were indispensable to the movement’s success, and the region ultimately proved to be its most important theater.
Robert A. Hill in “The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers: The Caribbean Diaspora 1910–1920,” argues that Caribbean nationals, both in America and abroad, were the seed that grew the movement.
“Although the movement developed here and was based in America, it was predominantly a Caribbean movement, at least until federal prosecution of Garvey in the early 1920s drew the attention of African Americans and galvanized their support of him,” he said.
And Garvey was not alone in his contribution to the Black rights struggle. Trinidadian Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael, also known as Kwame Ture, rose to prominence first as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later as the “Honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party during the civil rights era. Initially an integrationist, Carmichael later became affiliated with black nationalist and Pan-Africanist movement.
Others like Claude Mckay, a Jamaican writer, were part of The Harlem Renaissance, which included Afro-Caribbean artists and intellectuals from the British West Indies, who had migrated to New York in number.
By the end of World War I, the poetry of Claude McKay anticipated the literature that would follow in the 1920s in Harlem, as he helped describe the reality of black life in America and the struggle for racial identity.
So too did Eulalie Spence, the Nevis-born black, female writer, teacher, actress and playwright, who came to the United States in 1902.
Spence taught English and elocution at Eastern District High School (replaced by The High School for Enterprise, Business and Technology) in Brooklyn from 1927-1958, where one of her students was producer Joseph Papp of Public Theater fame. In 1937 Spence, received a B.S. from New York University, and she received an M.A. in speech from Columbia University in 1939.
Spence reached her writing zenith during the Harlem Renaissance alongside other better-known writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright and W.E.B. DuBois.
In legal circles, who can forget Constance Baker Motley, born to parents from Nevis. Motley Baker went on to become the first black woman elected to the New York State Senate, the first woman who was Manhattan Borough President and the first black federal court judge, named in 1966 to the post by President Lyndon Johnson. But most of all, she is remembered for writing the original complaint in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1950.
She was also the first African-American woman ever to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Meredith v. Fair she successfully won James Meredith’s battle to be the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. Motley was successful in nine of the ten cases she argued before the Supreme Court. The tenth decision, regarding jury composition, was eventually overturned in her favor. She was otherwise a key legal strategist in the civil rights movement, helping to desegregate Southern schools, buses, and lunch counters.
Today, the United States is home to 3.5 million immigrants from the Caribbean, who accounted for 9 percent of the total foreign-born population, according to the U.S. Census. More than 90 percent of these immigrants came from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago, and Cuban immigrants in particular have been among the top ten foreign-born groups in the United States each decade since 1970.
While the number of Caribbean immigrants in the United States continues to increase, the population’s rate of growth has slowed a bit more each decade since 1970, and the share of the foreign born that is from the Caribbean has gradually declined since 1990.
Compared to other immigrant groups, the foreign born from the Caribbean are less likely to be new arrivals, tend to have higher levels of English-language proficiency, and become naturalized US citizens at higher rates. At the same time, Caribbean immigrants are more likely to be older than other immigrant groups and Caribbean men have lower rates of civilian labor force participation.