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Contemporary immigration is often synonymous with Latin Americans, or even more specifically – Mexicans. Historically, America’s immigration folklore equates immigration with Europe. For its part, Asian immigration has also been a subject of policy analysis and public concern. But in American immigration history one group is typically absent: Africans.
Until fairly recently, immigration historians have not treated Africans brought to America as immigrants. Although fundamentally different from other types of immigration in that Africans were a captive population transported involuntarily, the Atlantic slave trade – which was the source of most African migration to the U.S. – was one of the major means of bringing people not only to the United States, but to countries from Brazil to Canada.
African migration to the U.S. dropped drastically after 1808 with the outlaw of the slave trade. Although there was voluntary Caribbean immigration to the U.S. on-and-off during the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s, the voluntary migration of Africans and African-descended migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean has quickened only since the 1970s.
Africans were some of the earliest migrants to what would become the United States. There were Africans living in the colonies – brought as indentured servants – before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Before that, during the 1500s, there were Africans in what is now Florida and Texas, then part of the Spanish Empire.
In terms of the English colonies, the first enduring settlement in what would become the United States was founded in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. In 1619 African captives were first used by the English to supplement the growing labor needs for the increasingly permanent colonies.
Just as the legal terminology and status of other immigrants shifted through historical eras (for example from settler, to immigrant, to illegal alien) Africans were not initially brought to the English colonies as slaves. At first Africans were indentured servants, equal to their English counterparts, who would be freed of their obligations to their owners after several years of service.
Throughout the 17th century between half and two-thirds of all European immigrants to the American colonies also came as indentured servants. After given their freedom, some African indentured servants were economically secure enough to buy land and purchase indentured servants of their own.
In the early years, there were no slave laws in the colonies. Slavery was forged gradually during the 17th century after the landed elite began to view the indentured servant system as too unstable a source of labor. Beginning in 1641 the colonies started– one-by-one – to codify slavery laws in their constitutions. Gradually, the race-based slave system was established.
The Atlantic slave trade was initiated by the Portuguese in the mid-1400s, a half century before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, but with the New World plantation system and race-based slavery firmly established throughout the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries, the need for labor – and therefore the volume of the slave trade – escalated.
Scholars estimate that at least 10 to 12 million Africans were brought to the Americas and an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States before the slave trade was outlawed by Congress.
As one of the nation’s first immigrant – albeit captive – labor forces, Africans and their descendants were a key part of the growth of early capitalism not only in the American South, but in New England and Europe, all of which profited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
After the end of the trade in the U.S., voluntary black migrants (immigrants from Africa and African-descended immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean) were rare. The restrictive U.S. immigration laws of the early-and mid-20th century were aimed at Asians and Southern and Eastern Europeans but they also applied to Africans. Black immigration to the U.S. didn't grow significantly until the 1960s as Africa began the decolonization process and U.S. immigration laws dropped their race-based preferences.
In the 21st century, as Africa has developed and the U.S. has become more racially tolerant, black immigration has quickened. Since 2000, the black immigrant population has grown 47% to 3.1 million, comprising 8% of the overall 37 million black population. Of the foreign-born black population, 54% are from the Caribbean while 34% are from Africa.
Perhaps the best and most obvious example of the impact of African immigration is President Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant. But there are millions of black immigrants in the U.S. shaping the character of American society. The Dominican Republic is the nation’s 10th largest source of immigrants and almost 780,000 Dominicans account for 2% of the U.S.’s 38 million foreign-born. Both Haiti and Jamaica each also count more than a half million immigrants in the United States and the nation’s 200,000 Nigerians comprise the largest foreign-born African population in the U.S.
Although most African Americans are not immigrants they are – like almost all Americans – descended from immigrants (old and new) and black immigration remains relevant to the contemporary immigration debate.
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