Voluntary immigration from sub-Saharan Africa dates back to the 1860s, when men from Cape Verde - then Portuguese-controlled islands off the coast of Senegal - made their way to Massachusetts. They were seamen, and most were employed as whalers. Women soon followed, and after the demise of whale hunting, Cape Verdeans worked mostly in textile mills and cranberry bogs. For several decades, they represented the largest African community - other than Egyptians and white South Africans - in the United States. Several hundred other sub-Saharan Africans were also living in the country up to the end of the nineteenth century: they were former slaves who had arrived before and after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808. Some survived until the 1930s.
A small number of African students were sent by Christian missions and churches to historically black colleges and universities beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. The trend continued in the early twentieth century. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, and Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, both studied at Lincoln University, and pursued graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Except for the few who married in the United States, the great majority of students left the country when their studies ended, primarily because they wanted to go back home to their families and were eager to contribute to their country's development.
Immigration was insignificant until the late 1960s. Between 1961 and 1970, 29,000 Africans (including North Africans) were admitted to the United States, but the numbers increased to almost 81,000 from 1971 to 1980.
Traditionally, Africans had migrated primarily to their former colonial powers: Great Britain, France, and Portugal, and more than a million sub-Saharan Africans currently live in Europe. But beginning in the late 1970s, these countries froze immigration because of economic slowdowns. Immigration to the United States became an option. At the same time, increasing numbers of students and professionals decided to remain in America owing to difficult political and economic situations on the continent.
Concurrently, mounting debts, sluggish growth, exploding populations, and high unemployment were pushing many Africans still at home to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In the 1990s, emigration was also spurred by the Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These resulted in cuts in education and health services, the discharge of public servants, private-sector bankruptcies, and a decrease in middle-class standards of living. In addition, in 1994, more than a dozen French-speaking countries devalued their currencies by 50 percent: the consequences of this were a restructuring of the public sector, numerous layoffs, more bankruptcies, and fewer prospects for college graduates.
Emigrants were not only pushed out of their countries, they were also pulled to the United States. A number of favorable immigration policies enabled them to make the journey in much greater numbers than before. Tens of thousands of political refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea, living under a Marxist regime, were allowed entry in the mid-1980s, and when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 legalized the status of eligible illegal aliens, more than 31,000 Africans applied. In addition, the Immigration Act of 1990 established a lottery system that favors underrepresented nations, a category that includes all the African countries. Since 1995, an average of 40,000 African immigrants have entered the country legally every year, but the number increased to more than 60,000 in 2002.