The stream of migrants to the United States was relatively small compared with the flow to Central America and Cuba. While 108,000 people entered the United States from the entire Caribbean region between 1899 and 1932, it took only two islands, Jamaica and Barbados, to supply more than 240,000 laborers to Panama between 1881 and 1915. The migration to the U.S. was also distinct in another important respect. Those who immigrated to this country were disproportionately literate and skilled, with a significant number being professionals or white-collar workers.
The number of black people, especially those from the Caribbean, who migrated to the United States increased dramatically during the first three decades of the twentieth century, peaking in 1924 at 12,250 per year and falling off during the Depression. The foreign-born black population increased from 20,000 in 1900 to almost 100,000 by 1930. Over 140,000 black immigrants passed through United States ports between 1899 and 1937, despite the restrictive immigration laws enacted in 1917, 1921, and 1924.
|Occupational Status of Black Immigrants Entering the United States, 1899-1931 (table)
|Literacy of Black Immigrants, 1899-1932 (table)
|Black Immigrants by Region of Last Residence, 1899-1932 (table)
|The Conception of Race in Studying West Indians in Panama from Afro-Hispanic Review, vol. 5, nos. 1, 2, & 3 (January, May, and September 1986)
by Carlos Brossard
|Migration from the Hispanic Caribbean to the United States, 1900-2000 (table)
by Jorge Duany
The wave of black humanity entering the United States was focused on the northeastern coast and broke mainly on the shores of Manhattan. Tens of thousands came through Ellis Island, though the voluminous literature on that legendary port of disembarkation takes scant notice of this fact.
From the end of the nineteenth century up to 1905, South Florida was the migrants' primary destination. There was a large wave of migration from the Bahamas and a smaller flow of black cigar-makers from Cuba. New York was the second most popular state for settlement, followed closely by Massachusetts.
But Florida's preeminence was soon surmounted by that of New York, and the number headed for Massachusetts dropped sharply by 1920. During the peak years of migration, 1913 to 1924, the majority made their way to New York City, settling primarily in Manhattan and Brooklyn. By 1930, almost a quarter of black Harlem was of Caribbean origin. Less than a decade later, the New York
informed its readers that, with the exception of Kingston, Jamaica, Harlem was the largest West Indian city in the world.
The first cohort of twentieth-century Caribbean immigrants to the United States was not only more literate and skilled than their compatriots left behind but also more educated and skilled than the European immigrants who entered the country at the same time. Moreover, they were more literate than the native-born white population in the United States.
It was this wave that laid the groundwork for the institutional infrastructure of Afro-Caribbean life in New York City and elsewhere in the nation. It has been estimated that by the 1930s a third of New York's black professionals—including doctors, dentists, and lawyers—came from the ranks of Caribbean migrants, a figure well in excess of the group's share of the city's black population. Furthermore, the Caribbean newcomers accounted for a disproportionately large number of New York's black businesspeople.
Civil society in the Afro-Caribbean community was vibrant and well developed. Immigrants established a plethora of social, political, and economic organizations: churches, church groups, rotating credit clubs, political clubs, alumni associations, benevolent associations, and social and sports clubs. Among the immigrants who made a lasting contribution was "Arthur" Alfonso Schomburg who had settled in New York in 1891. He was active in black nationalist causes and amassed books and other materials on Africa and its Diaspora that formed the basis of the collections of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
A study of the entries in
Who's Who in Colored America,
covering the period from 1915 to 1932, yields a remarkable number of black migrants. In 1930, although only 0.8 percent of America's black population was foreign-born, 6 percent of those listed in the book were immigrants. Over 8 percent of doctors, 4.5 percent of lawyers, more than 14 percent of businessmen, 4.5 percent of clergymen, over 3 percent of professors, and 4 percent of writers/authors had come from the Caribbean.
Among the sons and daughters of this generation of Caribbean migrants is a phalanx of distinguished African Americans: activists and religious leaders Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan; actors Harry Belafonte and Cicely Tyson; General Colin Powell; writers Margaret Walker, Audre Lorde, Michelle Wallace, Paule Marshall, Rosa Guy, and June Jordan; scholar St. Clair Drake; Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and musician Sonny Rollins.
Some islanders relocated in the U.S. mainland, especially after 1917, when Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. The U.S. armed forces recruited nearly 17,000 during World War I, some of whom remained in New York after the war. Many went back to the island during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, thousands of skilled Puerto Rican workers, especially cigar makers, arrived in the United States. Among them were labor leaders Bernardo Vega and Jesús Colón, and anarchist and feminist Luisa Capetillo. Most of the migrants traveled aboard passenger steamboats such as the Marine Tiger, the Borinquen, and the Coamo. Their main destination was New York City, the U.S. port with the best transportation links with San Juan since the nineteenth century. Also, the city offered abundant employment opportunities in its expanding manufacturing and service industries.