A Brief History of West Indian Migration to the United States of America from 1865 to 1965
*A Historical Paper for Social Workers Serving Refugees & Immigrants
by José E. Pérez Carrillo
For even brief visitors to Miami, the imprint of the Caribbean in that city is undeniable.
The rich blend of language, appearance, cuisine, music and driving skills on display in Miami all speak to West Indians that have left their homes to settle permanently here.
The connection to respective cultures of origin are most apparent in relation to how long its adherents have been present in their new homes. Regarding Caribbean migrants, the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened wide the door for what Dr. Walter Pierce calls “chain migration” (Pierce), played a big role in shaping what Miami is now.
But is that it? Were there no people immigrating to the United States from the Antilles before 1965? Of course, it is understood that that is not the case. In fact, the scope of this paper endeavors to begin to search for and discover, uncover and examine, analyze and share the myriad of information about people from the chain of islands in the Caribbean Basin alternately known as the West Indies, the Caribbean, and the Antilles and the stories of their move to the United States of America. More specifically, this paper will “narrow” its search and examination to the years between 1865 (marked by the end of the U.S. Civil War) and 1965.
For the sake of clarity and uniformity, the writer of this paper will define for the reader how he defines “West Indian.” First, just as the name of the region alternates (see above), so, too, does the name for its residents and descendants. For this paper, the writer will refer to these people as “West Indian,” “Caribbean,” and “Antillean,” as well as by whichever island/area of origin. Second, the area to be examined will include all of the islands – big and small – that are found in the Caribbean Sea as well as the Bahamas (which are not actually in the Caribbean Sea) and all of the coastal regions of Central and South America that frame the Caribbean Sea.
Just as the West Indian cultures are diverse, so too are the West Indians that came to the United States as were the historical times and socioeconomic reasons for the departures.
Among the first Caribbean people to come to the United States were Cuban tobacco workers who followed Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish businessman, to Key West in 1869 upon the outbreak of Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain a year earlier (Poyo, p. 206).
Predating the initial Cuban immigrants were Bahamians making the relatively shorter crossing from the Bahamas to Florida. The first Bahamian settlers were white and they typically were engaged in the maritime work of salvaging the remains of a “wrecked ship,” commonly known as “wrecking” (Parks, personal communication, April 2, 2012). In addition to financial motivation for establishing themselves in Florida, Howard Johnson indicates that many whites left the Bahamas for Florida because of resentment and hostility towards growing equality for blacks in the archipelago (Johnson). Florida’s earliest black settlers from the Bahamas began arriving in Key West at around the same time as the Cuban tabaqueros (cigar workers).
Interestingly, the first black captain on the United States’ Pacific coast was from Barbados: Captain William T. Shorey, who served during the final decade and a half of the 19th century (NPS).
As early as 1880, when Mariah Brown was brought to Miami from Key West to work at the Bayview Hotel in what is now Coconut Grove, a Bahamian presence that continues today existed in Dade County (Parks, personal communication, April 2, 2012). In fact, Brown was ahead of her time in another respect: by bringing her daughters and later other relatives to Miami, she created one of the United States’ first Caribbean enclaves: a place called Kebo, which is now the West Grove, a traditional and historical Bahamian epicenter (Parks, personal communication, April 2, 2012; Pérez - article).
Early Bahamian migration to the United States had two basic and overlapping time phases: Key West from the 1870’s to about 1910 and the so-called “Miami Craze” from 1905 until 1924 when U.S. immigration legislation curtailed the immigration of West Indians in particular black Caribbeans to the United States (Johnson).
For Cubans coming to the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the trend essentially followed a basic pattern that saw Cubans with white collar backgrounds going to New York and blue collar workers arriving in either Key West or Tampa (James). Tampa is where Ybor eventually moved his growing tobacco business creating, in the process, a community that still bears his name. The Cuban imprint on Tampa was unmistakable. By 1890, 44% of all people in Tampa were born in Cuba (James). The United States, as a whole, saw a marked increase in the number of foreign-born blacks, from just over 4,000 in 1850 to over 20,000 fifty years later and most were from the Antilles (James).
The turn of the 20th century marked the beginnings of immigration from English-speaking Caribbean islands. The introduction of indentured servants from the Asian subcontinent coincided with the exodus of Jamaican workers to Cuba, the canal zone in Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States (Williams). Though not as large as the number that went to work in places like Cuba, the British West Indians (BWI) that arrived in the United States from 1899 to 1932 totaled approximately 108,000 (AAME) representing 75% of all black migrants to the U.S. during that period (James).
The first groups of Caribbean immigrants to the United States chose the geographically-close state of Florida for their destination (54% versus 17.2% for New York, 15.% for Massachusetts, and 13.3% other states from 1899-1905) but that quickly changed (James). Within a decade, racially oppressive conditions in the U.S. South, better direct shipping options, and active marketing/recruiting in the islands, shifted the numbers of West Indians opting for New York above all other places (AAME).
Arrival in New York meant passage and processing at Ellis Island. Long associated in North American legend and lore as being the disembarkation point for huddled masses of European immigrants, Ellis Island saw approximately 32,000 West Indians enter the United States in the first decades of the 20th century (AAME, Dosik, personal communication, April 9, 2012).
1900 found the beginnings of Puerto Rican migrants working as contract workers in agricultural settings including Hawai’i harvesting pineapples (IPOAA). In spite of the introduction of Puerto Rican workers to the United States, their presence in the continental U.S. was less than 2,000 (Library of Congress). By comparison, in 1900 and 1910, the likelihood that a black Cuban man living in Tampa was a tabaquero was approximately 85% (James). Also, of the 5,000 blacks counted in Miami in 1910, 3,500 were listed as “British subjects” – undoubtedly evidence of a strengthening Bahamian enclave. By 1915, there were also an additional 2,000 Bahamians spread out through various parts of Florida’s Atlantic Coast (Johnson, p. 95). Johnson also reports that Bahamians returning home dressed in nice clothing were embodiments of the promise that awaited others. The effect was powerful as some islands throughout the Bahamas during that period reported having almost no men (Johnson).
By 1914, many of the Caribbean workers that went to the isthmus of Panama to seek their fortunes opted to move to the United States instead of going home (AAME). During this period, the United States occupied the Republic of Haiti. The almost 20 year-long occupation of Haiti created the first real migration of Haitians from their home but most went to either Cuba or the Dominican Republic to work the cane fields. For example, about 300,000 went to Cuba alone between 1915 and 1929 (Boswell).
With the outbreak of World War I and subsequent U.S. involvement, upwards of 100,000 laborers from the Caribbean headed north to fill work needs brought on by industrial and personnel mobilization (IPOAA). The demand for additional manpower in both the factories and the farms even delayed the passing of immigration measures that eventually kept many West Indians, including some Bahamians, from returning to the U.S. legally when the suspension of the barrier was finally lifted in 1920 (Johnson). The 1920’s saw the enactment of immigration legislation that curtailed West Indian resettlement in the United States significantly – but not totally.
Overall, the period between both world wars saw a decline in Caribbean immigration to the United States because of labor restrictions and, eventually, the Great Depression (IPOAA). Nonetheless, 12,250 black immigrants entered the United States in 1924 in spite of very restrictive legislation (AAME).
One Caribbean immigrant group, however, was able to exploit a loophole in the immigration laws that were hostile to West Indians: Puerto Ricans. *Though legally considered internal migrants, in terms of culture, custom, tradition, geography, et cetera, Puerto Ricans are included in this study because they, too, are Caribbean and – with few exceptions – have immigrant experiences similar if not identical to their peers from other parts of the Antilles (Library of Congress). Because Puerto Rico was incorporated into the American empire in 1898 and, by an act of Congress in 1917, Puerto Ricans were also U.S. citizens which meant that immigration laws did not apply to them (Pérez - blog). Thus, with no legal barriers in the United States, the Puerto Rican population in the continental United States grew to 30,000 (IPOAA) and, by 1930, there were approximately 40,000 (Library of Congress) with most in New York City (AAME).
Another interesting aspect of this period of history is that 2 out of every 5 Caribbean immigrants to the United States from 1927 to 1931 were listed as “professional and skilled workers” (James, p. 81). This was not a new phenomenon. A study from 1906 revealed that 3 out of every 5 black men who possessed a vocational skill self-identified as West Indian (James). A cursory look at sex demographics offers a hint about migration trends and enclave/community-building. According to Winston James, almost 60% of black immigrant residents of New York City were male yet the ratios even out by 1930 and 1940 (p. 90). Just as was the case with the first world war, the United States’ manpower needs in World War II made Caribbean migration an attractive necessity with about 50,000 West Indians going to the U.S. between 1941 and 1950 (AAME). Agriculturally, specific plans were created in 1943 for the migration of workers from the BWI (Griffith). By the end of the war, there were over 40,000 BWI in over one thousand communities scattered throughout 36 states (AAME).
Also with the end of World War II came the beginnings of the “Great Migration” of Puerto Ricans to the United States (AAME). When the war ended in 1945, there were 13,000 Puerto Ricans in New York alone (Library of Congress). With staggering unemployment and workers displaced as part of an industrialization initiative on the island and increasing professional opportunities in the U.S. (Williams, AAME), Puerto Ricans came to the mainland in large numbers: an average of 21,000 for just migrant farm laborers from Puerto Rico between 1945 and 1964 (AAME). The highest figures are for 1953 when almost 70,000 Puerto Ricans moved (Library of Congress).
With the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, opportunities for agricultural work for West Indians were reduced and effectively cut access for every other black immigrant (AAME). If the intention of McCarran-Walter was to – as its precedents in the early 1920s – keep the United States as white as possible, then the results indicate success: the 1960 U.S. Census reports almost ten million foreign-born residents of the United States but only 1 out of every 50 were born in the Antilles (U.S. Census).
In the late 1950’s, the first significant wave of Haitian migrants to the United States began its journey as it fled the despotic machinations of Francois Duvalier who rose to power in 1957 (AAME, Sutton). A little bit more than a year later, the equally tyrannical regime of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in Cuba. The shift ideologically and socially with the new government in Havana prompted another wave of Cuban migration (IPOAA).
Both of these immigrant groups were comprised mostly of people from higher socioeconomic strata (AAME, IPOAA).
Another curious dynamic of the Cuban immigration of the early 1960’s was the federal government’s direct involvement – in particular within the executive branch (Torres). In an effort to discredit a populist government in one of its satellites, the United States used the practice of visa waivers to effectively induce what it hoped would be a mass migration from Cuba (Torres). The U.S. government also resorted to using the Central Intelligence Agency and the Catholic Church to undermine the new government in Havana by targeting Cuban children and their families (Landau). Dubbed Operation Pedro Pan and led publicly by Monsignor Bryan Walsh, who would later serve as a professor in the School of Social Work at Barry University, Pedro Pan spirited approximately 14,000 children from their homes (Valdivia). The plan was to spread a false rumor that the Cuban government had passed a law that effectively made the state the parents of all children. The entire thing was a hoax put together by the Catholic Church, reactionary elements in Cuba, and the CIA (Landau).
Nelson Valdes is a retired professor at the University of New Mexico and a former Pedro Pan. He states that the players involved in the deception played out as follows: an Irish priest who had been involved with a similar mission involving Hungarians in the late 1950’s, the Cuban Catholic church which was controlled at the time by right-wing Spanish priests who fled the Spanish Civil War only twenty years earlier, a politically unsophisticated Cuban upper class, the CIA, and a great deal of emotion and propaganda and a lack of understanding (Valdes, personal communication, February 1, 2012).
At the same time, the U.S. government rejected Haitian immigrants during that time period largely because of a reluctance to alienate Duvalier who publicly proclaimed his allegiance to Washington in its war against communism (IPOAA, von Tunzelmann).
The facts and figures listed above only tell part of the story of West Indian migration to the United States in the century sandwiched in between Reconstruction and the height of the American Civil Rights movement. Those men, women, and children often faced hostility and racism. The depth of the bigotry is eclipsed only by the resilience of the responses.
Of all of the differences between one West Indian immigrant experience another, there is one commonality that transcends country of origin, professional background / education, gender, religion, skin color, period of history, and area of resettlement in the United States: racism. Whether it was overtly institutionalized as with Jim Crow realities in the South or it was thinly veiled yet equally virulent bigotry in the North and Midwest, North American customs surrounding race and relations, prejudice and privilege came into conflict with and was often times challenged by West Indian immigrants. For example, whites in a Miami neighborhood that was called then Lemon City (modern Little Haiti) drove Bahamians out of the area with such ferocity that it was not until approximately a century later that any evidence of their existence became known when a long-forgotten cemetery was discovered during construction for a new building in the area (Paravisni).
At about the same time, Antonio Vega, a white Puerto Rican living in New York, was introduced to the unforgiving nature of Yanqui racism when white neighbors threatened and terrorized the Vega family simply for insisting on having black compatriots visit them at their apartment (James).
Attempts by black and white Cubans in Tampa to insulate themselves from Jim Crow worked for a short while before the combination of social pressure, stricter laws, and white privilege eventually undid the social structures built by a community that had been heretofore united in patriotism and exile (James). To illustrate how segregation seeped into the Cuban community of Tampa, one need only look at how interracial marriages were viewed and vilified. White Cuban men could have black Cuban wives (although most were married in Cuba) but white women were strictly forbidden to black and Chinese Cuban men (James). Winston James shares the story of how a Chinese Cuban man was dragged out of his bed at night during a raid on his house that resulted in him being jailed but not before suffering a beating from a mob because his wife was white (p. 240).
Blacks from Key West in Tampa also felt the sting of racism in houses of worship. Whites prohibited black Episcopalians from attending service inside of the only such church in the city and allowed use of it during “special ceremonies” such as baptisms (Tubbs).
Another example - and perhaps the most telling – of how the institutions of racism and segregation in Florida overwhelmed Cuban attempts to avoid it concern the Cuban social clubs of the era. In 1899, Cubans in Tampa formed El Club Nacional Cubano, an integrated mutual aid and social connection body. Just three years later, however, the club was renamed El Circulo Cubano which may have been appropriate as blacks that had been founding members of El Club Nacional were now left on the outside of the new “circle” (James).
This occurred at a time when lawmakers in Florida were busy formalizing many racist customs (legalized scholastic segregation, criminalization of inter-marriages, separate seating areas for public transportation, the prohibition of cuffing black and white prisoners together, etc). The atmosphere had grown so thick with bigotry that then governor Napoleon B. Broward publicly advocated for the ousting of blacks from the U.S. (James).
American racism revealed itself to West Indians even before they set foot on U.S. soil. In an effort to distinguish white West Indians from black West Indians, it was not uncommon for immigration officials to list the latter group as “African” (AAME).
Racism was present in the wage disparities between West Indians (and other Americans of color) and whites, regardless of the culture of origin. In the garment business, “Puerto Ricans and African Americans earned from $8 to $13 per week while Jewish and Italian workers earned from $26 to $44 per week” (IPOAA). Because of their rich collective heritage, Puerto Ricans were often treated in much the same way as African Americans and, as such, suffered discrimination with schools, housing, as well as jobs and wages (AAME). The racism was so bad in New York that more than a few West Indians were compelled to return home. Most, however, did stay and the motivation was often simply the fear of being ridiculed for coming back home with their tails tucked between their legs (Holder).
A unique yet integral part of the West Indian experience in the United States in the period of time between 1865 and 1965 is the practice of challenging the aforementioned racist injustices (AAME, James). Some instances were subtle, such as the episode in 1931 when a group of immigrants from Trinidad were confronted by bigots at a gas station in Texas only to receive a warm reception when the Trinidadians convinced the Texans that they were from Ethiopia (AAME). Even a young Sidney Poitier challenged the prevailing attitudes of whites when, as a fifteen year old, he defiantly (and rather humorously in hindsight) castigated a desk sergeant at the Miami Police Department for calling him “boy” (James, pp. 85-86, AAME).
Those, however, were exceptions (a young and already commissioned Colin Powell was turned away at a restaurant in western Georgia when he said that he was not Puerto Rican nor was a foreign student but was, instead, African American and an officer in the Army [AAME]) and most challenges to American racism were more direct and pronounced.
It has been put forth that this Yanqui bigotry pushed West Indians towards more radical political and social ideologies (AAME, James). In turn, it is also argued that the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 was enacted as a response to Caribbean agitation (AAME).
In addition to racism, West Indian immigrants to the United States also had to contend with other problems that spanned the spectrum of the social, health, and economic. In spite of the relatively high number of white collar Caribbean immigrants to the United States, poverty was a concern for many West Indians. Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte lived in an apartment in Harlem shared by multiple families (Belafonte). In addition to lower wages, labor contracts for West Indians often included a clause in its provisions that prohibited going on strike (AAME). Caribbean immigrants also had to deal with negative perceptions that varied from labels that identified them as trouble-makers, thieves, liars, and slothes (AAME).
In response to the difficulties of adjustment and resettlement, Caribbean emigres enjoyed resources that were often organic and outside of the realm of any state or private entity’s doing. In the early days of Cuban and Bahamian migration to Key West, tabaqueros organized powerful unions and this model surfaced in Tampa and New York (James). In fact, West Indians were at the vanguard of organized labor in New York in the 1930’s (James).
In addition to professional and vocational support structures, Caribbeans coming to the U.S. formed a wide array of socioeconomic support entities (AAME). In 1890, Rafael Serra founded La Liga de Instrucion in New York for the purpose of teaching black Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants, most of whom were tobacco workers (James). Two years later, Arturo Schomburg helped found Las Dos Antillas which was an organization that committed itself towards the joint causes of Cuban and Puerto independence (AfricaWithin). Shortly after the dissolution of El Club Nacional Cubano by white Cubans discovering the privilege of their color in turn of the century Florida, black Cubans in Tampa created La Union Marti Maceo, a social support organization (AfroCubaWeb). As a whole, these “organizations [were] unifying forces in an otherwise segregated society” (Thomas, p. 45).
In addition to mutual aid societies, support systems for West Indians in the U.S. were often found in religious settings. Reid writes that churches helped “to keep alive homeland values” even beyond the traditional scope of a church (p. 124). Additionally, occasions like wakes – as a social outlet and unifying event – and weddings – if for no other reason than a needed economic boost to local small businesses within a given immigrant community – all played an important role in ensuring the protection of an otherwise vulnerable community (Reid).
It must also be added that an important part of Caribbean community resilience in the United States are informal, natural support systems. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, New York Puerto Ricans could and often did count on the powerful advocacy of Carlos Tapia to defend their rights (James). In Harlem, Caribbean families and neighbors shared meals and “shared vulnerabilities” (Belafonte).
The importance of such bodies of collective care in understanding the difficulties of immigration and resettlement and developing practice models to help new generations of new Americans adjust successfully becomes more significant when one contrasts the above with the experience of the Peter Pan children. Government indifference to social development that leaves open spaces for organic mutual aid and social support systems is one thing; an intentional and systematic program to separate families and use them as pawns as part of a larger geopolitical struggle is quite another. After securing possession of the Cuban children under false pretenses and promises, the United States did not establish contact between families separated under the auspices of the Peter Pan program nor was there good faith efforts to actively facilitate reunification in spite of pressure from the United Nations (Landau).
The writer of this paper has long believed that a threat to a person’s identity is a threat to that person’s well-being. That said, he is obligated to share an anecdotal account of a 15 year old boy who arrived in the United States a little over a week before the outbreak of the Cuban missile crisis. He was sent to Chicago to live with a nice Catholic family and to live the idyllic life of a Midwestern youth. Although his time in Illinois was brief and he was in Miami to join his mother and brothers three years later, he remembered with fondness his teenage years in Chicago, reminiscing fondly of playing football and rock ‘n roll music and camping in Wisconsin. In spite of growing in Cuba, he acclimatized himself quite well to the cold to the point where Miami’s relatively mild winters never bothered him. While he spoke often and warmly about Chicago, he never – until his dying day - mentioned nor hinted at any of the details of his departure from Cuba and he never, ever mentioned the words “Peter Pan.”
That boy grew up to play some professional baseball, be drafted by the U.S. Army during the height of the Vietnam War, be an accomplished police officer and detective for the City of Miami, and start a family. He was very proud of his humble origins and he wore his guayaberas religiously (at a time when detectives were required to wear coat and tie) but the particular circumstance that brought him to this country remained a mystery until over a decade and a half after his death. One will never know the exact reason why that boy - who grew up to be my father - never mentioned Peter Pan but in light of the aforementioned, some guesses make more sense than others.
As Miami and the rest of the United States moves forward towards an increasingly pluralistic society, it is important to reflect back upon the millions of Caribbean people who bravely ventured forth to the U.S. and created something lasting if not always remembered. Three years ago, Enid Pinkney remarked on the occasion of the “discovery” of that long-forgotten Bahamian cemetery in Little Haiti, “Even though the people are dead, they are speaking to us…their spirits are saying, ‘we were here.’” (Paravisini). It is the humble hope of this writer that this brief paper will be reminder that they were here and, through their descendants, they are still here.
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