African Americans and immigrants

Significance: The unique circumstances arising from the manner in which the vast majority of African Americans came to the Western Hemisphere and the question of whether African Americans should be considered an immigrant group in the strict sense of the term have contributed substantially to the overarching debate over the role of race in American society. Adding to whatever racial tensions might have arisen among African Americans and certain immigrant groups, resentment has been manifested in some quarters over perceived preferment of newcomers over the long-established African American population.

African Americans and immigrants

Harper’s Weekly illustration of the burning of New York City’s African American orphan asylum during the 1863 draft riots.

Over the general, long-term perspective on history, the relationship between African Americans and other immigrant groups to the United States has revolved around mutual suspicion and competition. This aura of suspicion and competition has been heavily overlain and exacerbated by the racial issues that had already been set in place during the early colonial era. During the early seventeenth century, the few Africans who were transported to colonial Virginia, Maryland, and New England colonies held the status of indentured servants. Chattel slavery similar to that already in place in Spanish and Portuguese America had yet to secure legal status in the North American colonies. However, events moved rapidly. Spurred by concerns about the long-term stability of the system of indentured servitude and questions of interracial marriage and sexual unions, the various English colonial governments put into place legalized systems of permanent, racially based chattel slavery.

Massachusetts was the first North American colony to institute slavery on the Latin American model. However, it was in Virginia in 1661 that the southern slavery model, which would persist to 1865, was set in place. By the end of the seventeenth century a legal and social code of separating the "black” and "white” races was firmly fixed. This system of racial separation endured, in its various permutations, into the late 1960’s. As it would prove, this was to be the general rule whether or not these "whites” were long-established, and mainly of English stock; or part of subsequent waves of immigration from Ireland, Scandinavia, or central, southern, or eastern Europe. When society was defined in racial terms, all white persons, regardless of their condition in society, could look upon themselves as "preferred” over all African Americans.

Great Draft Riot of 1863

Communities of free African Americans existed from early colonial times. However, because of the growing incompatibility of the chattel slavery system outside the South, they flourished to a far greater degree in the northern colonies and states, particularly in the more vibrant economic climate of northern urban centers. As a distinctly identifiable and socially denigrated minority, African Americans invariably competed with newly arrived white immigrants for the lowest-paying jobs. With substantial white immigrant communities in nearly every major center by the 1860’s and increasing numbers of African American slaves escaping into the North on the Underground Railroad, relations between black and white communities grew more tense.

The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) was resented by many white northerners as being waged to eliminate slavery. These people feared the prospect of a tidal wave of freed black slaves coming north from southern plantations to threaten the livelihood of poor whites. In 1863. the first military conscription in the United States brought this resentment to fever pitch, as lower-class whiles saw themselves as being compelled to participate in a struggle to free black slaves that would work against their own interests.

In New York City, this resentment sparked a series of events that culminated in a bloody draft riot. In July. 1863, a motley group white of protesters, among whom German and Irish immigrant laborers were prominent, rapidly degenerated into a mob and began a rampage of vandalism, arson, assault, and murder. Over a four-day period, they burned down an orphanage for black children and relentlessly brutalized African Americans, as many as two thousand of whom may have lied the city seeking safely.

Twentieth century developments

The great New York City draft riot, notorious and horrific in its scope as it was. set the tune for subsequent northern and midwestern riots against African Americans. This ongoing violence was partially fueled by the anxieties and feelings of insecurity on the part of white immigrant groups. Anti-African American sentiment among while immigrants grew after the Civil War and during the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, during the first three decades of the new century, a movement that became known as the Great Migration saw the movement of many thousands of African Americans from the South to the North, where the) sought employment in urban centers. The same years also saw a massive influx of European immigrants into the United States.

As Jim Crow segregation systems became more rigid throughout the South and economic conditions there generally worsened, African Americans sought comparative freedom and better employment opportunities in northern cities, in which they formed ethnic enclaves. New York City\'s Harlem and Boston\'s Roxbury became two of the largest and best known of such communities. As black southerners were moving north, large numbers of eastern and southern Europeans were entering the United States, enlarging or creating their own ethnic enclaves. They were also coming into competition—at times violently—with African Americans for jobs. Interactions between Jews and African Americans were more ambiguous because of the existence of small but vocal groups within both communities harboring attitudes of racial exclusivity and religious anti-Semitism.

The decade of the 1960’s witnessed both the ebbing of the old immigration patterns and the crest of the Civil Rights movement. Although African Americans made major political and economic strides as a result of the successes of the Civil Rights movement, their very success engendered a new consciousness among members of other minority groups, particularly Asian Americans. Through the ensuing decades, the numbers of Asian Americans were considerably augmented by refugees from military conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. However, the great rise in Latin American immigration would prove to have the greatest impact on African Americans.

"New Immigration” and African Americans

By the last decades of the twentieth century, American Latinos and Latin American immigrants—who are often collectively known as Hispanics—combined to overtake African Americans as the largest ethnic minority category in the United States. However, Latinos comprise people from many highly disparate nationalities, including Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans, and other groups with roots in Central America, South American, and the Caribbean. To complicate their relationship with African Americans even further, many Latin groups contain strong black elements. Consequently, there has been measurable outreach between African Americans and Latinos. Some African American community and legislative leaders have joined with Hispanic leaders to support liberalized immigration policies. Many educational institutions, especially historically black colleges, have actively recruited students from Hispanic communities.

Despite increasing African American cooperation with Hispanics, the major American political parties have tended to treat Hispanics and African Americans as separate and distinct voting blocs. For example, the Republican Party heavily courted Hispanic voters during the 2000 and 2004 national elections, and a modest outreach initiative by the George W. Bush administration to enlist greater African American support was stymied by the handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. What was perceived as a belated and inadequate response by the Bush administration was roundly criticized.

A question generating great differences of opinion has been what the impact of increasing Hispanic immigration—both legal and illegal—might have on already high unemployment rates within the African American community. Moreover, as African Americans have seen many Hispanics reach higher levels than most African Americans, black resentment has grown over the possibility that favoritism has been shown to the newer arrivals. However, there is no evidence that disparities between black and Hispanic incomes are any more than a perception. 

Raymond Pierre Hylton

Further Reading

Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking Penguin, 2003. Though this book is mainly about Chinese Americans, it often offers comments on African Americans that present interesting juxtapositions of the historical interplay of African Americans with a large nonwhite immigrant group.

Katz, Loren William, ed. Anti-Negro Riots in the North, 1863. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Compilation of historical documents that illuminate the reasons why immigrants rioted.

Learner, Michael, and Cornel West. Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Two intellectuals, one Jewish, the other African American, discuss the long and paradoxical interplay between their marginalized communities.

Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. Useful for providing background information for and chronicling the advent of slavery and racism into the American social and legal fabric.

Morrison, Toni. What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction. Edited by Carolyn C. Denard. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. Contains the Nobel Prize-winning author’s 1993 essay "On the Backs of Blacks,” which presents a stark analysis of the dilemma of race as relating to nonblack immigrants and their attitudes toward and interactions with African Americans.

Swain, Carol Miller, ed. Debating Immigration. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Collection of essays on immigration, the most significant of which concerning racial issues are those by Swain and Jonathan Tilove.

See also: Abolitionist movement; Affirmative action; African immigrants; American Colonization Society; Civil Rights movement; Ethiopian immigrants; Garvey, Marcus; Liberia; Slave trade; Stereotyping; Universal Negro Improvement Association; West Indian immigrants.

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California gold rush

The California gold rush was a defining moment in the history of westward migration in the United States. It was also an important period in U.S. immigration history.

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Canada vs. United States as immigrant destinations

The United States and Canada are the two main immigrant destinations in North America.

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Chain migration

As a result of family members or neighbors contacting others from their home countries for purposes of inspiring them to become their new neighbors in America, chain migration has had a significant impact on the history and growth of immigration to the United States.

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Chinese boycott of 1905

The boycott signified the emergence of modern Chinese nationalism and the importance of immigration in Sino-American relations.

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Credit-ticket system

During the mid- to late nineteenth century, the fares Chinese immigrants crossing the Pacific Ocean to the United States paid ranged from fifteen to forty-five dollars—amounts that few Chinese workers could afford.

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Disaster recovery work

Disaster recovery work in the United States has become an occupation heavily populated with both documented and undocumented immigrant laborers, the latter of whom are usually paid significantly less than documented workers.

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Economic consequences of immigration

Any understanding of the factors encouraging immigration to the United States must rest on an understanding of the economic conditions motivating immigrants, as well as the effects of their presence in the United States.

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Economic opportunities

Throughout the history of the United States, quests for economic betterment have been a driving force behind the decisions of immigrants to come to the United States.

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The fact that large numbers of Americans have emigrated to other countries is not often openly acknowledged because immigration of foreigners to the United States has always received more media attention.

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Often called a nation of immigrants, the United States has borne witness, from the time of its earliest European settlements to the twenty-first century, that immigrant groups have significantly contributed to its survival, development, and prosperity.

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Great Depression

Great DepressionImmigration was a thorny issue during the Depression. Legislation was already in place barring certain ethnic groups from entering the United States, and immigration remained restricted during the era owing to economic factors.

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Guest-worker programs

Guest-worker programs in the United States, such as the mid-century bracero program, have often met with controversy due to variable labor conditions and their perceived effect on American wages and job availability.

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Immigrant aid organizations

Immigrant aid organizationsImmigrant aid organizations played an important role in helping immigrants to establish themselves in the United States.

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Indentured servitude

During the colonial period of British North America, a high proportion of British working-class immigrants to the American colonies came as indentured servants.

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Iron and steel industry

Immigrants to the United States were in many ways responsible for the rise and success of the nation’s large iron and steel industry.

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Iron and steel industry: Late Nineteenth Century Immigrants

Iron and steel industry: Late Nineteenth Century Immigrants The iron and steel industry continued to progress after the U.S. Civil War, and an increasing need for labor corresponded to this growth.

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Iron and steel industry: Struggle to Unionize

Many native-born American workers believed that immigrants and their families would not fight against workplace and community injustice on their own accord. . .

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Iron and steel industry: Life in the Steel Communities

Second- and third-generation immigrants and their families built more comfortable lives in steel communities such as Johnstown and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Youngstown, Ohio, from the 1940’s through the 1960’s.

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Land laws

Definition: Federal legislation pertaining to the transfer of public lands to private ownership

Significance: From the time that the United States was established as an independent nation in 1783, the U.S. Congress has passed land laws defining the procedures by which new territory can pass from public ownership to individual ownership. While agriculture was a major source of employment during the nineteenth century, the acquisition of land became a fundamental inducement to immigrants to come to the United States. Many were pushed off their lands in Europe as population rose dramatically during the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century. Owning land individually became in the eyes of many immigrants the pathway to a secure future.

 Homesteaders crossing the Plains during the 1880’s, looking for land in the West

Homesteaders crossing the Plains during the 1880’s, looking for land in the West. (Getty Images)

When European immigrants first came to what became the United States, they brought with them a concept of land ownership fundamentally different from that held by the aboriginal Native American inhabitants. The concept of individual ownership, in Europe restricted by the surviving elements of feudal society, stood in sharp contrast to the concepts prevailing among the Indian tribes, which favored communal ownership with individual rights to use land temporarily. However, striving for land over which they had full control had propelled the first European discoveries in America. Although titles to New World lands were first vested in the monarchs whose subjects "discovered” them, as governments developed into their more modern forms, they found themselves constrained by shortages of funds during an era when possession, or control, of land was considered the primary measure of wealth. As governments sought to expand their territories, they began to use the granting of ownership to pieces of land as a means to collect revenue.


Some of the major grievances that eighteenth century North American colonists had about British rule concerned government restrictions on their freedom to settle and farm lands in the vast open spaces between the Atlantic seaboard colonies and the Mississippi River to the west. Great Britain, which had acquired control over those western lands when it defeated France in the French and Indian War (1756-1763), had tried to block settlement by individuals migrating from the colonies along the Atlantic Coast. In its Proclamation of 1763, the British government forbade new settlements in lands west of the Alleghenies that were reserved for use of Native Americans. Attempts by settlers from the coastal colonies to move into that western area became one of the bones of contention in the American Revolution (1775-1783). After the war, the United States gained title to the area in the 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain. Settling in the region then became a priority for the new nation.

Within the British North American colonies, which had ben populated overwhelmingly by immigrants from Great Britain, laws pertaining to land ownership were determined largely by the individual colonial governments. Although it was technically vested in the British monarch, land ownership was quickly devolved to those who managed the colony in America—either as a company such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, or as individuals, who through wealth or connections, secured from the British monarchs grants of land in North America. These agents in turn passed over control either to large landowners or to new communities, as was the case in Massachusetts. The latter tended to pass subordinate control to new settlements with provisions for dividing the allotted lands to early settlers.

U.S. Lands Settled by 1890

U.S. Lands Settled by 1890

Land Laws of the United States

One of the earliest problems faced by the new Congress of the United States was how to organize the distribution of land west of the Alleghenies. In 1784, Congress appointed a committee, of which Thomas Jefferson was the leading member, to draw up a plan. The proposal the committee produced set forth the outlines of the plan that followed in the Land Ordinance of 1785. The plan required several things:

• resolution of Indian claims to the land through treaties with local tribes

• surveying of the land into rectangular townships six miles on a side, each township to be then subdivided into 36 sections, one mile square and comprising 640 acres

• reservation of some of the land for military bounties granted during the Revolution

• subsequent sale of the land to private individuals

This subdivision of the United States into units of thirty-six square miles was followed throughout the settlement of the west. When Congress was passing the Land Ordinance of 1785, it added some new wrinkles. It reserved one section of each township to be offered for sale for the schools of the future community; it ruled that the secretary of war could claim some of the sections for payment to veterans of the Revolutionary War; it provided that the townships would be distributed to the various states on whom would fall responsibility for selling the land by sections or as whole townships; and it required that sales should be conducted through public auctions after at least seven (later reduced to four) of the survey (range) lines had been run. By 1787, relatively few sales had actually occurred, so Congress then authorized the sale of large aggregates to wealthy individuals who were prepared to take on the task of finding settlers to work the lands.

Peopling of the West

Although settlers from the seaboard colonies poured into the new Ohio Territory, formal settlement was held up by the slow progress of the survey lines and by the need to secure treaties fromthe Indians then resident in Ohio. Several unsuccessful clashes with tribes that resisted the flood of settlers led, finally, to the conclusive victory of an American force at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. In the ensuing Treaty of Greenville, the Indian tribes then resident in northwest Ohio ceded all their Ohio lands to the United States. The conditions of the Land Ordinance continued to be fulfilled in future years as more victories over the Indian tribes and cession of their rights by treaty were met.

It is not known how many immigrants were attracted to the United States by the availability of public land because U.S. immigration records were not kept until 1821. However, there is little doubt that the prospect of securing large plots of land at minimal costs drew many immigrants from Europe. Initially most came from the British Isles, including Ireland, but as the nineteenth century wore on, many more came from continental Europe. Early sales of public lands were intended for citizens of the United States, but over the course of the nineteenth century sales were opened to immigrants who began the naturalization process, thereby affirming their intention to become American citizens. Although U.S. debts from the Revolution and theWar of 1812 had been paid off with the proceeds from land sales by the 1830’s, Congress continued to seek revenue from further sales.

The large number of land laws passed by Congress indicates that the federal government continued to view selling public lands as a major source of revenue. One obstacle to sales was quickly changed: the need to bid at a single, central auction place. As early as the year 1800, Congress designated several on-the-ground sites for land auctions in Ohio— Cincinnati, Chilicothe, Marietta, and Steubenville. Afterward, auctions were held near the sites of the land being sold. Special officials were appointed to handle the sales, and rules spelled out how payments were to be made to the U.S. Treasury. Initially, land was sold for one to two dollars per acre under four-year payment plans. In later years, the prices and payment systems were regularly changed. In 1820, Congress acknowledged that a great deal of land had been occupied by "squatters” and allowed them to "preempt” title to the lands they occupied by paying part of their costs in advance of the auctions.

Meanwhile, Congress often tied land grants to other government programs. For example, by the mid-nineteenth century, its policy of awarding lavish land grants to railroads was becoming notorious. Congress granted large tracts of land to the railroads in the hope that the railroads would pass the land along to settlers. In the 1862 Homestead Act, Congress gave both citizens and prospective citizens a "preemption” right, enabling them to settle on public lands and secure title to those lands after five years for payments of two dollars per acre. TheTimber Act of 1873 gave settlers up to ten years to claim title to the land they occupied if they planted substantial numbers of trees on the land. Homesteaders willing to develop desert lands in theWest that were unsuitable for agriculture could buy title to their lands for only twenty-five cents per acre.

By the 1890’s, Congress was beginning to recognize that public lands suitable for homesteading were becoming scarce, restricting purchasers to those who had not previously claimed land under the Pre-emption or Homestead Acts. It was still unclear to what extent the availability of public land was drawing foreign immigrants. During the early nineteenth century, the attraction of land was no doubt great, and immigration from Germany and Scandinavia undoubtedly was encouraged by the availability of cheap land.

Much of the public land was actually taken up by speculators who had no intention of settling it themselves; they planned to sell it to latecomers. News also got out that the costs of turning public land into useful farms could be high, which meant that immigrants with limited capital would have difficulty developing any land they could afford to purchase. Most immigrants who came to the United States to farm probably arrived during the first half of the nineteenth century; however, major settlement ofWisconsin and Minnesota did not begin until after the U.S. Civil War. Many Europeans who immigrated during the 1850’s and 1860’s settled in the Upper Midwest.

The goal that propelled many immigrants to come to the United States was the prospect of acquiring land for themselves. The federal land acts strengthened that resolve, by making vast tracts of land available at low cost to those prepared to settle and take up farming. Creating farms out of wild lands, however, was not an easy task, and many immigrants who tried failed. Consequently, many immigrants who left farms in Europe to farm in the United States wound up as industrial workers in cities.

Nancy M. Gordon

Further Reading

Dunham, Harold J. "Some Crucial Years of the Land Office, 1875-1890.” In The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain, edited by Vernon Carstensen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. Long the primary source of material on the public lands, the many useful articles remain relevant.

Freund, Rudolf. "Military Bounty Lands and the Origins of the Public Domain.” In The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain, edited by Vernon Carstensen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. Close study of the vexing problem that Congress faced in dealing with military bounty lands.

Rasmussen, R. Kent, ed. Agriculture in History. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2010. Collection of essays on specific historical events, including many relevant to U.S. land issues.

Rasmussen, Wayne D., ed. Agriculture in the United States: A Documentary History. 4 vols. New York: Random House, 1975. Reprints the land laws of the United States, mostly contained in volume 1.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Exhaustive account of how American public lands were sold to settlers.

See also: Alien land laws; Economic opportunities; Empresario land grants in Texas; European immigrants; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Homestead Act of 1862; National Road; Railroads; Settlement patterns; Westward expansion.

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