A Brief History of Black Immigration to Massachusetts
What is Blackness? Since race is a social construct, we often ask ourselves who falls in these broad categories such as Black. Black people make up a dynamic, diverse, and multi-dimensional group of people with different languages, cultures, and religions. Black immigrants in the United States have had many unique barriers to access in the United States but have fought hard and proud to make a life for their community and family. Roughly 10% of Black Americans are first-generation immigrants and another 10% are the children of immigrants (second generation.)
To this day, there are tens of thousands of Black immigrant families living across Massachusetts, and in and around Sharon, that come from across the African diaspora. Countries of origin include West, East, and South African nations, as well as predominantly Black island nations in the Western Hemisphere, some of whose ancestors were enslaved or some who were free, as well as Indigenous peoples. As colonized nations across the globe fought for and gained independence from European rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, their citizens embraced the freedom to travel and work abroad resulting in a steady pattern of Black migration to the United States.
The history of 20th and 21st-century Black immigration can be traced through the enactment of federal laws shaping immigration to the United States. The confluence of xenophobia, Americanization efforts, and persistent racism during the first two decades of the 20th century led to the passing of several immigration laws that limited non-Northern European migration. In the 1960s, an impending national labor shortage coupled with the influence of the Civil Rights Movement led the U.S. Congress to pass the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, opening immigration opportunities from nations around the globe. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean, Central and South American, and African nations arrived in the U.S. and settled in Massachusetts and across the nation. The Refugee Act of 1980, initially passed to permit Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees entrance to the U.S., allowed persecuted people across the world to seek asylum as well. Waves of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and South Africa settled in the United States as a result. Immigration opportunities that were closed to so many largely because of race or religion were finally opened. The Immigration Act of 1990 included the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which increased access for immigrants from Sudan and Kenya, especially. In the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide, some survivors sought to build new lives in the U.S. as well.
In the first decade of the 21st century, a series of devastating hurricanes and earthquakes led to an influx of Black migrants from Caribbean nations, many of whom settled in U.S. cities and towns. By 2019, there were approximately 200,000 Black immigrants (first generation) living in Massachusetts, hailing from countries across the Black diaspora including Haiti, Cape Verde, Jamaica, Nigeria, Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, and Ethiopia. Each group has brought its own unique and rich cultural heritage to the communities where they now live, including Sharon and its surrounding towns and cities.
Haiti was the first nation to overthrow European slaveholders in the 18th century and fight for independence. The Republic of Haiti was declared in 1804 and it has remained a predominantly Black nation ever since. Between 1915-1934, the U.S. militarily occupied Haiti to secure political and economic control of the nation. Haitian resistance to U.S. forces and economic takeover led to violent suppression and massacres of Haitians. This period of unrest contributed to a small wave of Haitian immigrants seeking refuge in places like the Dominican Republic and Cuba, some of whom eventually made their way to U.S. northern cities like Boston. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, the violently oppressive presidencies of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier led to the first significant wave of Haitian immigration to Massachusetts. The first migrants came from the persecuted intellectual and artistic classes and were primarily French-speaking and Catholic. Continued political instability in the 1980s and 1990s led to increased migration of middle and working-class Creole-speaking Haitians. With devastating hurricanes in 2004 and 2008, and the massive earthquake of January 2010, thousands more Haitians made Massachusetts their home. In 2020, the largest concentrations of Haitians in Greater Boston were found in Boston, Malden, Somerville, and Brockton. We have a rich community of proud Haitians living in Sharon who loves to share their culture with the rest of the Sharon community. Many in the Haitian community in Sharon are leaders and work hard to make Sharon an inclusive Town.
Cabo (Cape) Verdean-Americans
An archipelago of islands off the West African coast, Cabo (Cape) Verde was first inhabited in the 15th century by Portuguese settlers. For the next two centuries, the nation profited off of the Atlantic slave trade that brought ships, money, and enslaved and free Africans to the islands. The population today is a mixture of people of European and West African descent and the most commonly spoken language is Cape Verdean Creole. Cape Verdeans have a long history in Massachusetts dating back to the early 1800s when Cape Verdean men worked on whaling ships out of New Bedford. Cape Verdeans continued to settle in the Commonwealth until 1920 when racist immigration laws were enacted. In 1975, after Cabo (Cape) Verde gained independence from Portugal, waves of Cape Verdeans emigrated around the world, including to Massachusetts. In 2020, approximately 500,000 Cape Verdeans lived in the United States, with around 50,000 residing in small cities of Eastern Massachusetts like Brockton, Taunton, and New Bedford, as well as many surrounding towns such as Sharon and Stoughton. In fact, Brockton is home to the largest Cape Verdean community in the United States, in addition to having a majority of Black residents and being the only New England town where this is the case.
As a colonial port city, Boston was deeply enmeshed in the Atlantic trade of enslaved people, sugar, and rum and therefore had close ties to the Caribbean islands through the 18th and 19th centuries. The first significant influx of Jamaican immigrants to Boston came in the early 20th century as a result of Boston-headquartered United Fruit Company’s (later known as “Chiquita”) direct shipping route from Boston to Kingston and Port Antonio, Jamaica. They first settled in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the South End and Cambridgeport. After 1965, when it became easier to immigrate to the U.S. because of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, further waves of Jamaicans came to the Boston area and initially lived along Blue Hills Avenue in Roxbury. Since then, many Jamaican families have moved out of Boston to smaller towns and cities like Randolph and Sharon.
Black immigration continues to expand in Massachusetts. While the largest percentages of Black immigrants come from Haiti, Cabo (Cape) Verde, and Jamaica, immigrants in the Commonwealth also hail from Nigeria (approx 6,000), Kenya (5,000+), Ghana (5,000+), Trinidad and Tobago (4,000+), Ethiopia (4,000+), Barbados (3,500+), Uganda (3,200+), Somalia (2,700+), and many other nations across the globe. Sharon, known for its diversity and a high percentage of immigrants, has a rich and diverse population of Black immigrants that have settled here to make Sharon home. SREA wants to acknowledge and highlight the beauty of the different cultures and traditions of Black immigrants in Sharon, its neighboring communities, and throughout Massachusetts during Black History Month. We want to emphasize the multifacetedness of Blackness in America, and we hope that folks will dive deeper into this topic.
For further information on this topic, please consider these resources:
Hamilton, T.: Immigration and the Remaking of Black America (2019)
Kendi, I and Blain, K: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 (2019)