Has America historically shut its doors to African immigrants?

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Immigration is largely deemed a Latino issue but it affects black immigrants as well. While their numbers are relatively low, their history in this country is layered. Of course, the largest migration of people of African descent into this country was far from voluntary.

In the 19th century, many free African-Americans tried to flee the United States and this resulted in some surprising alliances.

The American Colonization Society, whose membership included slaveholders, for example, was created to transport free African-Americans “back to Africa,” specifically to modern-day Liberia. President Lincoln even considered emigrating former slaves back to their homeland.

But prior to the ACS’s formation in 1816, Paul Cuffee, a black man, began exploring transporting African-Americans to Sierra Leone, which Great Britain had selected in the 1780s for relocating black British settlers, many who were former U.S. slaves who had sided with the British during the American Revolution. Just before the Civil War, African-Americans like prominent businessman James Forten even championed settlement in Haiti, plus runaway slaves had long favored Canada.

Only ‘free white persons’ need apply

Congress made its preference for white immigrants clear with the passage of the Naturalization Act of 1790, offering citizenship to all “free white persons” after two years of residency. But black immigrants, especially from Saint-Domingue or modern-day Haiti, found their way to the United States during the late 1790s and early 1800s when that country was in the throes of revolutionary action. Most ended up in Louisiana prior to it becoming a part of the U.S. in 1803.

Pushback by individual states restricting persons from Saint Domingue, even those who were enslaved, from entering the U.S. occurred before then, however. Fearing slave insurrections inspired by the revolutionary activity in present-day Haiti, South Carolina began passing laws in 1791 restricting the importation of slaves from Saint Domingue.

Only two slaves per owner from Saint Domingue were permitted into the state. Other Southern states followed their lead, expanding the pool.

The city of Baltimore passed an ordinance in 1797 requiring slave owners to remove slaves imported from the West Indies between 1792 and 1797 from the city.

Shutting the door to Africans

After the Civil War, black immigration picked up significantly. An estimated 108,000 Caribbean immigrants, many literate and highly skilled, came to the United States between 1899 and 1932 and their presence didn’t go undisturbed.

In the 1920s, Congressman Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina was among those who debated whether the U.S. should “shut the door” to the “denizens of Africa.”

The Quota Act of 1921, limiting foreign-born immigrants to three percent of their population already in the U.S. as counted in the 1910 Census, also impacted Caribbean immigration along with the Immigration Act of 1924, which went even further by lowering that number to two percent.

An amendment proposed by Senator James Reed of Missouri aimed to outright ban black immigration period, but Booker T. Washington and many others worked to defeat it.

Still the Immigration Act of 1924 had devastating effects, as Caribbean immigration numbers plummeted from 10,630 in 1924 to just 321 in 1925.