Black West Indians in the United States

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Black West Indians in the United States

ETHNONYMS: Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Bahamians, Guyanese, West Indians


Identification. Blacks in the United States of West Indian ancestry come mainly either from the British West Indies (Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Windward Islands) or from Haiti, in the French West Indies. Blacks from Guyana, on the northeast coast of South America, are also classified as British West Indians. The majority of those from the British West Indies are from Jamaica. The History of Black West Indians and Haitians and their Experiences in the United States differ from each other and also from that of African-Americans descended from slaves brought directly to North America from Africa. Blacks in the West Indies are descendants of African slaves brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Blacks make up 80 percent of the population of the British West Indies and 90 percent of the population of Haiti. Other major ethnic groups on the British islands are the English, Chinese, Asian Indians, and Syrians. Contact between the Black slaves and English rulers has produced unique cultural and linguistic forms in the Black Caribbean cultures as well as people of mixed White and Black ancestry, leading to the use of the term mulatto to identity segments of the population.

Location. British West Indian Blacks in the United States live primarily in cities on the east coast, from New York south to the southern Florida coast, with concentrations in New York City, southeastern Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. There is also a growing Jamaican community in Los Angeles. About 50 percent of Jamaicans live in New York City.

Demography. According to the 1980 census, there were 223,652 Americans of Jamaican ancestry, 66,062 of Trinidadian, Tobagonian and Guyanese ancestry, and 39,513 of other British West Indian ancestry. In addition, there were 48,592 Americans of Black British West Indian and other ethnic ancestry. All these figures are undercounts, as a large though undetermined number of Black West Indians are undocumented immigrants.

Linguistic Affiliation. The West Indies are officially English-speaking, but actually display a post-Creole linguistic continuum. On the islands, indigenous Creole languages developed through contact between the English plantation owners and Black slaves, with elements from Asian languages added later in some places. Speech varies according to social class and social context from Creole to Standard English. Black West Indians generally speak English with a British accent.

History and Cultural Relations

Although some came earlier, most Black West Indians immigrated to the United States after 1900 and especially after World War I. They looked to emigrate because of limited Economic opportunities at home and chose the United States Because of its proximity, the promise of economic opportunity, and U.S. immigration quotas that favored British subjects. The majority of the nearly 100,000 who came in the first thirty years of the twentieth century were literate in English, young, single, and able to find work in skilled occupations, though racial discrimination often forced them to take jobs beneath their qualifications. Some dealt with this problem by pooling financial resources to start small businesses and stores, many of which prospered in northern cities. Immigration decreased during the Great Depression and World War II, but increased from 1948 to 1954, decreased again under restrictive legislation, and then increased again after 1965 when quotas were abolished.

Immigrants since 1965 have again been mostly young and single, but in general are less skilled and educated than those who came before them. There has also been a trend toward less concentrated settlement, though West Indians remain mainly in the Northeast and Florida. Relations between African-Americans and Black West Indians before the increased migration beginning in the 1960s were generally hostile. At the same time, however, West Indians were active in politics and many African-American leaders such as Malcolm X, Roy Innis, James Farmer, Shirley Chisholm, and Stokely Carmichael were of West Indian ancestry. In recent years, though tensions still exist, there has been a merging of African-American and Black West Indian interests, and cooperation as well as conflict is now evident.


In the post-World War II years, Black West Indians in U.S. cities often lived near one another in African-American neighborhoods. There was, for example, a large Black West Indian community in Harlem. In southern farming regions, Blacks were segregated from the White population. On sugar cane plantations where Black West Indian men work as contract laborers, they live in dormitories on the farm. In recent years, as the demographic composition of the Black West Indian immigrant population has changed, they have become more widely dispersed among the African-American population, though distinct West Indian communities still exist and new immigrants often settle in those communities. In Washington, D.C., for example, a West Indian community has formed around Georgia Avenue in the northwest quarter of the city. These communities often contain, in addition to the West Indian population, West Indian restaurants, food stores, clothing stores, record stores, and bakeries.


Included in the Black West Indian population who settled in the United States before World War II were a large number of highly educated or skilled individuals. Because of racial discrimination, however, many were unable to secure professional or skilled employment and took lower-level work as cooks, domestics, and so on until opportunities became available. Some eventually found employment as doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, and teachers, with most of their clientele coming from the African-American and Black West Indian communities. Others began small businesses, usually retail stores or rental real estate properties, financed through partnerships or often through rotating credit associations that provided members with access to capital. Black West Indian business ownership continues today, with estimates in the 1970s indicating that 50 percent of Black-owned businesses in New York were owned by Black West Indians.

In the 1960s, the trend of well-educated Black West Indians immigrating to the United States continued. Many now found it easier to use their professional skills immediately, although the African-American and Black West Indian Communities continued to provide most clients. A sizable percentage of the 1960s immigrants were female nurses. By that decade, the composition of the immigrant population had begun to change, and it now contains a larger percentage of younger, less-skilled people. Many are women, a large number of whom immigrate to work as domestics or providers of child care. This growing population of young, unskilled Black West Indians has led to tensions with the African-American and Latino communities as they are seen as competing for service jobs with men and women in the latter two groups.

The Black West Indian population in the United States also includes a group of about eight thousand to ten thousand men who are imported each year from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Dominica to cut sugar cane in southern Florida. They enter the country under five- or sixmonth temporary work visas and are paid on the basis of a minimum wage and piece-work system. At least 25 percent of their income is remitted to the local communities from which they were recruited.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

The organization of Black West Indian kinship and marriage in the United States is a function of length of residence in the country (preversus post-World War II) and the social Status of the family (working class versus middle or upper class). Because most Black West Indians come from islands that were once colonies of England, middle- and upper-class People usually follow mainstream European practices including bilateral descent, monogamous marriage, small nuclear Families, and Eskimo kin terms. For the pre-World War II population, the family was the most important social institution, and cooperation and loyalty among family members were expected with the husband/father the head of the family. The family remains a vital institution in the West Indian Community, although the husband/father leadership role has weakened and mother-child households are now more common, with the arrival of many younger female immigrants since the late 1960s. Since that time, perhaps the most common form of immigration entailed a young woman arriving first and then later bringing her children and sometimes her husband.

American marriages among Black West Indians are highly endogamous with a marked preference for a marriage partner from the same island as oneself. Marriage to African-Americans usually involves a West Indian man and an African-American woman.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The West Indians' place in American society and their status vis-à-vis African-Americans is a complex topic. West Indians came from societies in which they were the racial majority, in which a British-imposed Social class system was a feature of everyday life, and in which they had greater educational, economic, and political opportunities than did African-Americans in the United States. In the United States they found and continue to find a much different situation. They are classified by Whites as Black and are subject to the same racial discrimination, though both Black West Indians and African-Americans believe that Whites treat the former somewhat differently than they do the latter. But though they are treated as if the same as African-Americans, Black West Indians distinguish themselves from African-Americans, and though they often live in the same areas, there are noticeable differences in speech, dress, cuisine, religious beliefs, and life-style.

West Indian ethnic identity is tied to the island from which one emigrated rather than to a general pan-West Indian identity and is reflected in marriage mainly to people from the same island and the various island ethnic associations formed in the 1920s and 1930s.

Political Organization. Black West Indians who came to the United States in the early 1900s brought with them a tradition of political activism and some experience as officials in the British colonial governments. In the United States Political activism for racial equality flourished in the Black West Indian community. Marcus Garvey, an immigrant from Jamaica who was eventually sent back there, and his Universal Negro Improvement Association is the best-known but not the only Black West Indian political movement in the United States. As noted above, many leaders of the civil rights movement were or are of West Indian ethnic ancestry. Today, Because they are lumped by Whites with African-Americans and because they also often live in the same communities, West Indian political interests are often merged with those of African-Americans.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Many of those who settled in the United States in the early twentieth century were Anglicans who became Episcopalians in America and established their own churches. With the large migration since the 1960s has come a broader range of religious affiliation, and Black West Indians in the United States now include Roman Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, and Rastafarians. In general, West Indians continue to form their own churches rather than affilate with existing ones in either the African-American or the White communities.

The Rastafarian movement, based in Jamaica, has had much influence in the United States, as evidenced by the popularity of reggae music, the dreadlock hairstyle, and clothing featuring African designs and coloring.

See alsoBlack Creoles in Louisiana, Blacks in Canada, Haitians


Bonnett, Aubrey W. (1981). Institutional Adaptation of West Indian Immigrants to America: An Analysis of Rotating Credit Associations. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America.

Bryce-Laporte, Roy S., and Delores M. Mortimer (1976). Caribbean Immigration to the United States. Washington, D.C.: Research Institute on Immigration and Ethnic Studies, Smithsonian Institution.

Foner, Nancy (1985). "Race and Color: Jamaican Migrants in London and New York City." International Migration Review 19:708-727.

Ueda, Reed (1980). "West Indians." In Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom, 1020-1027. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press.

Wood, Charles H., and Terry L. McCoy (1985). "Migration, Remittances and Development: A Study of Caribbean Cane Cutters in Florida." International Migration Review 19:251 277.