African-American Population History

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In the course of four and a half centuries after 1492 some 9.5 million Africans arrived in the Western Hemisphere. Until the 1820s more Africans crossed the Atlantic than did Europeans, and Africans and their descendants outnumbered Europeans and their descendants in most of the new American colonies until the early nineteenth century. The balance would shift with the arrival of over 48 million Europeans in the period from 1830 to the 1920s, although African forced migration continued until the early 1860s.

The Destinations

Africans were not brought in equal numbers to all regions of the Americas but tended to be concentrated in zones that had few American Indian laborers and had rich virgin lands that could be used to grow commercial export products for European consumption. In light of the fact that all the Africans were involuntary migrants and were purchased for work purposes, it is no surprise that they were concentrated in the plantation agricultural zones that produced sugar, cotton, and coffee for European markets. The two biggest centers of African slave residence were the West Indies, which absorbed some4.4 million African slave immigrants–the last arriving in Cuba in the 1860s–and Brazil, which took in some 3.9 million Africans until the slave trade ended in that region in 1850. North America probably absorbed some 361,000 Africans before the trade ended there in 1808, with most of the forced migrants coming in the late eighteenth century. The other 834,000 Africans who arrived in America went to continental Spanish America and the Guyanas.

Despite this concentration of Africans in key export centers, there was no region of the Americas, from Hudson Bay to the Rio de la Plata, that did not contain Africans and their descendants. In colonial Spanish America, which had a competing group of American Indian laborers, Africans tended to be concentrated in urban areas and often made up half the local populations. Everywhere else they lived primarily in the rural areas and even worked in gold mines in Brazil and the northeastern South American interior.

Population Growth

As a result of the fact that the slave trade carried primarily adults and males to the Americas, most resident African populations in the New World experienced negative growth rates. As the slave trade declined or was abolished, most of those slave populations finally began to achieve positive growth rates. With fewer adults and males arriving, the native-born populations, with their balanced sex ratios, began to replace themselves in sufficient numbers to cause the resident slave populations to grow. This occurred in the West Indies and in Brazil as well, despite the steady out-migration of slave women and children through manumission.

To estimate the population of Africans and their descendants in the Americas at the end of the eighteenth century, one must include both slaves and "free persons of color," as manumitted slaves and Africans were called in most American slave societies. Combining these two groups gives a very rough population estimate of over 4.3 million persons of African descent at that time. Slaves numbered close to 3 million persons, of whom 1.1 million lived in the West Indies, another 1 million resided in Brazil, 271,000 in lived in mainland Spanish America, and 575,000 resided in the United States. There were almost 1.3 million free persons of color at that time, of whom 212,000 resided in the Caribbean, 400,000 in Brazil and 650,000 in Mainland Spanish America, and some 32,000 in the United States

Although all native-born slave populations had positive reproductive rates and those rates became dominant with the end of the slave trade, the United States was unique in the rapidity of the growth of its slave population. By the 1860s the United States had3.9 million slaves and 488,000 free colored persons. By the time of the first national census of Brazil in 1872 that country had a free colored population of4.2 million persons along with 1.5 million slaves, for a total of 5.7 million Afro-Brazilians. Cuba and Puerto Rico by then had 412,000 slaves and 474,000 free colored persons. Counting just these three slave regions in the middle of the nineteenth century gives a population of 5.8 million slaves and 5.2 million free persons of color. Clearly these 11 million Afro-Americans do not account for the total number in the Americas, considering that the descendants of slaves in mainland Spanish America probably numbered another million.

Racial Categories

Until the end of slavery or the establishment of republican governments in most regions of the Americas careful records were kept on people of African origin and descent. However, that systematic examination of race changed, with most census takers no longer listing color or race in their enumerations of populations. It thus becomes extremely difficult from the late nineteenth century onward to estimate the size of the African-American populations. Added to the problem of a lack of enumerations is the question of the definition of groups. Miscegenation between the races was common to all American societies from the very beginning. Thus, to the original African group were added mulattoes and other admixtures of whites, Africans, and American Indians. In most American societies it was assumed that this mixed element formed a new racial category, distinct from whites and Africans. Only in the United States were these people of mixed origins exclusively associated with the "black" population.

Therefore, defining who is "black" or of African-American descent has become a complex social and political problem. Are people with mixed origins white or black? Are they European or African-American in origin? Finally, in almost all the American republics that did list color in the census, color is almost always self-defined and is much influenced by local societal definitions of color, class, and local patterns of racial prejudice. Thus, the size of the populations of African origin is almost impossible to determine with precision.

This situation is reflected in the few attempts made to categorize this population throughout the Americas. An estimate for all the Americas in 1992 gave a minimum figure of 64 million persons and a maximum of 124 million persons of African descent, which represented, respectively, 9 percent and 17 percent of the total American hemispheric population. An earlier attempt in 1983 estimated that whites in the Americas made up roughly 36 percent of the total population, Indians some 10 percent, and blacks just 6 percent, with the rest being of persons of mixed origin. Illustrative of this problem is the case of Colombia. A more recent study has argued that "there is no precise data on the size of the Afro-Colombian population. The government tends to minimize the number, putting it at about 30 percent of the total population, or approximately 10.5 million individuals" (Archbold 2000, p. 3).

For the two largest populations of African-Americans there are some reliable data. In the United States, which has the most rigid definition of who is African-American or black, the census of 2000 counted 34.6 million persons of this color, excluding black Hispanics, in the total population. When persons who list more than one race are included, the figure rises to 36.4 million. The National Household Survey of Brazil carried out in 1999 estimated that 39.9 percent of the population of 160 million Brazilians consisted of mulattoes (63.8 million persons) and 5.4 percent (8.6 million) consisted of blacks. Using a U.S. definition of the population of African origin would give Brazil approximately 72.4 million persons of this origin if mulattoes are to be classified as blacks rather than whites or as a class by themselves.

Migration within the Americas

Although the traditional plantation areas were zones with high densities of African populations, the abolition of slavery in most regions led to an out-migration of ex-slaves as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. As long as there were economic opportunities in the labor market or farming land was available, ex-slaves refused to work on the traditional plantations. In many cases their initial migration was delayed by competition from the foreign-born workers who arrived in large numbers until the 1920s. However, even before the decline of this competitive migration, ex-slaves were moving to new regions and new countries in large numbers. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 black West Indians permanently moved to Panama and the United States in the period from 1881 to 1921.

By the twentieth century those migrations would become more common everywhere. In the 1950s and 1960s over 300,000 black West Indians moved to Britain. In the United States the African-American population moved out of the South in large numbers after 1910 in what has come to be seen as a great internal migration. Whereas 90 percent of this African-American population resided in the southern states in 1900 and was 83 percent rural, by 1990 only 53 percent resided in the South and only 13 percent of these people were classified as rural residents. By the census of 1980 over 4 million southern-born blacks were residing outside the states of their birth. There were also migrations within Brazil beginning in the 1910s with major interregional movements of northeastern residents to the central and southern parts of the country, which had an impact on the color ratios in those formerly more European regions.


One can conclude that since abolition, the population of African descent in the New World has become both less concentrated and less rural than it was in the nineteenth century. It can be stated in very broad terms that the majority of the population of the Americas, according to very broad definitions of color, is primarily nonwhite and that a high proportion of that population can claim some relationship with the 9.5 million Africans who were brought to America by the Atlantic slave trade.

See also: Racial and Ethnic Composition; Slavery, Demography of.


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U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2001. Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics 2000. Washington, D.C.: Census Bureau.

Herbert S. Klein

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African-American Population History

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African-American Population History