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Black and U.S. Immigration History: What it means to be 'American'

A note from Dr. Aaron J. Griffen, VP of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

Some who are versed in History, Geography, migrant patterns and Human Geography, may struggle with the notion that Black History is American History, and that to be American is to reside in and be born or naturalized to the United States of America.

When considering America, it’s important to see the Americas (North, South, and Central) as a part of what it means to be American. Some may take this view because of the persistent “otheringof any group, culture, person, race, ethnicity or community that does not fall under the traditional definition of “American.” For context, when people say Mexican-American or Canadian-American, this commonly refers to any one of these two countries of origin who reside in the United States. However, someone from either of those countries who do not reside or have citizenship in the United States is simply Mexican or Canadian - despite living in North and Central America. 

Black Explorers and Immigrants in the United States

Something not commonly taught in our public education system is that the first people of African descent in the new world were explorers and immigrants, not enslaved Africans. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, setting the stage for slavery in North America. According to, on August 20, 1619, Angolans kidnapped by the Portuguese arrived in the British colony of Virginia and were then bought by English colonists, many of who became indentured servants. It was not until 1640, that John Punch would become the first legalized and lawfully enslaved individual. He was an indentured servant who was given a life of slavery for trying to rebel and escape his initial term. However, evidence exists that Africans sailed to the Americas and settled centuries before Columbus. Columbus noted in his journal that the Native Americans confirmed “black-skinned people had come from the south-east in boats, trading in gold-tipped spears. Arguments persist that Africans in the U.S. before 1619 are Afrocentric mythology, despite evidence (via Indigenous records and artifacts) supporting that immigrants of African descent came to the United States. 

Othering of Immigrants

When people argue, debate and consider immigration, the history of African immigrants to the United States prior to 1619 and throughout the TransAtlantic Slave Trade is rarely considered. This involuntary immigration along with that of Native and Indigenous people produced unique outcomes and circumstances for said groups, including historically and traditionally perpetuated inequities in health care, property rights, education rights, civil rights and economic growth. These inequities are foundational to the problematic notion that to be considered American, one must be a naturalized or born citizen of the United States.

The rhetoric of immigrants being a drain on the economy, taking jobs from Americans and being producers of sickness, disease and crime, can be traced back to the treatment of the Native peoples in early colonial times, of enslaved and non-enslaved Africans and of Irish, German, Japanese, and Mexican immigrants after the Great Depression and during World War II. This has led to the poor treatment of certain Asian American communities due to COVID-19. 

The fact that looking “foreign” results in sanctioned abuses for citizens in the United States, means the 14th Amendment does not extend to all persons and groups. Therefore, this is an issue we all must address. As Mamie Till stated, “What happens to one of us, better be the business of all of us.”

Immigrants and Economics

To fully comprehend the fallacy of othering immigrant groups, one must review the economic data. 

“Immigrants added … $458.7 billion to state, local, and federal taxes in 2018,”  According to FWD.US. “...Proposed cuts to our legal immigration system would have devastating effects on our economy, decreasing GDP by 2% over twenty years, shrinking growth by 12.5%, and cutting 4.6 million jobs. Rust Belt states would be hit particularly hard, as they rely on immigration to stabilize their populations and revive their economies.”

Because our immigrant population is so diverse, their spending power, relative youth, high levels of involvement in STEM fields and high rates of entrepreneurship make them key contributors to our economy.

Here is a breakdown of immigrants in the U.S. according to the Joint Economic Committee

  • Immigrants make up 1 in 7 residents (1 in 10 Black people are immigrants), 1 in 6 workers, and account for the creation of about 1 in 4 new businesses.
  • Nearly half of all immigrants are naturalized citizens, 27% are lawful permanent residents and 5% are temporary residents with legal status.
  • Less than 1/4 of the foreign-born population are undocumented.
  • Immigrants are more likely to be of prime working age, balancing out the relatively older native-born population.

Our immigrant population is a thriving contributing factor in the overall and historical success of the United States and in the DSST communities.


Black History is celebrated once a year and is often siloed from the larger context of the U.S. History and the plight of other histories, so DSST wants to ensure that Black History is interwoven throughout the multitude of spectrums we review in our nation's present and past. Immigration to the United States did not begin with Ellis Island, the Mayflower or Jamestown. Immigration is an ever-evolving pattern in human history that must be told in truth from multiple perspectives, contemporary realities and histories of people.

For more information see the following resources: