In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience

“In Motion: The African-American Migration Exper-ience” is a ground-breaking exhibition of the population movements that have created the African American people. The multimedia event, which opened at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem Feb. 2, places center stage the seminal role migration has played in shaping the African-American experience.

Through thousands of images, manuscripts, maps, and music, “In Motion” traces the 13 major voluntary and involuntary migrations of African Americans that continue to define the African American people and the American nation. Integral to the $2.4 million project is a web site (, a book and education kits for lectures and discussion groups. “In Motion” gives the public access to a wealth of resources that illustrate the diversity and complexity of the African American community.

The Thirteen Migrations:

The Transatlantic Slave Trade: Between the 1500s and the 1860s, at least 12 million Africans were sent to the Americas; half a million arrived in the U.S.

Runaway Journeys: Tens of thousands fled slavery every year, taking refuge in the North, maroon communities, Canada and Mexico.

The Domestic Slave Trade: Slavery’s expansion westward, from the 1760s until the end of the Civil War, displaced 1.2 million people from the Atlantic states to the Deep South.

Colonialism/Emigration – 1800s: Tens of thousands of African Americans in search of freedom and opportunities out of reach in the U.S. emigrated to Liberia, Canada, Haiti, Mexico, and Trinidad.

Early Haitian Immigration: Following the slave uprising and the independence of the island, several thousand people arrived in the U.S. between 1791 and 1809.

Western Migration: After reconstruction, African Americans disillusioned with Jim Crow and attracted by land and jobs migrated west.

Northern Migration – 1800s: Most free people left the South and migrated to the northern states and helped established the foundations of the Black urban north.

The Great Migration: Some 1.5 million people moved north between 1916 and 1930.

The Second Great Migration: The Second Great Migration, between 1940 and 1970, brought 5 million Black southerners north and west.

From the Caribbean: People from the British West Indies have migrated to the U.S. since 1900, Afro-Caribbeans represent almost 5 percent of the African-American population.

Rural South: Since the 1970s, the country has witnessed a reverse migration of African Americans to the desegregated South.

Recent Haitian Immigration: Fleeing political persecution and economic disaster, at least 750,000 Haitian immigrants landed on Florida’s shores settling there and New York.

African Immigration Today: More than half a million highly educated people from sub-Saharan Africa migrated to the U.S., almost 2 percent of the Black population.

Illustrations courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

‘A nation of immigrants’

Probably more than any other country, the United States of America is “a nation of immigrants.” African Americans, the Americans most affected by and shaped by migration, have largely been obscured from America’s great migration and immigration tradition.

Of the 6.5 million people who migrated to the Americas between 1492 and 1776, five out of six were Africans.

Over the centuries, the African-American experience continued to be shaped by further migrations.

Slavery and African Americans as transported commodities is one part of the complex picture. According to Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center and project curator, “‘In Motion’ offers a new interpretation of African-American history focusing on the self-motivated activities of people of African descent to remake themselves and their worlds.”

Repression and resistance

One key thread throughout the exhibition is the interplay of repression and resistance and African Americans’ unquenching drive towards self-determination.

Africans resisted oppression from first contact with enslavers, middle passage, and on plantations of the Americas. Resistance took a variety of forms. In one narrative, an enslaved African gives us an example of a planned revolt on a ship en route from Africa to the Americas: “a plan was concerted (to) burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames . . . It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship.”

Women and struggle

Examples of the central role of women in resistance, in keeping the African-American family together and in molding new lives, abound throughout the exhibit. One caption pays tribute to Polly Jackson, a fugitive to Ohio, who allegedly fought off slave catchers with a kettle full of hot water and a butcher knife.

Harriet Tubman, dubbed “the Moses of her people,” escaped slavery and subsequently returned to lead her family and hundreds to freedom during 19 southern trips, establishing a freedom network that spread to 14 states by 1830. Tubman outmaneuvered the slaveholders and was never captured, though an amazing $40,000 bounty was offered for her capture. She later served in the Union Army as a nurse, scout and spy. A suffragist, she later founded the National Association of Colored Women.

Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of African and Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says that African-American heroines such as Tubman and Sojourner Truth are symbolic of the hundred of thousands of other African-American women, who over the decades struggled mightily against exploitation.

According to Horne, such resistance was natural because of the role enslaved Africans were assigned in American capitalism. They “were the most important parts of capital,” he says. “As a result of the degradation and the exploitation of the labor of enslaved Africans, they first came to play a leading role in the revolt against capitalism itself as evidenced by the Haitian Revolution whose bicentennial was marked in 2004.”


A caption on a photo of Richard Benjamin Moore (1893–1978) alludes to the contribution of Afro-Caribbean migration to U.S. radicalism. A civil rights advocate, bibliophile and champion of Caribbean, African-American and African self-determination, Moore was born in Barbados and migrated to the United States in 1909. He played an influential political role in Harlem for more than 50 years, which included joining the Communist Party in 1925. One of Moore’s lasting legacies is that he spearheaded the campaign in the 1960s to replace the term Negro with Afro-American.

Horne points to the important roles played by migrants from various parts of the African diaspora in radical American politics. “The Marxist African Blood Brotherhood Association was led by Phil Graves from the island of Nevis. Hubert Henry Harrison, considered ‘the father of Harlem radicalism,’ was from St. Croix.” Trinidadian Claudia Jones was an active American Communist leader until she was deported, a victim of McCarthyism.

Garvey: a complex figure

Probably the most magnetic and controversial of the radicals and Black nationalists in the exhibit is Marcus Garvey. Garvey had a huge impact on the political landscape of the Black diaspora. He established grandiose institutions to encourage trade among Black communities in North America, the Caribbean, and Africa and to promote emigration to the West Indies, Central America, and Africa. Garvey’s emphasis on self-reliance, pride, and advocacy of the rights of Black people was attractive, especially to migrants from the South and the Caribbean.

Garvey was a complex figure, who supported the Bolshevik revolution and expressed solidarity with the Irish struggles against colonialism and British imperialism. On the other hand, Horne says, “after he came under pressure from the U.S. authorities, we see the very unfortunate comments about relationships with the KKK and the feud with Du Bois.” Garvey, however, played a positive overall role in raising consciousness in the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, Horne says.

Racism and migration

A variety of factors served to simultaneously push further migration and radicalize African Americans. Foremost were acts of institutional racism: An outpouring of racist ideology disguised as science, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the horrific massacre in East St. Louis in 1917, lynchings, segregation and the systematic humiliation of Black people in their everyday life. These motivated many to seek systemic solutions. Horne says the crisis in southern agriculture and downturn of European immigration because of World War I was another factor that drove Black migration North.

An ever-changing community

The African-American community is in constant change and many areas require further study. For example, the Afro-Hispanic component of the African-American experience received muted attention at the exhibition. This is rather ironic as the exhibition is being housed at the Schomburg Center. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who immigrated to New York in 1891, was a self-described “Afroborinqueño” (Black Puerto Rican). His lifelong collection of over 10,000 items formed the basis of the Schomburg Center. Schomburg challenged the myths of Black racial inferiority by documenting the contributions people of African descent made to human civilization and by scientifically refuting racism.

The exhibition, however, does not seek to be conclusive. According to Schomburg researcher Sylviane Diouf, “This is an invitation to every person of African descent in the U.S. to revisit their migration histories to determine their roles in the making of African American and American history.” The exhibit will close April 30.

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