Black Migration, Both Slave and Free

FELICIA R. LEE – The New York Times

Published: February 2, 2005
The extraordinary range of African-American migrations – from the earliest Africans who arrived to the recent movement of blacks back to the South – is the focus of a new Web site and an exhibition of recent research that could redefine African-American history, said scholars involved with the project, which was announced yesterday at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. “In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,” a three-year project that cost $2.4 million, is probably the largest single documentation of the migrations of all people of African ancestry in North America, said Howard Dodson, director of the center, part of the New York Public Library.
The exhibition at the Schomburg Center’s Exhibition Hall, which opened yesterday, showcases many of the images, maps and music assembled for the project. But the project’s 16,500 pages of essays, books, articles and manuscripts, as well as 8,300 illustrations and 60 maps are also available on the center’s Web site ( and could encourage a national conversation on the very definition of African-American, Mr. Dodson, a historian, said in an interview.
“This is a huge story,” Mr. Dodson said. “This will serve as a catalyst for the continued re-thinking of who the African-American community is. For the first time, here’s a project that explores the extraordinary diversity of the African-American community. This is organized around 13 migrations, 2 of them involuntary: the domestic slave trade and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”
Broadening the examination of migration beyond the slave trade means “you come away with some very different perspectives,” Mr. Dodson said. Twice as many sub-Saharan Africans – about one million – have migrated to the United States in the last 30 years as during the entire era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, project organizers said.
The project is chock full of illuminating facts. It shows that in recent years, twice as many African-Americans have moved from the North to the South as from the South to other regions. From 1995 to 2000 approximately 680,000 African-Americans moved to the South and 330,000 left, for a net gain of 350,000.
And for the first time, all the elements of the African diaspora – natives of Africa, Americans whose ancestors were enslaved Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, Central and South Americans of African descent, as well as Europeans with African or Afro-Caribbean roots – can be found in the United States.
This has happened in only the last 15 years and is prompting a far broader view of the term African-American, said Sylviane Diouf, a historian who served as the content manager for the project.
In addition to the Web site and the exhibition, the project includes a book, “In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,” released by National Geographic last month, and a Black History Month education kit, with lesson plans and a bibliography.
“It’s really a new interpretation of African-American history,” Ms. Diouf said. “We’re seeing the centrality of migration in the African-American experience. What we’re seeing now with the new immigration from Haiti, the Caribbean and Africa is a new diversity, people coming with their languages, their culture, their food.”
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