What do blacks and Puerto Ricans have in common? This unit investigates the great migration of blacks from the rural South, and Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico, to the Northern industrial city of New York. This paper will examine the assimilation process of those migrating and examine the cultural conflicts that ensued.
The purpose of this unit is to point out similarities and differences between the Afro-American and Puerto Rican experience as they migrated and assimilated in various areas of the United States in search of the great “American Dream.” The focal point of this paper is geographical in nature with emphasis on New York. The population movement is important for two reasons: first, it represented the largest mass movement of American citizens within its borders, and, second, it resulted in a dramatic environmental change for white America by pushing it one step closer to the myth of the great “melting pot.” Included in this study is a consideration of Post-Civil War and Post-Reconstruction conditions in the South as it relates to blacks, and also to Pre and Post-Spanish American War conditions, as it relates to Puerto Ricans. It will also include a discussion of the various reasons for migration, a description of the transformation in the lives of the migrants when they moved from rural to urban areas, a brief history of the black and Puerto Rican experience in New York with particular emphasis on the economic, social and political ramifications of moving from the role of the immigrant, and intruder to becoming an American citizen with full rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This unit has been developed for fifth and sixth grade students encompassed in a special program for learning disabled students, and may also be used with regular fifth and sixth grade students. The goal of this unit is for students to become aware of the historical significance of economic autonomy and oppression, and its influence on economic reformation.
This unit does not seek to cover every aspect of the issues involved, but rather seek to condense events into a logical sequence of events extending from Reconstruction to the twentieth century.
After the American Revolution one Northern state after another moved to abolish the remnants of the fast—disintegrating slave-labor system, and by 1800 slavery was virtually a southern institution exclusively. In 1808, laws were passed outlawing the new importation of Negroes from Africa.
The Civil War heralded a mayor turn in America’s destiny. The country entered an era of economic expansion. In its wake was an industrial civilization which transformed the nation’s social climate. The Emancipation marked this transformation especially for blacks. Liberation, found thousands of freedmen in the position of displaced persons in so far as family affiliation and jobs were concerned. This generation saw America’s Negroes double from approximately 4,500,000 to nearly 9,000,000. These years marked the beginning of the shift of Negroes toward northern cities
During the four decades following reconstruction, the position of the Negro in America steadily deteriorated. While new doors opened to Negroes, new barriers were erected and old ones reinforced to impede his progress. Once federal troops were withdrawn, Jim Crow laws were instituted. With this new era came a tightening hold on the national mentality, where whites honestly believed the Negro to be congenitally inferior. Richard Bardolph in
The Negro Vanguard
“The common Negro’s doubts of his own capacities now operated to fix his level of aspiration. Formally the question had been academic, for he was not his own man, but now old feelings of inadequacy persisted into the new era of freedom as whites with new reasons for perpetuating the sense of inferiority affirmed—indeed legislated it.”
Negroes had to face life in a hostile community for which they had been poorly prepared. The Jim Crow era brought about black disfranchisement, social, educational, and occupational discrimination. Accompanying this disfranchisement was mob violence, murder, and lynchings
The advent of World War I brought about new discriminations in war industries, however, Negroes pledged their loyal support to the war efforts. Nearly 350,000 Negro troops served in the war. W. E. B. DuBois urged black America to close ranks in the nation’s hour of peril. The war strengthened the Negro ‘s own Americanism and their determination to achieve fuller participation in American life. After the war whites were fearful of the effects of the war upon the mood of colored veterans.
The nation became gripped by a psychosis marked by hostilities against all strangers, and all exotic influences. The hysteria expressed itself in a new rash of lynchings, race riots, and refinements of the Jim Crow laws, this time in the North and South, and was directed against a whole catalog of “undesirables” of whom the Negro was only one.
The period of 1893-1897 brought on the depression in America. Businesses failed and the jobless marched on Washington demanding public works projects. Unemployment, low wages, and strikes bred resentment toward the wave of alien workers who would work for less, and were often used as strike breakers. This resentment was directed not only toward aliens but also foreign lands.
The Spanish American war marked a new era for both the United States and Puerto Rico. America was urged to intervene in this war to help free Cuba from Spanish oppression. On July 25, 1898, Americans landed on Puerto Rico’s southern shore, and, on October 18, the island was formally surrendered by Spain. The government was stripped of its powers and the island came under U.S. military rule. Self government was denied Puerto Ricans because they were viewed as ignorant brutes incapable of self government. For a period of time, they were not allowed to vote on their political destiny.
Migration and Assimilation:
The early years were harsh years of adjustment for Puerto Ricans. New institutions sprang up to deal with health, education, and other cultural affairs. The island’s traditional export markets were closed and U.S. investors came southward to buy up choice land and corporate farms. The greatest difficulty for those on the island was the cultural impact. The Puerto Rican’s language was considered inferior because they did not speak pure Spanish. After the establishment of a system of education, the goal became to “Americanize the population”. They were now expected to learn to communicate in English.
As the impact of American rule upon Puerto Rico spread, there was confusion both culturally and politically. Some wanted independence, but with the Americans as protector; others wanted annexation, where Puerto Rico would be free inside the Nation. In Puerto Rico some viewed citizenship as a means to achieve equal rights with Americans but congress would not resolve the issue of citizenship.
English became a second language of the schools. Many Puerto Ricans resented the fact that their children were required to speak English and protested against this infringement upon their cultural heritage by establishing private schools where the children were taught in Spanish, and the survival of the mother tongue was assured.
In a speech before congress, Luis Mu–oz Rivera delivered a moving speech in favor of citizenship (Refer to the book, The Latin Americans and their Love/Hate Relationships with the U.S., Carl Rangle, p. 124-125). But congress would grant no solution. One year before the United States entered World War I and one month before hostilities began, it granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico.
On May 23, 1916, the House of Representatives passed the Jones Bill, with provisions for U.S. citizenship intact. On February 20, 1917, the U.S. Senate approved it and on March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law.
Geography gave Puerto Ricans the option of life in both Americas, in two places and in two cultures. In the early 1940s Puerto Rico was one of the poorest nations in Latin America. As the population continued to grow the economy failed to keep up. There was little industry to provide jobs. Due to the lack of jobs many Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United States. Migration began before the turn of the century when a number of political exiles were living in New York. Cesar Iglesias Rivera in his book
Memoirs of Bernardo Vega
, (1984) described the Puerto Rican experience in New York as:
“Young immigrants kept arriving from Puerto Rico full of high hopes and plans, only to find themselves facing a very hard reality. Their will power shattered and embittered by circumstances, they easily fell into crime.”
When air travel became available in 1950 between San Juan and America, the number leaving tripled. It was so massive that the route between San Juan and New York soon became known as an “air bridge”. Dan Wakefield in
Island In the City: The World of Spanish Harlem
(1959), stated that plane loads of migrants were brought from Puerto Rico to the mainland in small planes that often did not make it. Many were exploited through higher fares, promises of jobs that didn’t exist, low wages for long hours of work, overtime with no pay and often the most demanding work was assigned to Puerto Ricans. Pedro Pietri in
, described the economic plight of Puerto Ricans in his poem “Puerto Rican Obituary”, (p.116).
By the late 1950s, several American cities had Spanish speaking barrios. Most of the new comers were ill-prepared for their new way of life, but they continued to hold onto the hardest, poorest paying jobs, lived in overpriced, substandard housing, and struggled to establish themselves. Jose Colon discussed in his book A
Puerto Rican In New York and Other sketches
(1961), that some eventually had to go on public welfare, and others turned to drugs and crime. Soon newspapers began referring to the Puerto Ricans as a “problem”. On arrival many were disillusioned because of the appearance of the city. It was dirty, cold, and people lived shut in. They were also unfriendly, and many felt that they were discriminated against because of their language handicap. In New York the children became very independent at an early age. Parents were not able to punish their children through physical means without getting reported to the police by school authorities. They were afraid of the police, and afraid to protest in demonstrations for fear of being shot. Many were forced to work overtime and were not paid. They were afraid of losing their jobs or upsetting the boss, so they didn’t complain to the Department of Labor. Many were misused by lawyers who misused their positions and ability to communicate in Spanish.
H. Roy Kaplan reported in
American Minorities and Economic Opportunity
, that Hispanic businessmen complained bitterly about their difficulty in obtaining loans and credit. Banks and insurance companies red lined barrio enterprises. The Federal Government did not fully support minority businesses because of their lending policies. They also reported discrimination in jobs and upward advancement in the job market. Their lives were also religiously impoverished and economically deprived. Puerto Ricans who were basically Catholic came to New York without Priests, but the church did nothing to find or train clergy that could minister to them. They were left in religious limbo. Women left their traditional roles of working in the home to seek outside employment. Elena Padilla in
Concepts of Work and Situational Demans on New York City Puerto Ricans
, stated that many Puerto Rican women had to become breadwinners and heads of households, with the soul responsibility for the support, guidance, and education of their children.
As the economy of the United States in the post-war years shifted toward automated production of goods and services, post industrial activities, and the exodus of city residents to the suburbs, Puerto Ricans like blacks, found themselves increasingly isolated from the expanded sources of work and from housing accessible to places of work. Housing restrictions in the suburbs and the lack of cheap public mass transportation contributed further to their isolation. There was a demand for skills that they did not have and could not obtain, and this further limited their opportunities.
The median education for Puerto Rican adults was 7.6 years according to the U. S. Department of Labor Statistics. In 1968, 13 percent had high school diplomas and less than 1 percent completed college. The avenues for both education and employment in white-collar occupations were virtually closed to Puerto Ricans and even those who were well educated had difficulty entering into white collar employment.
The Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Poverty efforts, and other domestic programs helped to stimulate the Puerto Rican community into political action. The movement encompassed all Puerto Ricans and led to the development of creative solutions to the problems of cultural inconsistencies and pressures for conformity from the dominant American society.
Although the school system is philosophically oriented toward the assimilation of new comers, it has not acted forcefully to correct the problems of low student achievement, high attrition rates, and limited opportunities for high school education which confronts Puerto Ricans to a greater extent than other city residents, according to the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights. These problems have been exacerbated by failure to recruit teachers who are bilingual and familiar with the Puerto Rican culture. The public education system has failed to keep children from dropping out of school. Only about 30 percent of all children in the ninth grade was predicted to complete high school and only a few complete college. Few Puerto Ricans have been recruited to faculty and administrative positions by city universities, and finally New York’s precarious financial situation continues to affect educational opportunities for Puerto Ricans and other minorities.
Afro-American Migration and Assimilation:
As the Northern states began to abolish slavery, runaway slaves from the slave states in the South slowly began to flee to the North. As the Underground Railway developed, this trickle soon turned into a sizable flow. The immigration of foreign-born blacks into cities into the North and West were concurrent with a sizable movement of American blacks from the rural South into these same cities.
Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, most blacks were engaged in agricultural labor or domestic service in the household of whites. This was particularly true in the South where most blacks were slaves. A small number of slaves were trained as skilled laborers, either to meet the needs of the plantation or to be hired out in towns as blacksmiths, harness makers, painters, masons, and bricklayers. The use of slaves for skilled labor, especially in towns placed white workers at a competitive disadvantage. As mining and manufacturing developed slaves were used in these occupations as well. On the railroads and steamboats, slaves worked at almost every job except as conductors and pilots. The immediate economic result of emancipation was the beginning of a struggle between blacks and whites to determine the new economic structure of the South.
The effect of emancipation on the occupational distribution of blacks was mixed. The economic disadvantaged position of free blacks is reflected in two facts: the internal stratification of the black community, and in the hiring practices of whites. Discrimination in hiring blacks in any but menial capacities was so wide-spread that it resulted in a class structure that was so divergently different than that of whites.
In the ensuing years blacks fought for a modicum of economic independence, while white land owners tried to convert freed slaves into a class of cheap labor. Blacks hoped economic independence would come through the acquisition of their own land, the much talked about “forty acres and a mule”. Whites struck back with the Black Codes. When these laws were struck down white planters continued their attempt to create a dependent agricultural labor force. While some freed men were able to acquire land, most did not. When president Andrew Jackson returned land leased by blacks back to the white planters, most turned to share cropping and became even more dependent upon the planters.
Blacks fared worse in the north because of severe competition from white immigrants. Blacks trained in the trades frequently were forced to accept (often through violence and intimidation) unskilled labor to avoid unemployment. As the number of unskilled immigrants increased, blacks found themselves being pushed out of even more undesirable jobs such as porters, maids, cooks, and washerwomen. This situation was so severe that it prompted Frederick Douglas to write 1850 that:
“Every hour was a black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived immigrant whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better position or place. Whenever blacks had to compete with white natives or immigrants they usually emerged the loser.
The pattern of confining black workers to the most menial, unskilled, and low paying jobs became entrenched in the North and South, and it was to continue into the twentieth century according to a study by Worthman and Green. The 1930s brought about a shift in the occupational structure for blacks. They made occupational gains mostly in service and unskilled manual jobs in the north, where because of expansion and the upward push of whites to occupy better jobs, industry had room for black migrants. Black workers now gained a foothold in many occupations such as steel mills, manufacturing, transportation, and the food industries.
The depression hit black workers especially hard because they were located at the bottom of the occupational ladder, more concentrated in industry, and were more subject to discrimination. White workers were affected by the depression, but not as severely. For millions of black workers, the loss of blue collar jobs left them no place to go but welfare.
In the South, continuing violence and segregation drove many to leave their homes. The destruction of small farms plagued by boll weebils spread across the South. After the war, the restrictive immigration laws which were passed kept the flow of European immigration low, and northern industry continued to draw labor from the southern rural pockets.
By 1910 and 1920, some 330,000 Afro-Americans moved from the South to the North and West. By 1940, the numbers soared to 1,750,000.
Another indication of the Northward migration was the fact that a Northern state, New York had acquired a population which was larger than any of the southern states. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Afro-American community had been transformed from a rural and regional group into a national one.
The opportunity for industrial employment in the North which had resulted from the war, and the slow down in European immigration along with increases in racism and segregation in the South combined to open the way for the development of a growing spirit of self determination.
Thousands of Negro migrants poured North into Chicago. The new automobile factories in Detroit attracted thousands more, but Harlem became the center of “The Promised Land”. James Weldon Johnson described the Harlem of the 1920s as a “cultural capital of the Negro world”. Its magnetism attracted Negroes from all across America, from the West Indies and Africa. Students, peasants, artists, businessmen, professional men, poets, musicians, and workers; all came to Harlem. In
, James Weldon Johnson said that Harlem was not a slum or a fringe. He insisted that it was one of the “Most beautiful and healthful section of the city”.
As the first Negroes moved into Harlem there had been considerable racial tension. The community had been Dutch, Irish, Jewish, and Italian. Originally, Negroes, living in New York worked for the wealthy aristocrats and lived in the shadows of the large mansions surrounding Washington Square. Several of the streets in Greenwich Village had been entirely inhabited by Negroes. At the turn of the century, the city’s Afro-American community was developing a small middle class of its own, and it contained its own fashionable clubs and night life. Shortly after 1910, Negroes began to move to Harlem.
At first, whites did not notice. However, when Negroes spread west of Lenox Avenue, white resistance stiffened. The local residence formed a corporation to purchase the buildings inhabited by Negroes and began to evict them. In response, the Negroes responded by forming the Afro-American Realty Company and they too purchased apartment buildings, evicted the white tenants, and rented to blacks. White residents then put pressure on lending institutions not to provide mortgages to prospective Negro buyers. When one was able to buy a piece of property, regardless of how prosperous or orderly he might appear, local whites viewed this as an invasion, panicked, and moved out in droves. This left the banks, still unwilling to sell to Negroes, holding a large number of deserted properties. Eventually they were compelled to sell these properties at deflated prices. During and immediately after World War I, Negroes poured into Harlem, obtained high paying jobs and purchased their own real estate.
When the great migration from the rural south began, thousands upon thousands more poured into Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Harlem and other Northern cities. Housing became increasingly scarce. Harlem, like other Negro communities became more and more crowded. At the same time, jobs became harder to obtain. As the Negro population of Harlem grew, white resistance and discrimination also increased.
In 1929, the depression which swept America did not affect all segments of society equally. In America, poverty and starvation also brought on more discrimination. To quote the old adage again, “The Negro is the last to be hired and the first to be fired”. When Negroes were laid off, Negro owned businesses immediately felt the pinch. The entire Afro-American community felt the depression sooner and harder than the rest of the country.
A wide variety of organizations, labor unions, religions and fraternal societies as well as groups specifically concerned with attacking racism became increasingly active. There were concerted efforts to destroy legal segregation because it was a serious blemish on the Democratic image. The N.A.A.C.P. led the drive in combating racism by establishing the Legal Defense Fund of the N.A.A.C.P and a small group of Negro lawyers whom it financed led the attack. Believing that education was an all important factor in society, it decided that school desegregation should become the mayor target. Thurgood Marshall was the master strategist. He attacked the school question on the graduate, professional, and law school level.
At mid-century, the court began by challenging this dual system at points of blatant and obvious inequity. On May 17, 1954, in Brown vs. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared that the “separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional”. “It contended that to separate children from other children of similar age and qualification purely on the ground of race, generated feelings of inferiority in those children.” In the ensuing years, many law suits were filed which changed the course of history concerning education and employment.
December 1, 1955, marked the era of the Civil Rights movement. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, this touched off a major boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, led by a Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. After successfully boycotting and gaining integrated busing, King became a national hero. Mass resistance including some forms of civil disobedience, became popular as the best way to achieve racial change.
Most blacks were employed in the lower, unskilled and semi-skilled brackets. It was also during this period that the Civil Service terminated its policy of requiring applicants to state their race and to include photographs. Individual personnel officers, nonetheless, continued to discriminate.
In 1935, the Wagner Act was passed protecting the rights of labor unions. However, most unions practiced racial discrimination and served indirectly to undercut the status of the Negro worker. With the heightened competition for jobs, unions tended to intensify their discrimination. Its member union regularly; practiced racial exclusion and kept blacks out of the trades. The United Mine Workers Union organized on an industry-wide basis rather than on a craft basis encouraged the participation of Negroes. Soon other unions began to encourage Negro participation.
After emancipation, the federal government had no clear idea of what its role should be in establishing a place for the Negro. The government in Washington set up an agency to assist Negroes in education, but still allocated no funds. Outside the government, few citizens showed an interest in elevating the Negroes to a position of equality. There was wide spread public support for segregated schools. The prevailing view was that virtually any expenditure on schools was a waste because Negroes were unable to learn anything important and also because “the very effort would give them a false notion of their capacities and spoil them for their place in society.”
Between 1946 and 1948, with mounting attention and pressures resulting from World War II, the Cold War, and the invasion of South Korea by communists, the federal government began to take a more active role regarding race relations. The Truman administration began integrating the armed forces. After establishing a committee on “Racism,” the study concluded that the federal government had the duty; to act in order to safeguard civil rights when local and state governments did not or could not. The committee recommended enlarging the size and powers of the civil rights section of the Justice Department and the F.B.I. In 1948, Truman issued and executive order aimed at achieving fair employment within government and industry under government contracts. The Supreme Court declared restrictive covenance in housing was unconstitutional. The report also recommended an end to discrimination in colleges and universities. Today blacks continue to make strides in the economic, social and political arenas.