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The Destruction of Negro Communities and the Birth of the African American

America's Immigrant and Great Immigration team (

The destruction of Negro communities in the 20th century was not due to slavery. In some ways The New York Times 1619 Project has sucked the oxygen out of the room in its reframing of American history to address current issues. Quite the contrary, the origin of African American should be understood in its historical context which has more to do with racism than slavery.

The destruction of Negro communities was due to a series of racist decisions made in the 20th century. White people made these decisions mainly in the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s. They were in response to a slightly earlier event, the Great Migration, where millions of people migrated from the South to the North. That movement led to the North being faced with questions it had not had to address before, at least not to this magnitude. The response was series of decisions culminating in the 1960s with Negroes burning the very cities they had migrated to, followed by the birth of the African American.

In this blog, I would like to trace the trajectory of Negroes as immigrants to show what might have happened without racism. Then I will turn to what did happened with racism.


It is often said that America is an immigrant country. It is a place people migrate to in order to live the American Dream. In the 19th century, waves of German and Irish immigrants followed this trajectory. They often arrived in Castle Garden in lower Manhattan.

Subsequently another wave of immigrants from Europe arrived in the United States also through New York. These Ellis Island immigrants are associated with the Statue of Liberty both of which can be visited. The geographical origin of the European immigrants shifted to southern and eastern Europe. It included most prominently Italians, Jews, and Slavic peoples. It was at this time that the “melting pot” image really developed along with the role of schools in educating the immigrant children in English, civics, and American history.

The Great Migration of Negroes from the South should be understood within this context. By that I mean the path these immigrant Negroes from the South took should be compared to the path the Ellis Island immigrants from Europe took in living the American Dream to determine where they coincided and where they differed.

In some ways, the Great Migration provides an opportunity for the concept of contrafactual that one hears about in historical studies. It refers to “what if?” What if a different decision had been made? What if a different action had been taken? What if you had never been born? Here the question is what if the Negro immigrants to the North had followed the same path as the Ellis Island immigrants who arrived in roughly the same locations at roughly the same time? That will be the subject for the rest of this blog. Since we know that the paths differed and often put the two groups at odds with each other, the next blog will examine the parting of the ways. At the beginning of this path neither Italians nor Jews were considered to be white either. Eventually, they did become white although anti-Semitism continues to this very day.


When the Negroes migrated North such as to New York City, they seemed to be on the path to being accepted as Americans and living the American Dream. Earlier blogs touched on this subject.

Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams (March 11, 2018)

What Should You Call Middle Passage Descendants? (January 16, 2022)

Now, I wish to start with the article “The Privilege of Family History,” by Kendra T. Field, a self-identified descendant of African and Creek ancestors (American Historical Review 127 2022: 600-633). As part of her investigation, she notes in the 1800s that people who knew that their fathers had been born in Africa “often claimed their fathers quite loudly.” In an early version of Roots, Field cites Henry Highland Garnet’s family tracing its origin to a Mandingo chieftain and warrior. Knowledge of that African connection was something to be championed:

“Are there any survivors of the later importations from Africa, or are there any Negroes who can say today ‘My father or my mother was a native African?’” (Southern Workman, Hampton Folklore Society, 1893).

She contrasted these quests with people like Frederick Douglass who was the son of his white owner and similar people who were more reticent about their origin. Field uses that contrast to observe that white people were dismissive of the very idea of a family history anyway culminating in the book The Negro Family by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 (just before the Negro would be replaced by African American).

Perhaps not as well-known, Field reports on the controversy post-Emancipation of the public shame in admitting that one even had slave ancestors. By the end of the 19th century, Field reports on the necessity to actively collect stories, practices, and folklore from their elders.

“The America Negroes are rising so rapidly … that the time seems not far distant when they shall have cast off their past entirely … If within the next few years care is not taken to collect and preserve all traditions and customs peculiar to the Negroes, there will be little to reward the search of the future historian” (Southern Workman, Hampton Folklore Society, 1893).

Field notes a concern expressed by students, alumni, and teachers that the next generation was growing ignorant of what their ancestors had experienced. As W.E.B. Du Bois proclaimed in speech at Howard University:

“there are facts of Negro history unknown to most of us and destined to remain so unless unearthed and published by historians of our own race.”    

Can you imagine the younger generation today asking parents and grandparents born before 1965, what is was like to be a Negro? That’s like asking to be fired as a professor.

But a century ago, Howard University had witnessed a growth in awareness of Negro culminating in a course on the Negro in American history. Soon there were a slew of bulletins, journals, and books about the Negro in American history.

In “America’s Second Sin: How an Overlooked era still shapes our world” by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Time April 15, 2019), he writes about the post-1895 development of The New Negro. It arose as a counter to the avalanche of racist images proliferating throughout Gilded Age America. Gates refers to them as superheroes fighting the good fight against these supremacist images. That period from 1895 to the Harlem Renaissance witnessed a series of individuals championing the Negro cause through a variety of media in the battle for respectability. It perhaps culminated with the artistic anthology “The New Negro: An Interpretation” by Alain Locke (1925). It was during this time that James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900) became the Negro National Anthem. But as with Negro Wall Street in Tulsa, it is no longer appropriate to use historically correct names when referring to anthem.

Negroes even had their own elites. For example, “Configuring Modernities: New Negro Womanhood in the Nation’s Capital, 1890,” by Treva Blaine Lindsey (2010). The dissertation subsequently was published as book Colored no more: reinventing black womanhood in Washington, D.C. (2017). As the titles suggests, the focus is fifty years in a single city, the nation’s capital.

Another publication drew on the author’s own experiences in Chicago, Negroland: A Memoir, an award-winning book by Margo Jefferson, formerly of The New York Times.

She writes:

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indulgence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Obviously, one cannot do full justice in a blog to the achievements during the Negro Century. Nor can one review all the differences in opinion held by historians about this era. The more important point is to recognize the American history did not simply jump from slavery and Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era and African America as if there was nothing in-between. There were great successes for Negroes during this period which placed them on the path to living the American Dream except for racism.

The name change in the 1920s is worthy of note. The New Negro built on the legacy, heritage, and history of the people as Negroes. By contrast, the term African American severed people from their own past something the Italians, Jews, and Slavs did not do just as it is unlikely Ukrainians will do. Now there are two gaps in the history of the Middle Passage people – their roots in Africa and their lives between slavery and Civil Rights. It’s as if their story begins in 1619 and resumes with Jim Crow.


In the time between the Great Migration and the Civil Rights era, Negroes made significant progress towards living the American without actually matching the success of white people. The following information comes from a full page article in the Sunday News of the Week Review in The New York Times on December 6, 2020. It is by Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert Putnam, authors of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. They also can be viewed online on multiple websites talking about the book.

Their contention is:

In terms of material well-being, Black Americans were moving toward parity with white America well before the victories of the civil rights era. What’s more, after the passage of civil rights legislation, those trends towards racial parity slowed, stopped and even reversed.

They identify multiple measures reflecting this development. They include:

Life expectancy
High School graduation
K-12 school integration
Voter registration.

They attribute a lot of the improvement to the Great Migration itself. Millions of people left the South, home of the Confederates and Jim Crow, for cities in the North. One may add that not only was it a geographical migration but also one from a rural agricultural-based economy and life to a urban and factory based one. As they write:

It was Black Americans’ undaunted faith in the promise of the American “we,” and their willingness to claim their place in it against all odds, that won them progress between the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the end of the civil rights movement in the 1970s. 

Why this progress plateaued or reverse just when Negroes became African Americans is not the subject of this blog. Instead it is to chart the grounds for optimism that migrant Negroes could match the success of immigrant Italians and Jews in living the American Dream.


By now, most Americans, at least of a certain age, are familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson leaving the Negro League to become the first Negro to play in the Major Leagues.

Prior to that, white and Negro baseball players played in parallel leagues, sometimes in the same ball parks but not, of course at the same time. Sometimes barnstorming Major League players, at a time when one could scarcely make a living playing baseball, would play teams from the various Negro Leagues. The crossover of Jackie Robinson quickly led to the demise of those leagues. On the other hand, what greater symbol could there be of Negro assimilation into America than playing for a Major League team? Soon, the cry of “Wait till next year” ended as 1955 became next year against the hated New York Yankees.

But the story does not end there. Brooklyn was an immigrant borough, a borough of ethnics. That carried over into the baseball team that represented them. Consider again the Italian and Jewish immigrants who arrived around the same time as the Great Migration. Already baseball had had its Irish players and managers like John McGraw. Then Germans Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were added to the baseball mix. Jewish Hank Greenberg of Detroit and, most famously, Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees extended the ethnic range. But it was the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson, Carl Furillo, and then Sandy Koufax who touched the most bases. So back then before the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn, the Dodgers were America’s team.

So to conclude this optimistic blog on the trajectory of Negroes in the Great Migration, the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s best symbolize the path taken to living the American Dream. The team shows what was possible. Unfortunately for every Branch Rickey who made the decision to include Negroes in the American Dream there were many other white people who made the decision to exclude them.

The Negro Name Game: My First Step Trying to Make Sense and Have Hope in a Racially Tumultuous Country

Triangular Trade

New York has experienced demographic change. There is a difference between between being the descendants of people who left Ghana centuries ago against their will to become slaves in New York and elsewhere in what became the middle passage and those who left Ghana recently by jet plane of their own free will to live the American Dream.

The catalyst for my personal odyssey about this topic occurred in January, 2016, when Whitesboro, NY, briefly held national attention. The reason for the notoriety was the municipal seal. It appeared to show an interaction between Hugh White, the founder of the community, and an Oneida chief that was derogatory towards the latter. A cable comedy-news show sent someone to Whitesboro to gather material for the show. In the course of a conversation between that person and a local resident the issue of race came up. The local resident replied using various terms including “Negro” to identify the race of the media person. At that point the person looked taken aback as if another word had been used. Truth be told, all the reactions of the media personality were over-the-top physical exaggerations who clearly was playing to the camera so it was difficult to determine if the response was genuine or not.

Nonetheless, the reaction whether real or faux suggests that there is a story to be told about the use of the word “Negro” for middle-passage blacks that is part of American history. When I was growing up in a naturally occurring [meaning not court-ordered] integrated [I did not know that word then] elementary school there were students who looked different than me called Negroes. To the best of my recollection there was no discrimination [another word I did not know] against them in the classroom or on the playground, the world I knew as an 8 year-old. The visible segregation [another word I didn’t know] was the unofficial one on the playground where the boys played kickball and the girls jumped rope or played hop scotch. If I had been asked my identification I probably would have said Jewish meaning not Italian or Irish and not have responded “white.” So when I was growing up Negro simply was the name of one group of people in the community.

The incident in Whitesboro caused me to pursue the history of this terminology further. Certainly I am aware that the term is not the one used today to refer to black people but in and of itself that change in terminology did not necessarily make the word a pejorative. It wasn’t one when I was growing up.

The term means “black” and refers to the black-skinned people in Africa the Portuguese and/or Spanish encountered during their explorations to Africa in the 16th century. It was descriptive in nature of an obvious physical characteristic that clearly differentiated the two peoples. In that sense it was not a derogatory term in its origin. That stark difference in colors between the white and black-skinned peoples very much was part of the historical context in which slavery began in this country.

These Negroes in America were a factor in the American Revolution on both sides. The British successfully recruited some of them to join their side against the Americans. Consider this excerpt from a recent July 4th article The Secret Black History of the Revolution


John Murray, Earl of Dunmore by Charles Harris.

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

From 1772 on, Royal Governor Dunmore of Virginia had threatened rebellious Patriots. “It is my fixed purpose,” he said, “to arm my own Negroes and accept all others whom I shall declare free… and I shall not hesitate at reducing [Patriots’] houses to ashes and spreading destruction wherever I can reach.” By the time he issued his Proclamation on Nov. 7, 1775, thousands of blacks had flocked to the British side to join his Royal Ethiopian Regiment. Because of Dunmore and the High Court’s 1772 Somersett decision that bondage was outlawed on English soil, the Southern states seceded from Britain to preserve slavery. In his 1775 “Taxation not Tyranny,” Samuel Johnson, the great English essayist, rightly quipped: “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” [Bold added]

While the white authors today employ the term “black,” the British then used the term “negroes.” It is reasonable to conclude that the British did not attempt to recruit people to their cause by referring to them in what they thought was a derogatory manner. It was a term both peoples used and the usage is consistent with the way I had been brought up.

By coincidence, just recently a slavery story made the news right where I live. The reason was the discovery of a note in the archives of the Rye Historical Society for the sale of “my Negro girl named Pegg” by prominent Greenwich property owner, Daniel Lyon, on July 7, 1790 to another major Greenwich property owner, Nathaniel Merritt Jr., whose family gave its name to the Merritt Parkway. [On a personal note I live on land that once belonged to Lyon and indeed the community is named after him as is the nearby village park.] She was freed in 1800 and has descendants who live in Westchester County. Indeed the genealogical research by one descendant investigating the family name “Merritt” that led to the discovery.


Daniel Lyon Jr.’s bill of sale — dated July 7, 1790 — of “my Negro girl named Pegg”

to Nathaniel Merritt Jr. of Greenwich, Conn. (Photo: Rye Historical Society)

The discovery serves as a reminder that black New Yorkers can trace or have ancestors from prior to the Great Migration from the South, prior to Ellis Island immigration, and prior to Castle Clinton (Irish) immigration. Just as New York ignores July 4, 1827, in its history so it ignores or minimizes the history of the blacks once they became free in the antebellum period. There is more to black history in New York than the discovery of burial grounds from colonial times or the underground railroad. The recently refurbished, then vandalized, and then cleaned-up African Cemetery owned by the Town of Rye since 1860 where I have been numerous times is one example of the effort to remember that history of free blacks from that time period.


(Left) Dennis Richmond Jr., 21, of Yonkers, and his uncle,

John Sherman Merritt, 75, of the Bronx, in the Rye Historical Society’s Knapp House.

The discovery also provides a teaching and civic opportunity to use local history to address state and national issues.

This post on the use of  “Negro” is not intended to be comprehensive but there are additional illustrations which deserve to be revealed before concluding.

Professor Booker T.Washington, being politely interrogated … as to whether negroes ought to be called ‘negroes’ or ‘members of the colored race’ has replied that it has long been his own practice to write and speak of members of his race as negroes, and when using the term ‘negro’ as a race designation to employ the capital ‘N’ [“Harper’s Weekly,” June 2, 1906]

Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and again in 1925 urged the creation of a “Negro Industrial Commission” to promote a better policy of mutual understanding.” In 1929 in the waning months of his presidency, he signed legislation for a memorial celebrating “the Negro’s contribution to the achievements of America.”

JamesWeldon Johnson, the first black to head the NAACP, described a meeting he had with Coolidge brokered by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

I was expecting that he would make, at least, an inquiry or two about the state of mind and condition of the twelve million Negro citizens of the United States. I judged that curiosity, if not interest, would make for that much conversation. The pause was painful (for me at least) and I led off with some informational remarks; but it was clear that Mr. Coolidge knew absolutely nothing about colored people. I gathered that the only living Negro he had heard anything about was Major Moton (Booker T. Washington’s successor at Tuskegee). [Bold added]

Negro History Week was celebrated for the first time in 1926 during the second week in February. This month was chosen because Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrated their birthdays during this month. Later it would be renamed and become a monthly dedication as it is now.

These examples attest the continued use of the term by both blacks and whites without any negative connotation into the opening decades of the 20th century. They are consistent with the usage from when I was growing up.

This era also was the time of the Negro Baseball League. For several decades it thrived as the major leagues for Negro baseball players. Its teams would barnstorm with players from the white Major League baseball teams. Some of those players have been installed at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There also is a separate Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.


Courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Wikipedia

Traveling was a problem so in 1937, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was created to aid people in finding places to eat and sleep. It lasted from 1937 to 1967.  The Smithsonian Magazine recently featured it with an article reporting that it is the subject of a documentary-in-progress by Ric Burns.

During World War II, the United States recruited middle-passage blacks to join the war effort by joining the military. This continued a pattern of their fighting on behalf of the United States in every war the country fought. One such recruiting effort was the Navy film in 1942, The Negro Sailor (available on YouTube).  Again, it seems unlikely as with the British during the American Revolution that recruiting efforts would have been aided through the use of a derogatory term to refer to the people being targeted. It continued to be a term both races uses without a negative meaning into the 1940s.

All the pieces came together after the war when Jackie Robinson, a war and Negro League veteran, became the first Negro to play for the Major Leagues and in 1962 was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Jackie Robinson MLK 09-19-62

Original caption: 9/19/1962-New York, NY: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (L) and baseball Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson chat together before a press conference in New York, September 19th. Dr. King, who arrived to open a drive for funds and a northern “non-violent army” of clergymen and followers to battle segregation, said the “real showdown” in the segregation fight was the struggle to get negro James Meredith into the University of Mississippi.(Original caption). September 19, 1962 New York, New York, USA [bold added]

Following Robinson and even more famous Negro garnered national attention. Martin Luther King was a frequent user of the term “Negro.” He dreamed of what Negroes in the United States should have the opportunity to achieve. His use of the term may present challenges in teaching and in exhibits particularly with young students who are not familiar with the historical context and then suddenly hear a word it in a speech that they are not used to hearing.

The current issue of Time includes an excerpt from James Baldwin written in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It is from a letter of a father to his son today:

…in every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world… [Bold added]

Here again is an example about the continuing presence of terms from the past. We are confronted here not with changing a name from New Amsterdam to New York reflecting a political change. Rather the values and associations produced by the same word have changed over time. What the word meant to the black man who was alive in 1964 and what the word means to his son today to whom his letter was addressed are not the same. Readers of the magazine separated by time in when they grew up therefore may respond differently to the article depending on how they react to the same word.

In 1968, a biracial person wrote a letter to the biracial (actually bi-species) Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise. She wrote that her mother was Negro and her father was white and appealed to the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock because of the suffering he had endured. The human Leonard Nimoy, son of Jewish immigrants who had settled in Boston, wrote her a long letter in response. Little did this teen girl know that when she grew up, this self-reference itself would be an abomination to be cleansed from the maps and vocabulary of civilized people.

This survey ends in the mid-1960s. At that time Negro began to be unacceptable and was replaced by a new term to refer to the same people. My experience with name change may be different from that of blacks.  As mentioned, I am Jewish. Part of my heritage are the memories of the ghettos, pogroms, and holocausts which have been perpetrated against Jews. If we were to change our name because of these actions, then I would consider that an act of surrender to anti-Semites. I oppose the bad and evil things which were done and to want them not to be repeated. I do not hold my name in contempt as a legacy of those bad and evil things. Being called a Jew is not a pejorative despite the harmful actions targeted against us. I bring my own traditions and experiences to my understanding of the name “Negro” both as a Jew and from when growing up. I remember how hard Kunta Kinte fought to keep his name.

Recently our government became involved in the issue. In May our president signed a bill which removed the word “Negro” from federal law and requires the use of African American instead. The rationale is that the older term causes people to cringe today as the performer in Whitesboro did. The law amending Section 211(f)(1) of the Department of Energy Organization Act (42 U.S.C. 7141(f)(1)) wasn’t in place then in January at the time of the Whitesboro interview. It only applies to laws not speech. Similarly there is an effort underway in Connecticut to change the name of the rock formation Negro Heads in Branford. According to State Senator Ted Kennedy, Jr., the name is anachronistic and offensive. In other words, a term used for centuries by both blacks and whites to refer to the same people now was officially designated as being offensive. Ironically the one individual American to have a federal holiday in his honor repeatedly used a word which the federal government now declares to be unacceptable as a matter of law.

As it tuns out, after this virtuous “whitewashing” of the word Negro, the banished term has refused to disappear. Despite the politically-correct effort to remove this stain from the American social fabric, it is not easily deleted. For example, the New York Comedy Festival in November, 2016, includes the show “The New Negroes.” The title derives from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance anthology book The New Negro by Alain Locke. In an interview on the show, rapper Open Mike Eagle said:

[The] provocative nature [of the title] challenges the notions of what is conjured when people think of that name. I felt like I was allowing the politics around the N-word to affect something that was important to us culturally. I want us to protect that [the word Negro] and not let it go just because people have taken it and associated it with these terrible behaviors and attitudes.” (“Illuminating What It Means to be Black in America, via Comedy,” NYT 11/2/16)

Another change accelerating after the 1960s when Negro fell out of favor, was the composition of black people in the United States. Immigration laws changed. Since then especially more recently, the demographics of blacks in New York has changed in the city as well as in refuge cities upstate. Politicians campaigning in the boroughs of New York City know that all the black people don’t have a shared nearly 400-year history of being in the United States or the colonies. These newcomers aren’t simply from the South as the earlier migration last century but from other countries. Their presence in the city generates the question of what they should be called.

In a recent op-ed piece, Yaa Gyasi wrote “I’m Ghanian-American. Am I Black?” The author raises an important issue. Although Ghana served as a depot from which human cargo was transported to America as slaves in what is called the middle passage, Ghanaian-Americans today, like those from Nigeria, Senegal, Angola and elsewhere, are likely to have arrived by jet. The Mayflower, middle passage, Ellis Island, and JFK Airport arrivals present different models for how people came to this country. Again there is a civic and education opportunity to examine the different forms of arrival and to discuss what it means in a country defined as “We the People.” Times have changed, new circumstances have arisen, new contexts have developed, so it is reasonable to wonder if vocabulary changes are needed as well as indicated by the title of the Ghanian-American’s op-ed piece.

For example, typically Irish and Italian Americans are identified by their country of ancestry just as this Ghanaian seeks to be. In general, immigrants do identify themselves by their country of origin or ancestry. Two recent presidential candidates were Cuban-Americans and not Latin Americans. That option obviously is not available with middle-passage blacks. The new science of DNA testing is being used to identify the geographical range of origin for blacks and has been the subject of several TV shows with black celebrities. In a world of global migration sometimes through multiple countries and where people of multiple colors live on the same continent, the old binary black-white classification system in America may be too limiting.

So why was the name which middle-passage blacks brought to America were called by themselves and by others changed in the 1960s after centuries of use? What terminology should be used to differentiate those people who have been in America for centuries and who fought in the American Revolution from those who recently arrived as immigrants of their own free will?

These questions touch on the larger questions of great importance to our future beyond the immediate scope of this post. What do the concepts of “We the People” and e pluribus unum mean when people of the same and different colors have such different experiences as Americans? When Lincoln said “Four-score and seven-years ago, our fathers,” he knew that many people in the audience and in the Union did not have ancestors in America 77 years earlier when we declared our independence. He certainly knew the importance of names. As a result of Lincoln the United States changed from being a plural term (they are a country) to a singular one (it is a country). For Lincoln, those who stood for America in the present were one with those who stood for America at its founding. Now we are twelve-score and zero years from that moment. Who will be our Lincoln today?

The Journey continues