"Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are" Black Americans on Immigration

By Robert Malloy on June 1, 1996


On the issue of immigration, contemporary Americans, and especially African Americans, need to be guided by two lessons from history. The first, from the New Testament, says that "without vision, the people perish." The second warns that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Unfortunately, many African American political leaders and intellectuals do not heed these lessons with regard to immigration. They either are ignorant of the insights of their forerunners or they fail to understand how similar today's conditions are to those during the previous wave of mass immigration.

At the same time, it is clear from poll after poll that African Americans as a whole have much sounder views regarding today's record levels of immigration. One result of this intellectual and political dissonance is that African Americans are in danger of much greater future suffering because of the political choices and actions taken today on their behalf.

As is clear from this compilation, "Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are": Black Americans on Immigration, one of the facts of American history that is not widely discussed is the nation's long-standing preference for immigrant labor, when the alternative was to train and employ native-born African Americans. Booker T. Washington in his famous 1895 Atlanta exposition speech pleaded with industrialists not to look to European immigrants to man their new factories but rather to the black and white labor supply in the South. Blacks were always the residual labor pool and never able to enjoy the benefits of full employment, save for times of war when the preferred (white) immigrant supply was not available.1 African Americans were later denied (and often continue to be denied) access to skilled craft guilds and later labor unions.

The mass immigration that started in the late 19th century greatly slowed the industrialization of the South and has made southern rural poverty most difficult to eradicate. We are beginning to reap the policy whirlwind of a similar mass immigration policy in the 1980s and 1990s. The result has been similar — a more difficult and depressed labor market for African Americans in the last part of the 20th century.

America stands out among the world's nations by continuing a policy of mass immigration during a time of slow economic growth and industrial restructuring. African Americans are disproportionably hurt by this process because immigrants tend to locate in our big cities, there to compete with African Americans for housing, jobs, and education. Needless to say, as manufacturing and industrial jobs decline, the competition for the remaining blue-collar jobs becomes more intense, and when this happens African Americans lose for a variety of reasons — reasons ranging from racial stereotypes to employer preference for vulnerable workers fearing deportation.

The following compilation of historical opinion should serve as a wake-up call for many of today's African American leaders and intellectuals, who take counterproductive stands on the issue of whether to encourage the expansion or contraction of immigration. African American leaders in the past knew that labor was not exempt from the law of supply and demand. Anything, including immigration, which increases the supply of labor in America works against the interests of African Americans. The consequences, such as depressed wages or the substitution of other workers, are clearly not in the interests of African Americans. It is sad that this basic fact, recognized by such dissimilar figures as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, is today so widely ignored. The Center for Immigration Studies should be commended for reminding contemporary African American intellectuals and political leaders how they have not been true to the insights of their predecessors — genuine leaders who never hesitated to put the interests of African Americans first.

— Frank L. Morris, Former dean of graduate studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore


"The former slave owners of the South want cheap labor; they want it from Germany and from Ireland; they want it from China and Japan; they want it from anywhere in the world, but from Africa. They want to be independent of their former slaves, and bring their noses to the grindstone."2

Thus did Frederick Douglass, just six years after the end of the Civil War, sum up the threat that mass immigration has posed to black Americans throughout much of our nation's history. Even before Emancipation, free blacks in the North had found their economic position challenged by immigrants. After the War, advocates for blacks initially feared that the defeated southerners would use immigrants to usurp blacks' role in the agrarian economy of the South. An Alabama man expressed the southern planters' thinking with regard to a scheme to import Chinese farmworkers:

"It will take three of 'em to do the work of two niggers, but they'll live on next to nothing and clothe themselves, and you've only got to pay 'em four dollars a month."3

The attempts by planters to shunt aside their former bondsmen in favor of foreigners ultimately proved unsuccessful; blacks' role in southern agriculture was preserved. But the widespread desire among white Americans to bypass blacks in favor of immigrants remained, and the way it unfolded proved to have more far-reaching consequences than any scheme to import alien farmworkers.

The mass industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, combined with the opening of vast lands in the West for settlement, offered an opportunity to draw toward the mainstream of the economy the mass of native-born unskilled labor that blacks represented. The vast labor needs of northern factories might have created an economic incentive to overcome the pervasive racism of the time, enabling blacks to get in on the ground floor of industrialization. The benefits of such a policy, to blacks specifically but also to the entire nation, would have been incalculable.

But the opportunity was squandered. Between 1880 and 1924, about 26 million people came to the United States from overseas, mainly from southern and eastern Europe — a number equal to four times the total population of black Americans at the start of that Great Wave of immigration.

These millions of immigrants slaked most of the thirst for labor of the North's rapidly expanding industries, permitting them to flower without having to attract rural black laborers. Blacks thus were shut out from the opportunity to flee Jim Crow and peonage in the South. Only with the labor shortages caused by the First World War, and the subsequent cutoff of most immigration in the 1920s, did blacks have to be recruited for high-wage jobs. Mass immigration, in other words, significantly altered the history of black Americans by delaying their entry into the modern, industrial economy.

The two decades after World War II, with their rapid economic growth, presented another opportunity for black economic advancement. But it was during this period that immigration slowly began to rise after the lows of the 1920s and 1930s, and only a year after the struggle for black legal equality reached fruition with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the groundwork for a new wave of mass immigration was established with the Immigration Act of 1965. Since then, nearly 20 million legal immigrants have moved here, in addition to millions of illegal immigrants. This flow continues at the rate of about one million a year, in an unfortunate repetition of the period before World War I.

Prominent black Americans today are silent regarding the pernicious effects of this ongoing immigration on their brethren. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was no such reticence. In speeches and letters, newspapers and books, black Americans of all political persuasions spoke out about the harm done to them by the federal government's policy of allowing the mass importation of cheap labor. This publication draws together a selection of that commentary, to remind us of the logic underlying black Americans' heritage of protest against mass immigration as a fundamental impediment to black economic progress — a heritage forgotten in recent years.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in the 1830s and headed north. There he saw the beginnings of immigrant competition with blacks. Black men at the time dominated many blue-collar occupations in New York, while maids, cooks, laundresses and seamstresses were generally black women.4

They were secure in these types of employment and earned relatively good wages. But the influx of white foreigners changed the situation rapidly. Unskilled European workers moved into the occupations which had been dominated by blacks. Offering to work for any wages they could obtain, they reduced blacks' earnings dramatically and deprived many of employment.

Douglass commented on this in an 1853 article:

"The old avocations, by which colored men obtained a livelihood, are rapidly, unceasingly and inevitably passing into other hands; every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place; and so we believe it will continue to be until the last prop is levelled beneath us . . . It is evident, painfully evident to every reflecting mind that the means of living, for colored men, are becoming more and more precarious and limited. Employments and callings, formerly monopolized by us, are so no longer.

White men are becoming house-servants, cooks and stewards on vessels — at hotels. They are becoming porters, stevedores, wood sawyers, hod carriers, brick makers, white washers and barbers, so that the blacks can scarcely find the means of subsistence — a few years ago, and a white barber would have been a curiosity — now their poles stand on every street. Formerly blacks were almost the exclusive coachmen in wealthy families . . .Without the means of living, life is a curse, and leaves us at the mercy of the oppressor to become his debased slaves."5

In an 1879 article in the Baltimore Sun, he observed how the bargaining power of blacks, potentially greater in the South because of a lack of other labor, was undercut in the immigrant-rich cities of the North:

"Our people in the South have a monopoly of the labor market. They are the arm, the muscle and the hand, with the vantage ground of the constitution behind them, men sympathizing with them in every State, and the power to say, "Give us fair wages or your fields will go untilled." In the North and West they will have no such advantage. They will be confronted by Irishmen, Germans, and Chinese, who can do all kinds of labor, even to handling the wood saw and the whitewash brush."6

In an 1879 speech in Boston, Douglass commented on the motives of those encouraging Chinese immigration:

". . . These gentlemen have turned their attention to the Celestial Empire. They would rather have laborers who would work for nothing; but as they cannot get the negro on these terms, they want Chinamen, who, they hope, will work for next to nothing.

Companies and associations may yet be formed to promote this Mongolian invasion. The loss of the negro is to gain them the Chinese, and if the thing works well, abolition, in their opinion, will have proved itself to be another blessing in disguise."7

Neither the South or the North provided an escape for the ex-slaves against the rising tide of immigrant competition. Many decided to move west to Texas and California. In California, blacks and Chinese competed in the same businesses. In 1876, about 8,000 California Chinese worked as domestics or launderers, jobs blacks had once dominated. In an 1869 speech in Medina, N.Y., Douglass said:

"While his wages went into the pockets of another, while the bread that he earned in the sweat of his face was to be eaten by another; while he was to toil that another might live at ease, he could do so without opposition; but when he has his own mouth to feed, his own back to clothe, his own body to shelter, his own children to support and educate, the case is different. White brick-layers, white carpenters, and white printers combine to prevent any black man from working at these respective trades, and attempt to bend the Government to this narrow and selfish purpose . . . There is no mistaking the purpose and destiny to which a portion of our white fellow-citizens would devote the colored people of this country. In the vigorous efforts now making to import Coolies from China — a kind of Asiatic slave-trade — with a view to supplant the black laborer in the South."8

In an 1871 article in The Washington New National Era, Douglass reflected on the meaning of cheap immigrant labor for blacks:

"Labor is a noble word, and expresses a noble idea. Cheap labor, too, seems harmless enough, sounds well to the ear, and looks well upon paper . . . But what does it mean? Who does it bless or benefit? It means that condition of things in which the laborers shall be so largely in excess of the work needed to be done, that the capitalist shall be able to command all the laborers he wants, at prices only enough to keep the laborer above the point of starvation . . . The former slave owners of the South want cheap labor; they want it from Germany and from Ireland; they want it from China and Japan; they want it from anywhere in the world, but from Africa. They want to be independent of their former slaves, and bring their noses to the grindstone."9

Nor did Douglass fail to note the political advantages enjoyed by immigrants. In an 1853 speech in New York, he said:

"Sir, were I a white man, speaking before and for white men, I should in this country have a smooth sea and a fair wind. It is, perhaps, creditable to the American people, (and, sir, I am not the man to detract from their credit), that they listen eagerly to the report of wrongs endured by distant nations. The Hungarian, the Italian, the Irishman, the Jew, and the Gentile, all find in this land a home, and when any of them, or all of them desire to speak, they find willing ears, warm hearts and open hands. For these people, the Americans, have principles of justice, maxims of mercy, sentiments of religion, and feelings of brotherhood in abundance. But for my poor people enslaved — blasted and ruined — it would appear that America had neither justice, mercy nor religion."10

Outraged that the constitution of New York discouraged blacks from voting, Douglass condemned the state government in an 1855 speech in Troy, illustrating the tragic preference America has shown throughout its history for foreigners over native blacks:

"We can see no justice, honor, or magnanimity in that provision of our State Constitution (New York) which legislates a distinction against the colored man; which says he shall be incompetent to have a voice at the ballot-box until he is worth $250 in real estate. More especially do we fail to recognize this magnanimity when we see the fallen, the ignorant, the degraded of every foreign soil flocking to us and almost immediately transformed into American citizens. They are welcomed to the ballot-box, and called upon to exercise a voice in the government of a country of which they know almost nothing. We are Americans — Native Americans and we ask only to be treated as well as you treat aliens."11

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was careful not to attack immigrants as human beings. In fact, he often held them up as role models for blacks, using the enterprising immigrant's ability to overcome oppression and poverty as a rhetorical device to inspire his fellow blacks. In a 1912 speech before the National Negro Business League in Chicago, for instance, Washington said:

"Now is the time — not in some far off future, but now is the time — for us as a race to prove to the world that in a state of freedom we have the ability and the inclination to do our part in owning, developing, manufacturing and trading in the natural resources of our country . . .

If the Italians and Greeks can come into this country strangers to our language and civilization and within a few years gain wealth and independence by trading in fruits, the Negro can do the same thing . . . The new communities in many cases have been started by Germans; in other cases by Hollanders, or Danes, or by Swedes, or Norwegians, Poles or Hungarians who came to this country in comparative poverty . . . If the settlement is started by Poles, a Polander becomes the depot agent, a Polander becomes the telegraph operator. The first mayor is a Polander . . .

What foreign races coming to this country are doing in building towns and cities there is a chance for Negroes to do in any number of places in the South and in the West."12

But despite the rhetorical utility of promoting the example of immigrants as a spur to black achievement, he clearly saw that a national policy of mass immigration was harmful to blacks. In his famous address at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895, Washington implored white industrialists to turn to their black fellow-countrymen to man their new factories, rather than import workers from overseas:

"To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, 'cast down your bucket where you are.' Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, built your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South."13

In an 1889 speech to the Women's New England Club, Washington criticized the widespread bias in favor of immigrants:

". . . A large proportion of the American people have for so long a time almost unconsciously associated the Negro with slavery, subjugation, poverty, filth and ignorance that it is hard to separate him in our minds from these conditions, and we find Pat as he comes from Ireland, even before he learns the name of the president of the United States . . . begins to speak of "dirty Negroes." The poor Irishman or Jew is discriminated against till he gets property, intelligence and moral backbone and then he ceases to be an Irishman or a Jew, and becomes a full fledged American citizen."14

Such bias, in combination with mass immigration, would have devastating results for black Americans. Washington warned of this in an 1882 speech on industrial education for blacks before the Alabama State Teachers' Association:

"The first class carpenters, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, brickmasons and other skilled workmen, made so by slavery, are disappearing and few of their places are being filled. Northern competition has completely shut the skilled Negro workman out from that section, and the continual stream of well-trained European laborers that is continually flowing into the West leaves him no foothold there. We are compelled to admit that he holds his place in the South today, not so much by an over superiority of workmanship as from lack of competition. When the day comes, as it evidently will, when that great train of sturdy Englishmen and Germans begins to fill up the South, unless the Negro prepares himself thoroughly for the conflict, during the interim, his only resort will be in the cotton field."15

Similarly, writing in 1902 in the Tuskegee Student about the lack of funds for education, Washington warned of the consequences of competition from mass immigration:

"If we do not wake up to our opportunities, do not put brains and skill into common occupations by whatever name called that are immediately about our doors, we shall find that a class of foreigners will come in and take our places, just as they have already done in relation to certain industries."16

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington represented the opposing poles of a debate about the best method of advancement for black Americans — a debate which continues today. But one thing Du Bois and Washington did agree on was the harm foreign labor could inflict on blacks.

The two co-authored the 1907 book The Negro in the South, where they discussed how immigration was used against black workers:

"The voice that calls foreign immigrants southward today is not single but double. First, the exploiter of common labor wishes to exploit this new labor just as formerly he exploited Negro labor . . . the second object of the immigration philosopher is to make sure that, when the rights of the laborer come to be recognized in the South, that laborer will be white, and just so far as possible the black laborer will still be forced down below the white laborer until he becomes thoroughly demoralized or extinct . . . one element remains to be considered, and this is political power. If the black workman is to remain disfranchised while the white native and immigrant not only has the economic defense of the ballot, but the power to use it so as to hem in the Negro competitor, cow and humiliate him and force him to a lower plane, then the Negro will suffer from immigration.

It is becoming distinctly obvious to Negroes that today, in modern economic organization, the one thing that is giving the workman a chance is intelligence and political power, and that it is utterly impossible for a moment to suppose that the Negro in the South is going to hold his own in the new competition with immigrants if, on the one hand, the immigrant has access to the best schools of the community and has equal political power with other men to defend his rights and to assert his wishes, while, on the other hand, his black competitor is not only weighed down by past degradation, but has few or no schools and is disfranchised.

The question then as to what will happen in the South when immigration comes, is a very simple question. If the Negro is kept disfranchised and ignorant and if the new foreign immigrants are allowed access to the schools and given votes as they undoubtedly will be, then there can ensue only accentuated race hatred, the spread of poverty and disease among Negroes, the increase of crime and the gradual murder of the eight millions of black men who live in the South except in so far as they escape North and bring their problems there as thousands will."17

But escape to the North would not be a solution either. To illustrate this, Du Bois wrote in his 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, that black barbers had been very abundant in that city, and had numerous white customers. As immigration increased, black barber shops did less business:

"The Negro as a barber is rapidly losing ground in the city. It is difficult to say why this occurred, but there are several contributory reasons . . . The competition of German and Italian barbers furnished the last and most potent reason for the withdrawal of the Negro; they were skilled workmen, while skilled Negro barbers were becoming scarce; they cut down the customary prices and some of them found business co-operation and encouragement which Negroes could not hope for . . . Already a white labor union movement is beginning to crowd the Negro, to ask for legislation which will strike him most forcibly and in other ways to bring organized endeavor to bear upon disorganized apathy."18

In his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois wrote about the relations between immigrants and slaves before Emancipation:

"These workers [new immigrants] came to oppose slavery not so much from moral as from the economic fear of being reduced by competition to the level of slaves. They wanted to become capitalists; and they found that chance threatened by the competition of a working class whose status at the bottom of the economic structure seemed permanent and inescapable. Then, gradually, as succeeding immigrants were thrown in difficult and exasperating competition with black workers, their attitude changed . . . He found pouring into cities like New York and Philadelphia emancipated Negroes with low standards of living, competing for the jobs which the lower class of unskilled white laborers wanted.

For the immediate available jobs, the Irish particularly competed and the employers because of race antipathy and sympathy with the South did not wish to increase the number of Negro workers, so long as the foreigners worked just as cheaply. The foreigners in turn blamed blacks for the cheap price of labor . . . The Negroes worked cheaply, partly from custom, partly as their only defense against competition. The white laborers realized that Negroes were part of a group of millions of workers who were slaves by law, and whose competition kept white labor out of the work of the South and threatened its wages and stability in the North. When now the labor question moved West, and became a part of the land question, the competition of black men became of increased importance . . . But here on this free land, they met not only a few free Negro workers, but the threat of a mass of slaves. The attitude of the West toward Negroes, therefore, became sterner than that of the East. Here was the possibility of direct competition with slaves, and the absorption of Western land into the slave system. This must be resisted at all costs, but beyond this, even free Negroes must be discouraged. On this the Southern poor white immigrants insisted."19

In the same book, Du Bois pointed out that mass immigration hurt both black and white laborers, and he foreshadowed future events by noting the Republican Party platform of 1864, which advocated increased immigration in the interest of big business:

"A new flood of cheap immigrant labor was brought onto the country to work on the railroads and in the new industries. Northern mill owners who had feared free farms because they might decrease the number of laborers and raise their wages, were appeased by the promotion of alien immigration. It was interesting to hear the Union Party, as the Republicans called themselves in 1864, say, in their platform: `Foreign immigration which in the past had added so much to the wealth and development of resources and the increase of power to this nation — the aspirations of the oppressed of all nations should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.' That year the Bureau of Immigration was created . . . In 1860, immigrants were coming in at a rate of 130,000 a year . . . but the new homestead laws began to attract them so that after the war immigration quickly rose from 200,000 to 350,000 a year, and in 1873, had reached 460,000 annually.

It was all too true, as Senator Wilson of Massachusetts said in the 38th Congress, but it was a truth that white laborers did not yet realize: `We have advocated the rights of the black man, because the black man was the most oppressed type of toiling man of this country. I tell you, sir, that the man who is the enemy of the black laboring man is the enemy of the white laboring man the world over. The same influences that go to keep down and crush the rights of the poor black man bear down and oppress the poor white laboring man.' "20

Finally, in a 1929 article in The Crisis, he reflected on the benefits to blacks from the reductions in immigration that had been enacted earlier in the decade:

"Colored America has been silent on the immigration quota controversy for two reasons: First, the stopping of the importing of cheap white labor on any terms has been the economic salvation of American black labor. As usual, we gain only by the hurt of our fellow white serfs, but it is not our fault and whenever these same laborers get a chance they swat us worse than the capitalists. Secondly, we are loathe to invite more black folk to a land of color discrimination lest they suffer and lest they make us suffer more as certain foreign dark folk have by frustrating our efforts and misunderstanding our ideals."21

Marcus Garvey

Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey led the "back to Africa" movement during the early part of this century. Despite the radical political differences that separated him from other prominent black Americans, he too recognized the threat to blacks of mass immigration. In a 1920 speech at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., he warned of the rising tide of immigration and the despair it would create for blacks:

"If you think that the white man is going to share a part of what he has and give it to you, you make a big mistake. You have enjoyed a portion of what the white man has because the white man was unable to keep it away from you, because he wanted more, and in order to get that more he had to get help to get it, but the time will come when he will have all the help he wants, and that is why this sudden immigration has started to the United States of America at the rate of 15,000 a day — alien white men coming back to the United States of America at the rate of 15,000 a day. Do you know what this means? It means this: That in the next three or four years one-third of the Negro population of the United States of America will be in a similar condition or position as we were in 1913 before the war. We will be out of jobs, we will be starving, we will be living next door to starving and starvation."22

The Black Press

Newspapers and magazines also reported on the loss of opportunities for blacks because of the large influx of immigrant labor. The following selection of editorials and articles provides some insight into black sentiment during the early years of this century.

The Colored American Magazine of New York published the following piece in 1904 by John L. Waller, Jr., who minced few words about the "Evils of European Emigration":

. . . Coming into this nation as paupers who must work or starve, they readily afford a means by which commercial institutions may obtain cheap labor, thereby depriving native born Americans of the opportunity to work which is justly theirs. The entrance of any considerable number of these emigrants into a community is generally a signal for reduction in wages. It matters little to corporations whether or not native Americans are thrown out of employment. All they desire is cheap labor and whether or not such labor is furnished by Americans or foreigners is a matter which gives them little concern. No one thing has been more favorable to the organization and growth of trusts in the United States than the cheap labor furnished by European emigrants. Under conditions demanding a better price for toil their rapid growth in so short a period would have been impracticable . . . By restricting emigration, placing labor at a staple price and giving preference to native sons wherever there is work to do, the serious trouble to the government and the inconvenience to commerce which often result would soon decrease to the minimum . . . It may be argued that America contains abundant natural resources to sustain a largely increased population and that the entrance of European emigrants contribute to the development of the country, but it should be remembered that the days of pioneer emigrants have long since passed. They no longer go to the soil for their daily bread but flock to the already overcrowded cities and immediately proceed to deprive native Americans of employment by offering themselves at cheap prices.23

Also in The Colored American Magazine, a 1905 piece entitled "Immigration Again," despite a certain chauvinism, was unequivocal about the threat posed by immigrant labor to blacks:

Some months ago, The Colored American Magazine called attention to the forces at work influencing, or making an effort to do so, Italian Immigrants to the South, with the specific purpose of displacing with them the colored labor in field and public work.

During the last month arrangements were begun to place at New Orleans a large immigration station, which shall be the center of this new thing, and to which all of the immigrants that land at New York shall be sent for distribution throughout the Southland. This scheme has the sanction, if not the active support, of Commissioner [General of Immigration, Frank P.] Sargent, who has expressed himself as well pleased, not only with the selection of New Orleans as the base of operation, but with the idea of flooding the South with foreign labor as well.

It is of no use to warn the South against inviting a foreign, disagreeable, and unfit element into its midst. This has been repeatedly done, and the South has repeatedly disregarded all warnings, however logical and convincing. It must learn, and it certainly shall, that Italians cannot do farm labor, and will not for any length of time perform satisfactory public work. No less a person Mr. Thomas H. Malone, who thoroughly understands conditions in the South, pointed out recently in a newspaper article that the Italian, as a laborer, is unreliable and ineffective, and he substantiated the charge with forceful citation of recent shortcomings. And yet in this the South must take its lesson, for it is like unto a foolish maiden, who accepts advice from no quarter, and oft times will not believe what her eyes behold.

The friends of the race, in the South, should warn colored men everywhere against unreliability in labor, leaving the plantations, and failing to purchase the soil whenever and wherever they can.

If cheap and foreign labor should take root and become well grounded in the South, the Afro-American as a laborer, skilled workman, and soil owner would be in much the same condition as his brother in the North, who cannot find work of a high character, and consequently unable to purchase land, and homes, even if they were offered to him in desirable sections. The colored man in the South should bend every energy to the making sure of his present domination as a laborer and farmer, and to acquiring more of every kind of labor and land in sight.

Those who are leading the South should impress these truths upon the rank and file, in order that they might meet prepared any attack made upon their economic life.24

In another 1904 article, "Bread and Butter Argument," the magazine described the displacement of blacks by immigrants:

. . . The Afro-American people are beginning to face the industrial conditions which the writer forewarned them was coming . . . Their rights to make a living in the basic employments of society is being questioned on every hand, and the number of such employments is being narrowed constantly. The labor unions have done what they could to keep the race out of these employments, and those not skilled in character which the unions control, because related in some sort to the skilled trades, — such as coal mining, construction work, and the like. It is a remarkable and pitiable thing to go over the list of employments which the race enjoyed in New York City twenty years ago, and are now no longer open to it, except in isolated instances, where individuals have come over as any other asset to the business or estate and whose places are filled by white persons as fast as they "pass out to sea." This has been the case with bank messengers, janitors of office buildings, restaurant waiters, coachmen and domestic servants and hotel employees. Twenty years ago Afro-Americans had practically, a monopoly of the labor in all of these occupations; this was especially true of janitor, domestic and hotel service. Gradually black and colored peoples have been replaced by white persons, Europeans for the most part. . . .

As it has been in domestic and janitor service in New York so also it has been in the other occupations referred to in the beginning of this article, notably in hotel and restaurant service. The Negro headwaiter has disappeared from the hotel service of New York City and the waiters have gone with him. The loss of this occupation and that of domestic service has been a positive misfortune to the men and women of the race in New York. Indeed, the choice of occupation has steadily narrowed, so that it would be difficult to say how the large Afro-American population of the Metropolis manages to keep soul and body together, especially when the high price of living, of which rent is the most considerable item, is taken into account. . . .

In a broader way the statistics just furnished by the Federal Census Bureau show that there has been a steady falling off in the number of Negroes employed in the skilled trades. White artisans, of their own motion or by motion of the trades union, are crowding them hard if not out.25

The wave of immigration early in this the century was temporarily halted by World War I, which made passage across the sea even more hazardous than usual. This cutoff in the flow of newcomers, and the return of some immigrants to their native lands, helped create opportunities for black Americans. The New York Age reported that blacks had the most to gain from legislation that would maintain this reduction in immigration. In 1917 it wrote: The action of Congress in enacting an Immigration bill is of particular interest to the colored people of this country. The return of thousands of foreigners to the home of their birth incident to the European war, materially helped to create new industrial opportunities for Negro labor. Immediately after the war the influx of immigrants to America is not likely to be large, for there will be plenty of work to be done abroad. Many inclined to come to this country will be discouraged by the literacy test.

Negro labor is coming into its own in America. The race, we believe, is aware of the greatest industrial opportunities open to it since the Civil War. The race should also be prepared, by efficiency, to meet this newer condition.26

Self-interest, the Age wrote in 1919, dictated that blacks should back a proposal before Congress to restrict immigration for four years. Passage of the bill, it predicted, would enable the race to establish such a solid position in industry that it would be difficult for anyone to replace them:27

The war gave them [Black Americans] the opportunity to get a foothold in the economic world; there have been many grave doubts about their ability to keep this foothold when fierce competition set in again. The question arose in many minds, "Will the Negro be able to keep his new job when the aliens from Europe come back looking for work?"

Speaking purely from a motive of self interest, the American Negro can say that the passing of a law restricting immigration for four years is a good thing. In that period of time the colored man ought to be able to entrench himself so firmly in the industrial field that he cannot be easily driven out. In that period of time the colored man ought to be able to accomplish what seemed to be impossible during the war; and that is to so organize that he will cease to occupy the position of scab, but will demand recognition as an industrial factor.28

The Chicago Defender, in a 1921 piece, expressed much the same opinion about immigration restriction:

The restrictions recently placed upon immigration to these shores ought to help us if they do not help anybody else. The war, of course, showed us just how keen a competitor cheap European labor had been for the less skilled among us and the skilled alike . . . if it had not been for the harsh competition of the Southern European brought here by American capital to perform those tasks which the American white man had outgrown we would have been a much larger factor in industry than we are today. Until the war we figured chiefly as strike breakers in the more basic industries and not at all in the more technical branches of manufacturing and producing concerns.29

The New York-based magazine The Messenger pointed out in 1925 the economic benefits to blacks of the recent cutoff in immigration:

Let no Negro fail in his duty of advancing the cause of Negro labor without let or hindrance . . . Immigration from Europe has been materially cut, which means that the yearly supply of labor is much less than it formerly was. This gives the organized workers an advantage, greater bargaining power by virtue of this limited supply. It also gives the Negro worker a strategic position. It gives him power to exact a higher wage. . . on the one hand, and to compel organized labor to let down the bars of discrimination against him, on the other. Thus it benefits him in two ways.30

Opportunity, a journal published by the National Urban League, wrote in the same vein in 1926:

When the Immigration legislation of 1921 and 1924 restricted the influx of European workers it was expected that one effect would be the increased importance of American born labor . . . The World War had accidentally revealed to them [black workers] the enormous pressure of yearly European immigration against their migration from the South to the industrial centers of the North, and this relationship has carried through the immigration legislation with a logic which seems to bind their industrial future to the policy of restriction . . . The census of 1920 shows a shift of 371,229 Negroes from agricultural pursuits to industry . . . What is most evident is that the gaps made by the reduction in immigrant labor have forced a demand for Negro labor despite theories regarding Negro labor not infrequently encountered among certain employers and some unions, which hold that they are neither needed nor desired.31

Although immigration from Europe fell sharply, it continued from Mexico. The Pittsburgh Courier wrote in 1927 about the threat to blacks from this continued flow, eerily foreshadowing events in our own day:

Coming with a much lower standard of living than the Negroes, whose number in Texas they exceed by two or three hundred thousand, they constitute a considerable menace to the economic position of the Negro. Listed as whites, attending white schools and given free access to all public institutions where Negroes are either segregated or forbidden entrance, they are being used as a buffer class between whites and Negroes. In time they will doubtless force the Negroes into and economic position as low or lower than their own, just as the European immigrants did in the North and East before restrictive legislation was passed a few years ago.

There was little point anyway in restricting European immigration and leaving down the bars to immigration from Latin American countries . . . The Mexicans are being used as laborers on the railroads, on public works and on the farms, thus taking the places of many Negro workers. Of course employers in the Southwest want unrestricted immigration of Mexican labor because it enables them to keep wages low, hours long and labor docile . . . It is hard enough for Negroes to make an adequate living as it is, without bringing in more laborers to menace their position.32

In 1928, the Courier wrote again about the danger to blacks from this employer-driven search for cheap labor:

. . . . The Negro's losing competition with low standard foreign labor has been in the North and East, but now comes competition of a similar sort in his old stronghold: the South. In the past ten years well over a million and a half Mexicans have entered the Southwestern states seeking work. They were encouraged originally by the employers seeking cheap labor and high profits . . . There is only one valid ground on which agitation against further immigration of Mexican labor should be opposed by us: economic competition.33

The Courier nicely summed up the benefits for black Americans of ending mass immigration:

So far as the Negro is concerned, it is exceedingly doubtful whether he has been benefited by these successive waves of foreign labor. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the economic progress of our group has been hindered by immigration. As proof, one has only to point to the great strides made by Negroes, in all classes, since European immigration has been so markedly curtailed. This is especially noticeable in the North and East, where, despite the present temporary period of unemployment, the Negro has more industrial opportunities than at any time since the Civil War. And he might have a great deal more if it were not for the opposition of most of this foreign laboring element who but a few years before came humbly to this country seeking work and opportunity.34


1 See Sidney M. Wilhelm. Who Needs The Negro? New York: Anchor, 1971.

2 Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 4. New York: International Publishers, 1954-1975, pp. 264-265.

3 Hellwig, David. "Black Reactions to Chinese Immigration and the Anti-Chinese Movement: 1850-1910." Amerasia 6:2 (1979), pp.25-44.

4 Man, Albon P. "Labor Competition and the New York Draft Riots of 1863." Journal of Negro History. vol. 36, pp. 375-405. 1951.

5 Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. vol. 2. New York: International Publishers, 1950, p. 224. Emphasis added.

6 Blassingame, John W. and John Mckivigan. The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, vol. 4. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 501-502.

7 Blassingame and Mckivigan, vol.4, p. 248.

8 Blassingame and Mckivigan, vol.4, p. 232. Emphasis added.

9 Foner, pp. 264-265. Emphasis added.

10 Blassingame and Mckivigan, vol. 2, p. 424.

11 Blassingame and Mckivigan, vol. 3, pp. 92-93. Emphasis added.

12 "Address Before the National Negro Business League." The Broad Ax, Aug. 24, 1912.

13 Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1903, p. 140. Emphasis added.

14 Harlan, Louis R. The Booker T. Washington Papers, vol. 3. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1972-1974.

15 Harlan, Papers, vol. 2, pp. 193-194.

16 Harlan, Papers, vol. 6, p. 556.

17 Aptheker, Herbert. Writings by W.E.B. Du Bois in Non-Periodical Literature. New York: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1982, p. 70. Emphasis added.

18 Du Bois, W.E.B. Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. New York: Schoken Books, 1967, pp. 115-120.

19 Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Russell & Russell, 1935, pp. 18-19

20 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 217.

21 Du Bois, W.E.B. "Immigration Quota," The Crisis, August 1929. Emphasis added.

22 Hill, Robert A. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983, p. 455.

23 The Colored American Magazine, vol. 7, pp. 595-596 (September 1904).

24 The Colored American Magazine, vol. 8, p. 240 (May 1905).

25 The Colored American Magazine, vol. 7, pp. 572-575 (September 1904). Emphasis added.

26 New York Age, February 8, 1917, p. 4.

27 Hellwig, David J. Black Leaders and the United States Immigration Policy, 1917-1929. Journal of Negro History, Vol. 8, pp. 110-127. 1981.

28 New York Age, Feb. 8, 1919, p. 4. Emphasis added.

29 Chicago Defender, Dec. 17, 1921, p. 16. Emphasis added.

30 The Messenger, vol. 7, pp. 261, 275 (July 1925). Emphasis added.

31 Opportunity, vol. 4, pp. 366-367 (December 1926). Emphasis added.

32 Pittsburgh Courier, Section II, p. 8, August 13, 1927. Emphasis added.

33 Pittsburgh Courier, Section II, p. 8, March 24, 1928. Emphasis added.

34 Ibid. Emphasis added.



Aptheker, Herbert. Writings by W.E.B. Du Bois in Non-Periodical Literature. New York: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1982.

Beck, Roy. The Case Against Immigration. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Blassingame, John W. and John McKivigan. The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series I, Vol. 2-4. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Bodnar, John. Steelton: Immigration and Industrialization 1870-1940. Pittsburgh; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. New York: Bonanza Books, 1962.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1931.

Du Bois, W.E.B. Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. New York: Schocken Books, 1967.

Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Russell & Russell, 1935.

Du Bois, W.E.B. and Booker T. Washington. The Negro in the South: His Economic Progress in Relation to His Moral and Religious Development. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1907.

Foner, Phillip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Vol. 4 of 5. New York: International Publishers, 1954-1975.

Harlan, Louis R. The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volumes 1-6. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Hill, Robert A. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983.

Loewen, James. The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Meier, August and Elliot Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto. New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.

Miller, Kelly. The Everlasting Stain. Washington: The Associated Publishers, 1924.

Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma. New York: Harper Brothers, 1944.

Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Saxton, Alexander. The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1971.

Shankman, Arnold. Ambivalent Friends: Afro-Americans View the Immigrant. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Spero, Sterling and Abram Harris. The Black Worker. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.

Thomas, Brinley. Migration and Urban Development. London: Metheun and Co., Ltd., 1972.

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1903.

Washington, Booker T and Robert Pack. The Man Farthest Down. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1912.

Wharton, Vernon L. The Negro in Mississippi, 1865-1890. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.


Fuchs, Lawrence. "The Reactions of Black Americans to Immigration," in Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology and Politics, Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Hellwig, David J. "Black Leaders and United States Immigration Policy, 1917-1929." Journal of Negro History 66, pp. 110-127, 1981.

Hellwig, David J. "Black Reactions to Chinese Immigration and the Anti-Chinese Movement: 1850-1910." Amerasia, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall 1979), pp. 25-44, 1979.

Hellwig, David J. "Building a Black Nation: The Role of Immigrants in the Thought and Rhetoric of Booker T. Washington." The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1978, pp. 530-550.

Man, Albon P. "Labor Competition and the New York Draft Riots of 1863." Journal of Negro History. 1951, pp. 375-405.

Shankman, Arnold. "The Image of Mexico and the Mexican-American in the Black Press, 1890-1935." The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Summer 1975, pp. 43-56.

Shankman, Arnold. "This Menacing Influx: Afro-Americans on Italian Immigration to the South, 1880-1915." The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1977-78, pp. 67-68.

Skerry, Peter. "The Black Alienation." The New Republic, January 30, 1995, pp. 19-20.


The Colored American Magazine

The Crisis


The Messenger


The Broad Ax

Chicago Defender

New York Age

Pittsburgh Courier