Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
An early 19th-century print of slaves in Brazil, from “In Motion.”
By FELICIA R. LEE
Published: February 2, 2005
The extraordinary range of African-American migrations – from the earliest Africans who arrived to the recent movement of blacks back to the South – is the focus of a new Web site and an exhibition of recent research that could redefine African-American history, said scholars involved with the project, which was announced yesterday at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. “In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,” a three-year project that cost $2.4 million, is probably the largest single documentation of the migrations of all people of African ancestry in North America, said Howard Dodson, director of the center, part of the New York Public Library.
The exhibition at the Schomburg Center’s Exhibition Hall, which opened yesterday, showcases many of the images, maps and music assembled for the project. But the project’s 16,500 pages of essays, books, articles and manuscripts, as well as 8,300 illustrations and 60 maps are also available on the center’s Web site (schomburgcenter.org) and could encourage a national conversation on the very definition of African-American, Mr. Dodson, a historian, said in an interview.
“This is a huge story,” Mr. Dodson said. “This will serve as a catalyst for the continued re-thinking of who the African-American community is. For the first time, here’s a project that explores the extraordinary diversity of the African-American community. This is organized around 13 migrations, 2 of them involuntary: the domestic slave trade and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”
Broadening the examination of migration beyond the slave trade means “you come away with some very different perspectives,” Mr. Dodson said. Twice as many sub-Saharan Africans – about one million – have migrated to the United States in the last 30 years as during the entire era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, project organizers said.
The project is chock full of illuminating facts. It shows that in recent years, twice as many African-Americans have moved from the North to the South as from the South to other regions. From 1995 to 2000 approximately 680,000 African-Americans moved to the South and 330,000 left, for a net gain of 350,000.
And for the first time, all the elements of the African diaspora – natives of Africa, Americans whose ancestors were enslaved Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, Central and South Americans of African descent, as well as Europeans with African or Afro-Caribbean roots – can be found in the United States.
This has happened in only the last 15 years and is prompting a far broader view of the term African-American, said Sylviane Diouf, a historian who served as the content manager for the project.
In addition to the Web site and the exhibition, the project includes a book, “In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,” released by National Geographic last month, and a Black History Month education kit, with lesson plans and a bibliography.
“It’s really a new interpretation of African-American history,” Ms. Diouf said. “We’re seeing the centrality of migration in the African-American experience. What we’re seeing now with the new immigration from Haiti, the Caribbean and Africa is a new diversity, people coming with their languages, their culture, their food.”
Quintard Taylor, a professor of American history at Washington University in Seattle, who explored 400 years of migration in what is now the Western United States, said the project’s Web site alone opened up new possibilities.
“Now you have a potential audience of millions,” said Mr. Taylor, whose research showed that some of the first settlers of places like San Antonio, San Francisco, Santa Fe and Tucson were people of African ancestry.
Beyond that, he said, most people know only bits and pieces of the story of the African diaspora. Now they can make the connections.
“The central theme of finding political freedom and economic opportunity was as strong for those who ventured to Los Angeles from central Mexico in 1750, as for those who came to New York from Jamaica or the South in 1950,” Mr. Taylor said in an e-mail message.
The project’s scholars represent a range of mostly American universities, including the University of Chicago, Columbia and the University of Delaware. They were commissioned by the Schomburg, and most expanded on research that had already yielded scholarly material.
The money for the project, Mr. Dodson said, came in part from a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, through the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus and Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York.
The research topics included the movements of blacks out of the United States to places like Liberia, Trinidad, Canada, Haiti and Mexico; the 19th-century migration north of both free and enslaved blacks; the migration of blacks in the West and even the journeys of runaway slaves. Some said their findings were surprising or at least tweaked conventional theories.
Heidi Schumann for The New York Times
Harry Belafonte at the exhibition “In Motion” at the Schomburg Center
Loren Schweninger, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said his research on runaways showed that many more fled to other parts of the South than made it North. Of the 50,000 or more slaves who ran away each year, perhaps only 2,000 made it North; it was just too difficult, for one reason. “And that tells you a lot about slavery,” he said.
James O. Horton, a professor of American studies and history at George Washington University who explored migration to the North in the 19th century, found that inner cities were once far more racially integrated than now. Lacking public transportation, people in the same industries lived in the same areas and many blacks lived near their white employers, even wealthy ones.
Harry Belafonte, whose parents immigrated from Jamaica, said at a news conference at the Schomburg yesterday that the project would dispel myths.
“I was born colored, after that Negro, then black and now we’ve settled on African-American,” the 77-year-old singer said. “No other group has taken a century just to learn what to call ourselves and what others should call us. We will use this Web site not only to be more prideful, but to allow the rest of the world to understand what they’ve done to us and what they’ve done with us.”
Correction: February 4, 2005, Friday:An article in The Arts on Wednesday about a new exhibition on African-American migration at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, misstated the affiliation of Prof. Quintard Taylor, who discussed the center’s Web site. He teaches at the University of Washington. (Washington University is in St. Louis.)
(Article courtesyof The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com )
CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; ‘BLACK’ COMES IN MANY SHADINGS: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A0DEFDC173FF930A2575BC0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1