Did Africans Immigrate to Jim Crow America?

Tracing Your Roots: Family lore of a killed African forebear leaves one reader with questions.

Actress Cicely Tyson as Jane Pittman in The Autobiographhy of Miss Jane Pittman (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Actress Cicely Tyson as Jane Pittman in The Autobiographhy of Miss Jane Pittman (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

(The Root)

“My great-great-grandfather was named Issac Rowen. He came from Guinea to work as a fisherman sometime in the post-Civil War period. My late great-aunt told me that he came to the U.S. with a group of white men. He worked as a fisherman in New Orleans until was killed, by being thrown off a boat by the people with whom he worked. I am not sure how old he was when he died, but he was young and had children. His son, Issac Rowens Jr., was my father’s maternal grandfather. The only thing I found out about him is his draft record for World War I, online with Ancestry.com. I really haven’t been able to go past Issac Rowens Jr. in online records for this side of the family.

“I always wondered, why would someone of African descent willingly immigrate to the U.S. during that era of segregation and racial oppression? Do you have any suggestions on how to trace my ancestry to him, based on this story? Also, was it common for people of African descent to immigrate to the U.S. during the Jim Crow era?” –Andrea Hobby

African Immigration After the Civil War

To address your first question: Yes, a few did immigrate willingly. In 1870, the U.S. Congress extended naturalization rights “to aliens being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.”

However, only a trickle of Africans came to the U.S. before 1965, according to historian Ira Berlin, author of The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations. Furthermore, according to an article by Kevin J. A. Thomas in International Migration Review, the limited African immigration that occurred [during the first half of the 20th century] “was mainly driven by non-Black South Africans.” In fact, according to the U.S. census, there were 2,204 foreign-born Americans from Africa living in the U.S. in 1880, less than double that number by 1910. Ten years later, the census recorded 16,126 such individuals.

So you see, it is possible that your ancestor came to the U.S. during the Jim Crow era, as difficult as that would have been. From your great-aunt, you learned several details of his life that can help you find documents that will provide more information about his life and heritage.

Pinning Down Details With Few Clues 

Since you are unsure of exactly when Issac immigrated, or even his age, a good first step in finding more information about him is searching for a record of Issac in the federal census (you can search the 1870 and 1880 records on Ancestry.com). Although you do not know his year of birth, you can narrow your search using parameters, such as race, gender and place of birth. Remember to search using spelling variations in the first and last names, like Issac, Isaac, Rowen, Rowens, Rowan, Roen. Also, remember the place of birth listed on the census record could also vary as well, as his birthplace could be listed as Africa or Guinea, based on what was told to the census taker.

Since the 1890 federal census was destroyed in a fire, a good substitute for finding information about people between 1880 and 1900 are city directories. City directories were published by private companies for larger cities, and they listed the name of the head of household, their occupation and sometimes date of death. For widowed women, the directories would often list their late husband’s name also.

After the Civil War, some city directories began to include African Americans in their directories. Free African Americans were even recorded in some pre-Civil War directories, but the practice of including African Americans in these books became more common closer to the 20th century. Often the directories would have some delineation, such as an asterisk or an italicized “c.” for “person of color,” to show African-American households. In other instances, there were entire sections listing the African-American residents of a city, or they were included without designation of race. The decision to include African-American residents in a directory varied by publisher and place, so if you do search city directories, be sure to check a variety of different books to try to locate your ancestors.