This study of Boston’s West Indian immigrants examines the identities, goals, and aspirations of two generations of black migrants from the British-held Caribbean who settled in Boston between 1900 and 1950. Describing their experience among Boston’s American-born blacks and in the context of the city’s immigrant history, the book charts new conceptual territory. The Other Black Bostonians explores the pre-migration background of the immigrants, work and housing, identity, culture and community, activism and social mobility. What emerges is a detailed picture of black immigrant life. Johnson’s work makes a contribution to the study of the black diaspora as it charts the history of this first wave of Caribbean immigrants.
About the Author
Violet Showers Johnson is Professor of History at Agnes Scott College.
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The Other Black Bostonians
West Indians in Boston 1900â"1950
By Violet Showers Johnson
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2006 Violet M. Johnson
All rights reserved.
Origins of Migration: British West Indian Economy, Society, and the Lure of Emigration
On the living room wall of a woman who emigrated to Boston from Barbados in 1932 hangs a framed map of the island. Within this map are inscribed the words: "Even if you do not know where you are going, you know where you came from. So, Bridgetown [capital of Barbados], you will stay with me forever." This statement sums up the necessity and purpose of this chapter, which reviews the premigration setting from which the immigrants came. This analysis is not a full history of the West Indies in the first half of the twentieth century. It merely seeks to identify and discuss those facets within the homeland society that are most germane for understanding the context within which migration occurred.
The British West Indies of the early twentieth century was a society of paradoxes. It contained impoverished colonies with severely malfunctioning economies, yet its economic potentials were in full view. With clearly defined indices of what it meant to be upper, middle, or lower class, it was a society with sharp distinctions between the classes, yet it contained tantalizing avenues for social mobility, foremost of which were education and emigration. It was a society in which race and color were strong determinants of social interaction, yet it was often touted as a plural society with parallel groups, which for the most part coexisted peacefully.
In this complex context of conflicting forces evolved one of the most fundamental characteristics of the society, encapsulated in the continuous and varied patterns of movements of its peoples within and outside the region. It is this mark, evident since the second half of the nineteenth century, that earned the West Indies the often-quoted reputation of "migration-oriented" society. No scholar investigates the West Indies without bringing up the migration tradition. Furthermore, none explores that phenomenon without pointing to the centrality of economic forces in its creation and longevity. By 1900 almost all the British-controlled islands, already tied to a world economy, were plagued by a legion of problems: mono-cash-crop culture, outmoded agricultural systems, rudimentary manufacturing frameworks, exploitative foreign commercial activities which contributed little to local development, export of West Indian labor, and natural disasters in the forms of periodic hurricanes and a variety of crop diseases. The perennial structural malaise of the West Indian economic systems has been substantially researched by scholars from a variety of disciplines. This analysis, therefore, will not rehash the arguments already advanced by existing studies about what was really wrong with the various island economies at specific periods. Instead, it is more useful to relate some of the experiences lived by the inhabitants affected by the economic woes, for these experiences were to shape in great measure the people's notions about class, status, emigration, and the image of living abroad.
No other symptoms of the economic malaise touched the lower classes as much as unemployment and low wages. Throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century, most of the British West Indian countries witnessed the continuous movement of people from the rural areas to fledgling urban, industrial areas in search of work, a trend clearly revealed by the censuses of 1911, 1921, and 1946. For example, the 1946 census showed that the population of Kingston had nearly doubled since the 1921 census, even though the general population of Jamaica only increased by half. Similarly in Barbados, the main urban centers of Bridgetown and St. Michael were reported to contain 39.65 percent of the population, an increase of more than 40 percent since the previous census of 1921. Georgetown, British Guiana, also reported an astounding urban population increase of 94 percent.
While continuous waves of hopeful migrants continued to flow into the urban centers, industry and manufacturing remained rudimentary and too small to absorb the job seekers. Although the majority were unskilled, there was a reasonable number of graduates of the industrial schools, where the men learned carpentry, mechanics, masonry, tailoring, cabinetmaking, shoemaking, and painting. The women were trained mostly as dressmakers or seamstresses. But in the context of insufficient job opportunities, exploitative economic policies, and a negligible manufacturing sector, the acquisition of occupational skills was not the real issue. Skilled or unskilled, wages were generally low. For example, the average weekly earning of field workers between 1920 and 1935 was 17 shillings and 7 pence (17s.7d) for men and 14 shillings and 6 pence (14s.6d) for women. Domestic workers, the overwhelming majority of whom were women, earned between 2 shillings and 6 pence (2s.6d) and 5 shillings (5s) per week for anywhere from a tento thirteen-hour work day, usually six days a week. In 1938, for nine to twelve hours a day, six days a week, male laborers earned 16s.6d, while the females received a much lesser rate of 7s.6d. These wages were even more horrifying when contrasted with the cost of living, which was prohibitively high throughout the period under review.
Renowned Trinidadian economic historian Eric Williams provides illuminating narratives that give practical meaning to these statistics, which are based on the colonial currency of the period. In the chapter on the condition of the Negro wage earner in his 1942 book The Negro in the Caribbean, Williams uses the more familiar units of dollar and cent to substantiate his thesis that the Negro in the Caribbean worked for the most pitiful wages. He weaves much of his discussion around food, the most basic of necessities for human existence. The following excerpts from his analysis vividly portray the situation in the British Caribbean of the 1930s:
The Negro in the Caribbean, we emphasise, is primarily an agricultural laborer, working for pitifully low wages. ... How much does he eat? The Negro cannot be adequately fed on a 25-cent-a-day wage for three days a week. The weekly budget of the Barbadian laborer is less than two dollars; of this food costs him seven cents a day.
The laborer in Barbados is fed worse than a gaolbird [sic]; he cannot afford milk in his tea; say the planters, he does not like milk!
The daily consumption of fresh milk in Jamaica's capital, with its 30,000 children of school age, is one-fifteenth quart per head; the Jamaica politicians say that the Negro prefers condensed milk. The average monthly consumption of fresh meat per head of population in Kingston, Jamaica, is barely one pound, and even this does not represent the true position, for the eaters of fresh beef are almost entirely confined to the middle and upper classes. The diet of the average worker can be classed at the best only as a maintenance diet, and there is no reason to doubt that many households live on the borderline of extreme poverty.
Mainstream publications like the Jamaica Daily Gleaner did deal with issues of unemployment and poverty. But in the main, such newspapers were partial to the interests of the planter and merchant elites. For some of the most poignant demonstrations of the plight of the working class, one has to look at more radical publications like Marcus Garvey's Blackman and Plain Talk, whose editor, Thaddeus Kitchener, was a return immigrant who had once lived in Boston. In 1935, a frustrated unemployed Kingston man wrote:
Yes if a man can get nothing to do in his own island to buy his daily bread or to support his family, then I think him poverty [sic]. Take a man going out day by day with his tool seeking work and getting none, coming back home to a home where his landlord is ready to give him notice if his rent is not paid. (Plain Talk, December 14, 1935)
What seemed like perpetual vassalage to the planter class in a post-emancipation West Indies was one of the most perplexing realities for those who still lived on plantations. One such person described the deplorable living conditions on the estates in the September 21, 1935, issue of Plain Talk: "the man, children and wife live in one room. During harvesting, as many as two men join them, while the planter still lives in his luxurious abode."
Although suffering was widespread among the working class in general, women were hit the hardest. Many of the contemporary observers from that class may not have known of the official statistics which revealed that unemployment was higher among women or that they were paid much less than men; yet they grasped the gender disparities nonetheless. A man, commenting on the predicament of working women in Spanish Town, Jamaica, wrote:
It is a disgrace to see advantages taken of poor people. During crop time the poor women after working from Monday till Friday are compelled to work on Saturday. If they refuse they are told by those in authority that they can get no pay until next pay day. In the name of king and country what kind of health can our women keep when they have to wear one dress for two weeks, because they have no time to wash their own clothes. (Plain Talk, October 2, 1937)
Women in urban areas did not fare any better. Unemployment was so rife that women with at least an elementary school education and training in dressmaking visibly roamed the streets in search of work. This reality was so daunting to Adina Spence, a Plain Talk reader, that she wrote, "our accomplished women should all be transported to Africa, where it is said Queens and Princes shall come" (August 21, 1935).
The particular disadvantages faced by single women did not miss the attention of commentators, as shown by the following statement:
As women we are facing hardship to the extreme; we who have children and absent fathers, we have to feed them and send them to school and pay weekly rents. How can we stand the strain, when for over four weeks or more, no work to get to carry on these routine expenditures ... Women needs [sic] help, especially those who are not carefully married. (Plain Talk, December 28, 1935)
Even children felt the enormity of the economic crisis. Not only were they deprived of some of the basics like sufficient food and adequate clothing, they were compelled to begin to contribute to the household income much too early and often at the expense of their education. Again, contemporaries recognized the adverse effects on the children, including the psychological ramifications. It was concern over such impact that prompted a woman to write to the paper drawing attention to the damaging effects of debt collection on children. They were routinely witnesses to encounters between their parents and irate landlords and storekeepers demanding payment. Moreover, many of the children were actively included in the devices of their parents and other adults to elude the collectors. The reader who wrote to the paper on the children's plight worried about the long-term consequences on the children's self-esteem and integrity (Plain Talk, April 24, 1937).
While papers like Plain Talk publicized the social and economic difficulties that plagued the working class, they were not the only conduits for venting frustration and disappointments. In fact, it was more common for people to write letters to relatives and friends living outside the Caribbean. Their letters revealed not only their desperation but also their ability to grasp and articulate the workings of the firmly entrenched socioeconomic power structures within which they lived. For example, Gladys Lewis of Christ Church, Barbados, lamenting the deplorable condition of her house, in 1939 wrote to her brother, Clairmont Lewis of Boston: "We are suffering here; it is perish time!" Decades later, another relative was to write a similar letter, this time to Clairmont Lewis's daughter Elma Lewis. Olga Lewis emphasized continuity in their situation, maintaining that the social structures in Barbados had basically remained the same. "The only thing I got against Barbados," she declared, "is it is a place for the rich and the middle class, but as a poor man there is no or little survival. The only outlet for the poor man is to travel abroad."
For the most part, the upper class either ignored the plight of the poor or failed to grasp the gravity of their predicament. Historical geographer Bonham Richardson, commenting on some historical documents on the white planter elite of early-twentieth-century Barbados, noted that the reports "reveal the arrogance, indifference, and superficiality with which many, probably most, of the white elite observed the lower classes of the island as people when they noticed them at all." Indeed, when they did notice, a few of these nonchalant observers were compelled to remark on the hardship endured by the Black working class. For example, the daughter of a white planter wrote in a school essay in 1903:
The Negroes who work on the estates live in little wooden huts along the roadsides, which consist of two rooms only ... They eat wonderfully little, and will work from 7 in the morning till 12, without eating anything, and then they will eat a little rice or a biscuit, and work on till 5 in the evening, and they either have another frugal meal or sometimes go without.
Thus, clearly, even by the admission of some members of the privileged class, the picture was bleak, horrendous, appalling, and desperate. But in the paradox that was the West Indian society, such a reality did not completely dampen spirits. Instead, if anything, it sharpened the resolve of the people to succeed along the lines drawn by the colonial system under which they lived. From their positions in the social fringes they grasped the indices which defined the middle and upper classes and aspired to the same markers — land, stable and salaried government employment, and even the opportunity to fully participate in such status-ascribing forms of recreation like cricket. The optimism and ambition from the periphery almost matched the oppression and exploitation from the core. In fact, this fierce ambition was one of the hallmarks of the society. Malcolm J. Proudfoot, assessing the incessant movements of people in the Caribbean in the first half of the twentieth century, pointed out that "the West Indian peoples as a whole seem to have envisaged for themselves a much higher standard than has ever been contemplated, much less achieved by other tropical populations dependent on resources of a comparable kind." Realistic or not, many West Indians of the early twentieth century saw upward social mobility attainable mainly through two avenues — education and emigration.
No one denied the importance of education for the development of the West Indian colonies; the debate was over the type of education most relevant for the economy and the people. The planter class, though weakened by the abolition of slavery, still clung to the vestiges of a plantation economy and therefore advocated a system of education for the Black West Indians that would ensure their competence as good agricultural workers. Often backed by the colonial government, the planter-merchant elite promoted such a system using euphemisms like "practical education," "respectable labour," and "honest toil." These terms, however, did not mask their real intention of creating a subservient, reliable labor force, suited for agriculture and related sectors. Actually, these proponents of agricultural education were unabashed about fostering their interests. In 1900 a West Indian agricultural conference was held in Barbados, with labor as one of the main themes. The participants, who included the heads of colonial education departments and school superintendents, were informed of the resolve of the archbishop of the West Indies that "peasant boys should be trained in an atmosphere favourable to agriculture ... they should learn that tilling the soil and caring for crops is worthy of being studied by intelligent minds." The Jamaica Imperial Association, founded in 1917 to "consider, discuss and deal with all matters which may affect the economic, social and commercial welfare and development of the colony," made no secret of the fact that one of its top priorities was educating an agricultural labor force. In Barbados, a similar organization, the Barbados General Agricultural Society, sponsored contests and programs designed to create "excitement and a love for honest toil among agricultural laborers." Acknowledging that World War I hammered home the importance of the tropical colonies as potential providers of indispensable produce, in 1921 the colonial administration established the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad to ensure the supply of well-trained agricultural workers.
Excerpted from The Other Black Bostonians by Violet Showers Johnson. Copyright © 2006 Violet M. Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Origins of Migration: British West Indian Economy, Society, and the Lure of Emigration
2. Work and Housing in "Freedom's Birthplace"
3. Identity, Culture, and Community
4. Militant Immigrants and Relentless Ex-colonials?
5. "Making Good in America" and Living the West Indian Dream