3. What is the larger historical context?
When you look at the manifest records, one will note that the occupations of most of the women are within the domestic industry. So the women will declare themselves to be domestic servants, to be laundresses, to be seamstresses. One, that says something about their occupations in the islands, but, two, it also says something about their occupational options in New York. What types of work could women do within New York? Most West Indian women, along with African American women, were domestic servants. What was the typical woman who might be on a ship headed toward New York? She would have been single. She would have been fairly young, between about 18 and 40. It allows students to draw conclusions about West Indian women arriving in New York City.
I think its important to try, through the documents, to determine what was the immediate experience of these women prior to leaving Jamaica, prior to leaving Trinidad, prior to leaving Barbados. And I think by looking at the occupations, by looking at the age, students can try to answer some questions about the immediate historical background, the push factors in the migration experience. I think this is particularly important because frequently studies of immigration/migration may only focus on European migration. This gives students and teachers an opportunity to try to compare the West Indian immigration experience, but then also consider the experience of West Indian women in their own right. Looking at the push factors, but also looking at what happened to the women once they come to the United States. [It is] an excellent opportunity to deal with the issue of identity, ethnicity, and race within the United States, and then place that within the larger context of world history, African diaspora, Caribbean diasporas.
In terms of the first large wave of West Indian immigration, usually between 1900 and about 1920 is when the largest numbers came to the United States. 1924 is really a cut off with the change in immigration laws.
West Indians have always been on the move. Its one of the themes within Caribbean history. From the very first, when you have Europeans coming to the new world, to the Caribbean. From the enslaved Africans who came to the Caribbean. And then theres constant movement between the islands, within the islands, from rural areas to urban centers. And this migration continues. In the British West Indian islands, after emancipation, after 1838 when they received their quote full freedom, there was constant movement. And you see also individuals trying to realize that freedom. And one way that they tried to realize that freedom was by moving. They moved to urban centers in terms of women trying to find a job perhaps as a domestic. You see many men in the 1850s, they go to Panama to work on the Panama Railroad. Between 1904 and 1914, you again see Jamaican men and many other West Indian men going to work on the Panama Canal. In fact, the Panama Canal plays a really central role. It was [a] first step in this migration outside of Jamaica, outside of Barbados before many West Indian men and women decided to go the United States. The money that Jamaican men earned working on the Panama Canal, they sent remittances home to Jamaica, which afforded other family members, other community members, the ability to go to the United States. You also see Jamaican men going to Cuba to work on sugar plantations, and some of those men might have decided then to go to the United States. You see women who might have been domestics or laundresses on the Panama [Canal] deciding to go from Panama to the United States. Theres this very long history of migration within the Caribbean, not only to the United States but throughout the Caribbean region.
Whats quite unique about West Indians in the early 20th century in New York is that most do not choose to become U.S. citizens. They do not want to become U.S. citizens because, for them, theres a certain value, both politically, culturally, in having an English identity. They will go to the British counsel and say, This happened to me. Ive been discriminated against. So for them to seek U.S. citizenship was not going to be beneficial.