Federal Records Documenting Caribbean Immigrants: 1890-1930

Today’s blog is written by Damani Davis, Reference Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D. C.

When commencing research at the National Archives, genealogists typically begin with census, immigration, and military records.  In terms of federal records, these are the three that most commonly hold personal information on the ancestors of most Americans.  This is based on the simple fact that a large portion of our ancestral population either immigrated, served in the military, or was at least counted in the census.

Of course, there are some exceptions to this broad generalization.  A researcher of Native American ancestors, for instance, will generally have difficulty finding anything relevant in immigration records.  Similarly, the general assumption among many is that immigration records are completely irrelevant to African-American research and have no direct relation to unique history of that particular group.  For the most part, this view is generally accurate—but to adhere to it too rigidly can cause some African-American genealogists to disregard potential sources of information.  Many citizens currently categorized as “Black” or “African American” have ancestors who were among tens of thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean region during the late 1800s through the early 1930s.  These waves of Caribbean immigrants settled primarily northeastern port cities—especially New York City; the exception were Bahamians who primarily settled in south Florida. Some of these immigrants held on to their particular national or ethnic identities while a significant number intermarried with the native black populations of the areas in which they settled.  Either way, most of the descendants of this early wave of Caribbean immigrants are currently categorized as “Black/African-American.”

Passenger Arrival List
Passenger Arrival List

An example of this ancestry is typified by Trinidad native, Cyril Crichlow, who is documented in immigration, naturalization, passport, census, and military records held at the National Archives. These records show that Crichlow was born in Trinidad in 1889, immigrated to the United States in 1905, and became a naturalized citizen 1919.  His 1920 passport application shows that he had resided in College View, Nebraska, Chicago, and New York City. The 1930, census shows that he was living in Washington, DC, was married to a native of New Jersey, and had a 17 year old son who had been born in Mississippi.

In the summer of 2012, I gave a lecture on “How to Locate Immigrant Ancestors from the British West Indies” at the annual Juneteenth Black Genealogy conference sponsored by the Prince George’s County chapter of the Afro-American History & Genealogy Summit.  In my Power Point presentation, I featured Cyril Crichlow’s records along with those of other early immigrants.  Coincidentally and unexpectedly, one of the attendees in the audience recognized Cyril Crichlow as one of her ancestors.  Linda Crichlow, an educator in the Montgomery County public schools system was able to use the federal records that I had found to supplement the local and family records that she had already uncovered through her own research.  Our fortuitous encounter, however, highlighted to us both the need to inform Black/African-American genealogists on this history of immigration and the possibility that these federal records may be relevant to their own family research.

There is an upcoming article in Prologue by Damani Davis that will address this topic in greater detail.

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