From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Foreign-born Negroes and Kentucky

There had always been "foreign-born Negroes" in Kentucky, starting with the thousands of enslaved who were born in African countries [see the NKAA entry Born in Africa, Born in Kentucky]. But, the U.S. Census term "foreign-born Negroes" did not include the enslaved from Africa. The term was to include free persons born outside the U.S. who looked like they could be Negroes. There was nothing scientific about the classification.

In 1910 the U.S. Census Bureau took a closer look at the foreign-born Negro population, not because of the arbitrary classification but rather because of  the size of the increase in the population numbers. The state of Kentucky was not a major player in the analysis. According to Negro Population in the United States 1790-1915, pp. 62-63, there were few foreign-born Negroes in Kentucky in 1910. Kentucky was one of three states where the numbers had actually decreased: in 1900 there had been 72, and in 1910 there were just 66 (p. 61). Kentucky had the smallest negative growth in the number of foreign-born Negroes, followed by South Carolina and Arizona.

The South was not where most foreign-born Negroes lived. "In the South, as a whole, the number is so extremely small both absolutely and relatively as to be of no statistical importance."  [source: F. J. Brown, "Migration of colored population," Publications of the American Statistical Association, vol 6, no. 41, March 1898, pp. 46-48]. At the turn of the century, the number of foreign-born Negroes went from being unimportant statistically to a population that needed to be looked at more closely. Negro Population in the United States 1790-1915, published by the Bureau of the Census in 1968, gives the 1910 U.S. foreign-born Negro population total as 40,339, almost twice as many as the 20,336 count in 1900.

In prior census records, the nativity of free Negroes in the United States had not been a concern. The numbers had steadily increased over time as the population as a whole increased. Still, in 1910 the foreign-born Negro population in the U.S. represented only 0.4 percent of the total Negro population (p. 61). What changed was the greatest increase in numbers between 1900 and 1910 (see table below). The data were based on self-identification, visual observation, and the  understanding of who should be counted as a foreign-born Negro. In 1910 that group included persons from Canada and Newfoundland, Mexico, Central America, Cuba and other West Indies [excluding Puerto Rico], South American countries, European countries, China, Japan, other Asian countries, African countries (473), Australia, Atlantic Islands, Pacific Islands, and a few other places (p. 63). The largest number of foreign-born Negroes were said to be from the non-U.S. areas of the Americas, with more than half from Cuba and the West Indies (24,426), followed by Canada and Newfoundland (6,775), and European countries (3,861).

With the recognition of the increase in the number of foreign-born Negroes in 1910, there were scientific studies, articles, predictions, and conclusions about the population characteristics. One of the recognized authorities on the foreign-born Negro was Ira De Augustine Reid at Atlanta University, who wrote about the socialization process of the foreign-born Negro in "Negro Immigration to the United States," Social Forces, vol. 16, no. 3, March 1938, pp. 411-417. In New York City, the Negro Foreign Born Citizens' Alliance was formed to teach the new immigrants American ways [source: "Teach foreign born American ideals," Negro Star, 7/2/1920, p. 2].

Meanwhile in Kentucky, there continued to be 100 or fewer foreign-born Negroes, most living in Louisville [source: Negroes in the United States, 1920-1932, by C. E. Hall, Specialist in Negro Statistics, Bureau of the Census]. And though they were few in number in Kentucky, the term "foreign negroes" sometimes included those who were born in another state and were brought to Kentucky for labor purposes. "There are over one hundred and fifty negroes in Knott [County], descendants of slaves of the white population, and a few negro families in Owsley and Leslie, who are well regarded as old respectable citizens, and favorably contrasted with the "foreign" negroes brought into the mining camps in adjacent counties." [quotation  source: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Frontier Nursing Service, Inc., vol. 17, no. 4, Spring 1942, p. 33 (online at ExploreUK)].

The term 'foreign Negro" was also used during the period of higher education desegregation in Kentucky to differentiate them from American-born Negroes. "In January [1960] the Board accepted Johnson’s proposal to 'adopt some form of mild integration' by a vote of 16 to 7. The plan was to accept “foreign Negroes” without restriction and to accept American Blacks if they were preparing for Christian service and married. These provisions were designed to meet objections to inter-racial dating and to having black students living in the dormitories." [quotation source: Asbury University: History website]. 

For more see "The Foreign born and Negro population of the United States," The Scientific Monthly, vol. 11, no. 3, September 1920, pp. 284-287; S. A. Stouffer, "Problems in the application of correlation to sociology," Journal of the American Statistical Association, vol. 29, no. 185, Supplement: Proceedings of the American Statistical Journal (Mar. 1934), pp. 52-58; B. Malzberg, "Mental disease among native and foreign-born Negroes in New York State," The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 25, no. 2, Spring 1956, pp. 175-181; "The Negro Immigrant in New York." Editor: Roi Ottley. Reporter: Harry Robinson. Date: June 26, 1939. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.; Making Americans: immigration, race, and the origins of the diverse democracy, by D. King; The Negro Immigrant: his background, characteristics, and social adjustment, 1899-1937by I. D. Reid; and V. S. Johnson, "When Blackness stings: African and Afro-Cuban immigrants, race, and racism in late Twentieth-Century America," Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 36, no. 1 (Fall 2016), pp. 31-62. 

Data from Table 1 on p. 61 in Negro Population in the United States 1790-1915.

1850 4,067
1860 4,363
1870 9,645
1880 14,017
1890 19,979
1900 20,336
1910 40,339

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“Foreign-born Negroes and Kentucky,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed June 19, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-01-23 18:19:46