Black History Month: 10 Famous Black Immigrants

We at The Immigrant Learning Center strive to inform Americans about the economic and social contributions of immigrants in our society. In honor of Black History Month, we are highlighting some Black immigrants who influenced, and are still influencing, the national conversation.

John Brown Russwurm, Journalist/Activist, 1799 – 1851

John Brown Russwurm portrait

John Brown Russwurm was one of the first Black men to graduate college in the United States, a co-founder of the first Black-run American newspaper and the governor of a nation of Black Americans in Africa. Before he reached these extraordinary heights, however, he was the unacknowledged son of a white, English, merchant father and a Black, Jamaican, enslaved woman. Russwurm’s prospects improved when his father brought Russwurm with him from Jamaica to Maine and married a white American woman who insisted that her new stepson take his father’s name, giving him new opportunities not available to most Black people in the colonial United States.

With their support, he became the first Black man to graduate from Bowdoin College in 1826. Russwurm used his education to co-found Freedom’s Journal, an abolitionist newspaper and the first paper in the United States to be owned, operated and published by Black people. The publication blazed a trail for the many Black-owned abolitionist papers that followed. By the end of his life, there were nearly 30 Black-owned newspapers operating in the United States.

While Freedom’s Journal proved very popular, Russwurm grew frustrated with the slow progress of abolitionism and concluded Black Americans would be more likely to thrive if they moved to Africa. He worked for a time for the American Colonization Society to resettle Black families in Liberia before quitting in protest of the United States’ colonization policies. He went on to become the first Black governor of the Republic of Maryland, a nation of Black Americans who immigrated to Africa, which would eventually be annexed by the adjoining nation of Liberia. There, he accomplished another first by instituting public education for girls as well as boys.

Claude McKay, Author / Journalist, 1889 – 1948

George McKayClaude McKay is famous for inspiring the Harlem Renaissance, a prominent literary movement of the 1920s. A prolific author, he wrote his first poem at the age of 10. He arrived in South Carolina from Jamaica in 1912 and published his first poems in 1917. His most famous poem, If We Must Die, was published in 1919 during “Red Summer,” a period of intense racial violence against Black people. Although he was known for the directness with which he wrote of racial issues, this poem spoke to resistance movements worldwide, and was even quoted by Winston Churchill during World War II. McKay’s most successful novel, Home to Harlem, gained recognition as the first commercially successful novel by a Black writer. Current scholars recognize him as a fixture of African-American studies. His last novel, Amiable With Big Teeth, was published posthumously in 2017.

Celia Cruz, Singer, 1925 – 2003

Celia Cruz posing in a gown
Ibrahim Arce (Narcy Studios photographer), most likely, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Celia Cruz was on track to become a literature teacher when a talent competition win convinced the Cuban-born woman to try singing professionally. It was a wise decision, launching a career that would conclude with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Cruz achieved her first major success when she became the first Black lead singer for La Sonora Matancera, a longstanding Cuban orchestra. Her mastery of many Afro-Cuban music styles helped lead the already popular group to new heights. 

Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the orchestra left the country and Cruz settled in New Jersey. She capitalized on the opportunities of her new home, launching a solo career and becoming an acclaimed salsa performer. Cruz was especially well known for her astonishing work ethic. Over the course of her career, she put out 37 albums, won accolades for an acting debut in her sixties, and earned three Grammys and four Latin Grammys. 

Her departure and international tours upset the Cuban government, which banned her from returning to the country, even to visit her dying mother. Cruz finally saw Cuban soil again in 1990 on a visit to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. She collected a small amount of dirt outside the base. When she passed away in 2003, having won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, been given the highest honor offered to artists by the U.S. government, and cemented her legacy as one of the most successful Afro-Latina artists in history, she was buried with that handful of dirt. 

Chinua Achebe, Author / Activist / Educator, 1930 – 2013

Chinua Achebe is known as the father of African literature. He became the first African author to achieve mainstream success in the Western world with his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. Prior to that, most stories published about Africa were by Europeans. Achebe’s success paved the way for many more African writers.

That first book was just the start of a long career as a teacher, writer and political activist. Not even losing the use of his legs in a 1990 car accident could derail him. He used a wheelchair for the rest of his life and continued to work for another 23 years. He immigrated from Nigeria to the United States to teach at Bard College and later Brown University, and continued to publish his fiction and poetry. To this day, he is still best known for his first novel. Things Fall Apart has been translated into 50 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies. His body of work has impacted countless people, including Nelson Mandela who once said that with Achebe’s writing for company “the prison walls fell down.”

Miriam Makeba, Singer / Activist, 1932 – 2008

Born under apartheid in South Africa and popularly known as “Mama Africa,” Miriam Makeba spent a lifetime advocating for the liberation of Black Africans and the African diaspora more broadly. After seeing her in an anti-apartheid documentary, Harry Belafonte encouraged her to move to New York City. She recorded dozens of records in English and languages of sub-Saharan Africa like Xhosa, Swahili and Sotho, and she became the first Grammy-winner born in Africa for her album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. She is perhaps best remembered for her traditional Xhosa song “Qongqothwane,” known to U.S. audiences as the “Click Song.” It has been covered by many artists over the years, including Cher.

When Makeba used her new platform to speak out against apartheid, South Africa revoked her passport. This only led her to advocate more passionately on behalf of Black people in both South Africa and the United States. She became an exile for the second time in her life after her marriage to civil rights activist Kwame Ture brought her under the suspicion of the CIA. While the couple was out of the country, her return visa to the United States was cancelled. Makeba would eventually return to South Africa at the urging of Nelson Mandela. There she created an orphanage and advocated for children with disabilities, HIV-positive children and child soldiers. She continued to perform until her passing in 2008, when she suffered a heart attack while performing in a memorial concert.

Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael), Civil Rights Activist / Author, 1941–1998

Kwame Ture Ture came to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago at age 11 and he became a U.S. citizen at the age of 13. While a student at Howard University, Ture was jailed for 49 days in Jackson, Mississippi for his participation in one of the first Freedom Rides. Being only 19, he was the youngest Freedom Rider to be imprisoned. Undeterred, he stayed active in Freedom Rides and demonstrations before obtaining his degree in philosophy with honors in 1964. In 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sent him to “Bloody Lowndes” County, Alabama, which was infamous for lynchings. Although the population was 80 percent Black, there was only one Black registered voter. In one year, Ture managed to raise the number of registered Black voters to exceed the number of white voters by 300. In 1970, that original Black registered voter, John Hulett, was elected sheriff.

Ture became the chairman of SNCC, and in 1966 he led a group of volunteers in the March Against Fear. It was there he coined the phrase “Black Power.” In his 1968 book with Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, the term is defined as, ”a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” He and Hamilton are also credited with coining the phrase institutional racism in that same book.

Iman, Supermodel / Entrepreneur / Philanthropist, 1965 –

Iman, born Zara Mohamed Abdulmajid, has always insisted that her looks are merely “typical Somali,” but there is nothing typical about what she’s done with them. While she was attending college in Kenya, a photographer encouraged her to pursue modeling. She took a risk and moved to the United States. It didn’t take long for her to capture the imagination of editors and designers. Eventually her face would be known worldwide.

Iman used her success to advocate for pay equality for herself and other Black models. Inspired by her own struggles to find makeup that suited her skin tone, she launched Iman Cosmetics with the tagline “Makeup for Women of Color.” Her next thriving venture was Global Chic, a popular clothing design line inspired by time she spent in Egypt as a child. Iman has two children of her own, and her philanthropic work has mostly centered on children. As CARE’s first global ambassador, she campaigned to end poverty. She has also worked with the Keep a Child Alive program, the Children’s Defense Fund and Save the Children.

Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo, Athlete / Humanitarian, 1966 –

National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo originally came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo on an academic scholarship. He went to Georgetown University hoping to become a doctor, but his prospects changed dramatically when he was recruited into Georgetown’s basketball program. After graduating with a degree in linguistics and diplomacy, he was drafted into the NBA by the Denver Nuggets. His long and distinguished career was bookended by making the All-Star team his rookie year and becoming the oldest player in the NBA during his final season in 2009. To basketball fans, “Mt. Mutombo” is known as one of the best defensive basketball players of all time.

Mutombo once said, “We all are here for a purpose. My purpose is to make a difference to society, not just by being a good human being, but to contribute to lives.” He has certainly lived up to that mission. In 1997 he launched the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve health care in central Africa. In 2007 the foundation opened the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital (named for his mother) near his hometown, Kinshasa. That same year, he was recognized by President George W. Bush during the State of the Union address. Mutombo also works as a spokesperson for CARE and has done extensive work on behalf of the Special Olympics, including serving on their board and starting the first Special Olympics program in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Author / Activist / Educator, 1977 –

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
Photo taken by Suzanne Plunkett at Chatham House London Conference, June 2018

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award-winning, bestselling author and MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow whose work has been translated into more than 30 languages. Her work tackles themes such as politics, religion and love in contexts such as the Nigerian Civil War, the immigrant experience in the United States and feminism. At the age of 19, Adichie left Nigeria for a scholarship in the United States. She graduated summa cum laude in communication and political science from Eastern Connecticut State University and went on to earn master’s degrees in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and African Studies from Yale University, all while writing and publishing. Most American students between 14 and 22 have been assigned her work.

Adichie has been invited to speak around the world. Her 2009 TED Talk, The Danger of A Single Story, is now one of the most-viewed TED Talks of all time. Her 2012 talk We Should All Be Feminists has been viewed more than 2 million times, started a worldwide conversation about feminism and was published as a book in 2014. In Sweden, it was distributed to every 16-year-old high-school student. Parts of the speech were even featured in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless.” Adichie’s most recent book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, was published in March 2017.

Trevor Noah, Comedian / TV Show Host, 1984 –

Trevor Noah performing stand-up on stage
Hayden Schiff from Cincinnati, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Trevor Noah is now one of the most successful late-night hosts and stand-up comics in the world, but few would have predicted his current success based on his beginnings. Noah was born to a white father and Black, Xhosa mother, which was a crime in Apartheid South Africa. After a childhood marked with poverty and abuse from his stepfather, Noah’s fortunes turned when he tried stand-up for the first time on a dare and was immediately popular. His profile steadily rose in South Africa as he toured, sold out stadiums and broke sales records. 

Most Americans first discovered Noah when he took over for comedian Jon Stewart as the host of the late night show The Daily Show, a move that required the already-accomplished comedian to take a pay cut. He brought a fresh, young, international perspective to the immensely popular program. His outspoken views on gun violence, race and current events transformed the show and brought in a new audience. On top of hosting a daily TV show, Noah has continued to tour internationally to sold-out audiences. 

Noah’s memoir Born a Crime about his upbringing in South Africa reached the top of The New York Times bestseller list and another accomplished Black immigrant, Lupita Nyong’o, will portray his mother in a forthcoming film adaptation. In 2018, he founded the Trevor Noah Foundation to improve educational opportunities for South African young people, saying, “We all deserve to achieve our fullest potential no matter where we come from.” 

Learn More

Because of the legacy of slavery and racism, voluntary Black immigration is a relatively recent, although growing, development. Immigrants from Africa were among the fastest-growing groups within the U.S. foreign-born population from 2000 to 2009. The Census Bureau projects by 2060 the share of Black Americans who are immigrants will rise to 16.5 percent. That means we will continue to look forward to important economic and social contributions from both native- and foreign-born Black Americans. To learn more about Black immigrants to the United States in the present day, check out our blog post What Does it Mean to Be a Black Immigrant in the United States?.

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