Bahamian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, an archipelago in the western Atlantic Ocean. Serving as a gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas sit at a strategic juncture between the United States, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Nassau, the capital, is approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) from Florida. The archipelago, consisting of more than seven hundred islands, belongs to a vast oceanic mass known as the Bahama Banks; the majority of the Bahamian isles are small, uninhabited atolls or outcroppings of reefs. The islands' total combined land mass is 5,359 square miles (13,880 square kilometers), roughly equivalent to the size of Connecticut or Puerto Rico.
The CIA World Factbook lists the 2012 population of the Bahamas as 316,182. Black Bahamians, descendants of slaves taken from Africa to various parts of the Western Hemisphere between 1500 and the early 1800s, made up 85 percent of the population in 2012; another 12 percent of Bahamians were of European heritage, followed by a combined total of 3 percent who claimed Hispanic or Asian ethnicities. Religious affiliation hews to the Protestant denominations, with about 67 percent of Bahamians describing themselves as belonging to the Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, or other churches. The remainder are Roman Catholics, who make up 14 percent of the population, followed by other Christian denominations. One of the most elite tropical vacation destinations in the Americas, the Bahamas is also a financial services hub, and the nation's standard of living is among the highest in the Caribbean.
The first Bahamians in America landed in Florida as far back as the late 1700s. More came to the Florida Keys as marine salvagers or commercial fishermen in the early nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, black Bahamians began arriving in larger numbers to work as citrus pickers in South Florida groves and then as construction laborers and workers at other menial jobs. In the 1950s many black Bahamians sent their children to the thriving historically black colleges and universities in the American South. More recent Bahamian immigrants have tended to come to the United States temporarily for educational opportunities or to earn professional credentials.
The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey reported that in 2009–2011, an estimated 48,739 U.S. residents claimed Bahamian ancestry. The figure corresponds to the population of a mediumsized U.S. municipality like Danville, Virginia, or Cleveland Heights, Ohio. South Florida remains home to the largest numbers of Bahamian Americans, and significant numbers also live in the New York City area. Others have settled in Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, and New Jersey.
HISTORY OF THE PEOPLE
Early History The original inhabitants of the Bahamas were the Lucayans, an Amerindian people belonging to the larger Taíno group. The Lucayan population was estimated at about 40,000 before the arrival of the first European explorers of record in the Caribbean in the 1490s. The explorer Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Western Hemisphere in the Bahamas when the crew of the Pinta disembarked on October 12, 1492. The exact location is unknown, though conjecture points to the island of San Salvador. Columbus wrote that the indigenous Lucayans seemed peaceful and without weapons that posed any threat to the outsiders. Over the next three decades, the Lucayans were removed entirely; Spanish conquistadors seized them as slaves to work in the gold mines on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where they died of maltreatment and disease.
The Bahamas are believed to have been uninhabited for more than 130 years, between roughly 1520 (the date the Spanish last recorded seizing a small number of Lucayans) and 1647 (when colonists and slaves arrived from Bermuda). Bermuda, a group of islands lying some 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina, was home to a permanent English colony established in the early 1600s that had prospered but had quickly become overcrowded. Domestic tensions grew in the colony as a result of the English Civil War of the 1640s, and a group of anti-Royalist Puritans left Bermuda to set up their own colony in the Bahamas in 1647, registering as the Company of Eleutheran Adventurers. About Page 212 | Top of Articleseventy people were in the party, including slaves of African origin. They struggled in their early years on the island of Eleuthera; and their cause was taken up by New England Puritans, who raised funds and sent a supply ship to help them. In gratitude the Eleutherans sent back a quantity of brazilwood timber, some of which was used to construct buildings on the Harvard College campus in Massachusetts.
English settlement in the Bahamas increased over the next half-century, with new ports established on other islands in the chain, among them the future capital city of Nassau on New Providence Island. The Bahamas' position as a gateway from the Atlantic Ocean into the Gulf of Mexico made the islands an ideal hideout for pirates, and English colonial authorities spent several years attempting to eradicate the archipelago's reputation as a lawless pirate haven. An economic compromise was worked out after the Bahamas became a crown colony of Britain in 1718. The deal permitted Bahamians—whose economy relied heavily on the ubiquitous piracy in the Caribbean—a newly created concession for marine salvage work in Caribbean waters. These specialists were called wreckers, and their license to salvage already damaged ships marked a quasi-legitimate step up from the illegal enterprise of outright piracy. Salvaged cargo, rather than pillaged loot, could now be sold at auction in Nassau and other ports, and the British crown received a cut of the proceeds by way of a tax.
After Britain was defeated in the American Revolutionary War, about 7,000 Loyalists from the American colonies fled to the Bahamas, lured by land grants from Britain to bring their large-scale agricultural enterprises—and slaves—to the still-underpopulated islands of the chain. Exuma Island was one of those settled by Loyalists, but cotton and other crops failed in the climate there.
When the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807, the Bahamas became a designated settlement destination for slaves seized en route to North and South America, and the Afro-Bahamian population grew. From 1808 to 1838 colonial authorities offered the arriving West Africans either repatriation to the African nation of Sierra Leone or a fourteen-year apprenticeship program in which they could work as agricultural laborers or learn a trade. About 5,000 Africans came to the Bahamas under this unusual set of circumstances and stayed. The camps set up to house them became havens for runaway slaves, and although these rescued captives retained a strong West African identity, they also demonstrated deep allegiance to the Bahamas and the British crown for generations to come.
Slavery itself was formally abolished in the British Empire by Parliament in 1833. Former slaves became indentured servants or tenant farmers to their former masters and remained poor. They worked as domestic servants, conch fishermen, or sisal fiber harvesters. Others moved away from the main islands and took up ocean salt mining or sponge diving, both labor-intensive endeavors that were barely remunerative. In the late nineteenth century, some black Bahamians were able to own land and in this way gain the right to vote in local elections, but the group remained largely disenfranchised. A New York Times correspondent visited the colony during the first weeks of the American Civil War to report on what happens when a large population of emancipated blacks remains in place after slavery is abolished. The correspondent found that black Bahamians live “in the most barren localities that it is possible to find on the Island. The huts are crowded together—they look dilapidated and filthy—and the inhabitants make no efforts whatever to raise food for domestic use. The people are as smart and intelligent as any negroes in the world, but they are disposed to be insolent to whites, and are strongly imbued with the prejudices of caste.”
Modern Era Economic and racial disparities in the Bahamas continued well into the twentieth century. In fact, the colony was considered so unimportant that Edward, Duke of Windsor (who had abdicated as Edward VIII, the disgraced king of England), was assigned to serve as its governor-general during World War II. For generations the country's wealth and power been concentrated among the white elite, the still adamantly pro-British descendants of the Loyalist settlers; however, in the postwar years, as Britain shed its colonial holdings, the majority black Bahamians began agitating for a greater public role in the economic, political, and social spheres.
In 1964 the Bahamas became a self-governing colony. Black and liberal Bahamians rallied under the banner of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP). The old guard, representing the island's conservative white elite, organized themselves as the United Bahamian Party. A major turning point in the history of the Bahamas came in 1967, when a young black attorney and member of parliament, Lynden O. Pindling (1930–2000), was able to form a majority government. As the country's first black prime minister, Pindling led the Bahamas to independence on July 10, 1973. Since then the Bahamas have been an independent Commonwealth country and parliamentary constitutional monarchy, with a governor-general representing the British monarch. Pindling remained in office until the early 1990s as the nation continued to prosper from favorable tax legislation and bank secrecy laws. Its pristine beaches and unpolluted waters turned it into a major tourist destination in the 1950s and 1960s, especially after nearby Cuba fell to the communist insurgents led by Fidel Castro (1926–). Pindling was the first of a long line of black leaders of the Bahamas, and the country has remained largely peaceful and prosperous—in contrast to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and other Caribbean
nations. As a result, in the post–World War II era, immigration to the United States from the Bahamas has been low in comparison to those nations.
SETTLEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
The first Bahamians to settle in what later became the United States were sailors and land squatters of various races and ethnicities who came to Florida, many of them to the Keys, in the late eighteenth century. An archipelago with its own complex topography, the Florida Keys offered the riches of shipwrecks on its shoals. The land was apparently fertile, there were pristine beaches, and communities of Seminoles and other indigenous groups were sparse. Largely inaccessible by land routes until well into the twentieth century, the Keys had belonged to the Spanish since the sixteenth century. The Spaniards were briefly driven out by the English in the late eighteenth century and never permanently resettled the area. In 1820 they ceded the land to the United States. Especially during these decades of transition, a particular attraction of the Keys was the absence of any formal governmental authority. Key West (the island village at the far tip of the Keys) had been known to fishermen and marine salvage hunters from both the Bahamas and Cuba for generations. In the 1820s, after the United States instituted new laws governing marine salvaging of ships found off U.S. coastal waters, another wave of predominantly white settlers arrived from the Bahamas. Key West became a center of a new marine salvage industry in the 1850s, attracting other settlers, too, including Afro-Caribbean peoples and Spanish-heritage immigrants descended from Spanish settlers in Hispaniola, Cuba, and parts of Central and South America.
Bahamians in Florida were known as “Conch” (pronounced “conk”), after the shellfish that is a staple of the Bahamian diet; conchs are found in abundance in the Florida Keys where the majority of the settlers from the Bahamas lived. In the mid-nineteenth century, Conch Bahamian families dominated the economy of Key West. White Bahamians eventually adopted the term “Conch Nation” as their own informal collective name, trumpeting their heritage as the first permanent settlers of European origin in the Keys. By the 1890s Key West was home to about 8,000 former Bahamians. Afro-Bahamians came in small numbers and built homes on Petronia Street, off the city's main thoroughfare, Duval Street. This district became known as Bahamian Village, though Afro-Cubans also lived there.
Black Bahamians immigrated to South Florida in much larger numbers in the first years of the twentieth century as part of what was known in the Bahamas as the Miami Craze. The first wave was largely made up of temporary residents and was tied to Florida's emergence as a major citrus producer and then as a tourist Page 214 | Top of Articledestination. From 1905 to 1912, both black and white Bahamians in Florida worked on the Flagler Florida East Coast Railway, lured by wages of $1.50 a day; comparable day rates on the Bahamian island of New Providence were between 25 and 50 cents a day. Black Bahamians also cleared land and dug drainage canals for the newly developing farms of South Florida, while others worked in the construction trades as the region began attracting tourists. Many Bahamian men moved back and forth between Florida and the Bahamas, sending money home and retaining close kinship ties. Most traveled on the regular mail boat that ran between Nassau and other ports in the Bahamas to Florida, paying the $5 passage fee per trip. They lived in rooming houses in humble villages around Biscayne Bay, the future site of Miami. Some of these quarters had been built as houses by Seminole, Creek, and other Native Americans who sparsely populated the area before Miami became a boom town almost overnight in the late 1890s.
South Floridians' demand for cheap labor peaked in the years before World War I, just as conditions for black Bahamians were at a low point at home. In the postslavery period, whites in the Bahamas had imposed what was called the “truck” system on the poorest black Bahamians: the tenant farmers, sponge divers, and salt rakers. Taking its name from the French word troquer (to barter), the truck system offered compensation for work in the form of commodity credits instead of actual wages. The system was destructive not only for black Bahamians but also for the Bahamian economy as a whole, which suffered as black Bahamians left in droves for better-paying jobs in Florida. By 1914 an estimated 5,000 black Bahamians lived in South Florida, mostly on the outskirts of the recently incorporated city of Miami.
Afro-Bahamians in Miami soon eclipsed the Keys' Conch population as the largest group of Bahamians in the United States. They built Bahamian-style cottages in places called Kebo and Lemon City, which evolved into Miami's Coconut Grove and Little Haiti neighborhoods. As in Bahamian Village in Key West, the frame cottages were single- or two-story homes, and the immigrants were known to disdain apartment-style dwellings as unsafe. These black Bahamian Americans retained a strong group identity. Emancipated decades before their American brethren, they were better educated in a British colonial system that, while unfair, was not as punitive as elsewhere; many were skilled tradesmen who had benefited from the apprentice training system in the Bahamas. Moreover, Afro-Bahamians were generally already accustomed to mixing with whites. Business and farm owners in Florida considered them excellent employees, well-trained as workers yet suitably deferential.
As Miami expanded rapidly in the first decades of the twentieth century, blacks of Bahamian origin worked as day laborers, on the city's busy cargo docks, and in more permanent jobs as domestic workers and hotel employees. Technically, they remained British crown subjects, and their numbers swelled to the point that the British Foreign Office had to appoint a vice-consul for Miami. As they prospered, black Bahamians also chafed at the racial segregation of the American South. They were appalled by police brutality and the white mob violence that erupted in Miami and other Florida cities, and as a result some opted for a further and more permanent journey to New York City, which had a significant black Caribbean-born population by the eve of World War I. Settling in the Harlem neighborhood, black Bahamians joined a flourishing segment of equally industrious black West Indians who worked as domestics, in the hotel and food-service industries, and even as small business owners.
The Johnson-Reed Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1924, sharply curtailed the number of persons of color permitted entry visas into the United States, causing a steep drop in immigration from the Bahamas. During World War II, however, a new wave of Bahamians was allowed to immigrate to alleviate wartime labor shortages. About 5,000 came as temporary migrants as part of a 1943 deal struck by the governor-general, the Duke of Windsor. Known as “the Contract” or “the Program” in the Bahamas, the migrant-labor system was similar to the Bracero (manual laborer) Program involving Mexicans in Texas and other parts of the southwestern United States. Some Bahamians became migrant laborers in Florida citrus groves, and others agreed to work on farms in Georgia and Alabama and even on Midwestern dairy farms. The U.S. Farm Security Administration work-visa program remained in place for two decades before it was ended in 1963.
Four years later the Bahamas became one of the newest black-majority-governed nations in the Caribbean and Latin American world. Immigration to the United States slowed considerably, especially in comparison to the flight of those seeking refuge from terrible economic and social conditions in such places as Haiti and Jamaica. Those Bahamians who did immigrate tended to seek higher education or work experience in professions such as medicine or engineering. They came as single adults, remained unmarried or married Bahamians, and generally kept their Bahamian citizenship rather than becoming Americans (Bahamian law forbids dual citizenship).
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Florida was still the state with the largest population of Americans of Bahamian descent (24,810). Other states with small, but significant, numbers of Bahamian Americans include Georgia, New York, Texas, North Carolina, and New Jersey.
English has been the predominant language in the Bahamas since the British Eleutheran Adventurers arrived in the 1640s. Bahamian Standard English
(BSE) is taught in the schools and retains British spelling and forms of punctuation. However, a spoken patois is one of the features of authentic Afro-Bahamian culture and has traveled with immigrant populations. Black Bahamian Americans still speak it amongst themselves in social settings, even in relatively assimilated American families. The patois features a lilting colonial British accent, a more simplified grammar, and the use of such terms as “dem” and “dose” for “them” and “those,” for example. Another notable feature is the repetition of words: a Bahamian will concur with another speaker by saying “true-true,” for example. “Sip-sip” is a similar word for “gossip.”
The first Europeans in the Bahamas came in search of religious freedom. The men and women of the Eleutheran Company were Puritans, and the Anglican religion of the Church of England became predominant as the island nation grew. Afro-Bahamians adopted Anglicanism or, later, were swayed by the Methodist or Baptist churches, both of which had a large missionary presences on the island in the nineteenth century. Christian leaders played a key role in the suppression of obeah among Afro-Bahamians. A practice that includes both traditional healing arts and sorcery, obeah migrated with slaves from West Africa and helped them retain their connection to traditional culture. The obeah-man or obeah-woman, a figure of respect in the community, used both rituals and herbal remedies to treat the sick. Obeah practices also became a way for slaves and ex-slaves to exact revenge on their enemies, either bodily or upon property—for example, by cursing crops. Obeah practices came with Bahamian immigrants to Florida.
One of the first Bahamian American churches in the United States was St. Peter's Episcopal Church on Duval Street in Key West, erected in 1838 to serve the Conch Bahamians of the Anglican faith. Afro-Bahamians in Key West founded the parish of St. Peter's in 1872. In Miami in 1897 the first permanent black Bahamian settlers founded St. Agnes Episcopal
Church, which played a decisive role in the community for decades, as would Christ Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove, founded in 1901. Bahamian Baptists in Coconut Grove were led by the Reverend Samuel A. Sampson, who organized the 56th Baptist Church congregation. In 1896 they built a house of worship on Charles Avenue called St. Agnes Missionary Baptist Church, which became Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in the early 1920s. All of the aforementioned parishes still have active congregations.
A spoken patois is one of the features of authentic Afro-Bahamian culture and has traveled with immigrant populations. Black Bahamian Americans still speak it amongst themselves in social settings, even in relatively assimilated American families.
CULTURE AND ASSIMILATION
Bahamian Americans are well integrated into mainstream American life but retain ties to their homeland through kinship, travel, and a few cultural distinctions.
Traditions and Customs The most notable Bahamian cultural event in the United States is the annual Junkanoo Parade, which celebrates a venerable Afro-Bahamian tradition. Slaveholders in the British Caribbean customarily gave their workers a day of rest on December 26, known as Boxing Day throughout the British Commonwealth, along with New Year's Day. This respite permitted Afro-Bahamians to rest, socialize with family, and honor their West African traditions. The celebrations evolved into the music-and-costume extravaganza known as Junkanoo, which is a major event in Nassau even in the twenty-first century, when it takes place on New Year's Day.
The word Junkanoo may be a corruption of “John Canoe,” a mythical African prince and possible slave trader who was said to have pushed back against English and Dutch encroachment and seized one slave operation for himself. It may also be derived from the Yoruba word gensinconnu, or masked person. The Yoruba of West Africa traditionally held a festival to honor their ancestors as part of a belief system called Egungun. Celebrants paraded behind large, elaborate masks and headdresses constructed from wood, animal skins, and other natural resources at their disposal; in the Junkanoo variant, these are made from humbler materials such as crepe paper and cloth. In Nassau only parade marchers dress up; revelers turn out en masse to pay their respects. The musicians beat a drum called a goombay, which is made from a hammered metal chamber with a goatskin stretched over it to make a playing surface. They also ring cowbells and blow empty conch shells, which sound like foghorns. Key West holds its Junkanoo in October to coincide with its Halloween tourist season, and Miami holds its Junkanoo during an annual June Bahamian culture week.
Cuisine Bahamians on the islands and in Florida still favor the humble but delicious conch, an edible mollusk. Conch can be eaten in a variety of ways, from raw to fried, and is a dining-out staple in most southern Florida restaurants, especially in the Keys. In Key West “conch” is a term appended to practically everything, linking the freewheeling spirit of the outpost to the first white Bahamian settlers.
Bahamian dishes are heavily spiced and have some West African touches. The traditional Bahamian breakfast is boiled fish and grits. Pigeon peas and rice is another culinary staple. Pigeon peas are not peas but rather a legume brought from West Africa that Europeans first called the “Congo pea.” Also known as a gandule, tropical green bean, or no-eyed pea, the crop flourishes in subtropical climates around the world, even in Asia. For Afro-Bahamians in the United States, pigeon peas and rice, made with onion and salted pork, is a comfort food and a link to their heritage. Souse is another black Bahamian dish still served at holiday gatherings, often with a side of grits or johnnycake (a large, dense, slightly sweet baking powder biscuit). Souse is a simple soup made from water, onions, lime juice, celery, bell peppers, and, usually, chicken, though oxtail, pigs' feet, or sheep's tongue may also be used.
Dances and Songs Besides referring to the goatskin drum originating in West Africa, goombay is a form of calypso music that Afro-Bahamians brought with them to Florida. The African American literary icon Zora Neale Hurston, also a trained anthropologist, wrote extensively of Afro-Caribbean traditions in Florida during her lifetime. In an essay she authored for the Works Progress Administration (reprinted in Michael Craton and Gail Saunders's 1989 work Islanders in the Stream:
A History of the Bahamian People), Hurston reported that Goombay performances were loosely organized social occasions and compared them to other American Afro-Caribbean events. “The dance movements are more arresting; perhaps because the Bahamian offerings are more savage,” she observed. “Nightly in Palm Beach, Fort Pierce, Miami, Key West and other cities of the Florida east coast, the hot drum heads throb and the African-Bahamian folk arts seep into the soil of America.”
Goombay music is a feature of annual festivals celebrating Afro-Bahamian heritage in several Florida cities. The largest of these is held in Miami during the first weekend in June and attracts as many as a half-million spectators. Miami's Goombay Festival includes a Junkanoo parade, performances by the Royal Bahamas Police Band, and a street market where traditional Bahamian crafts and foods are sold. Ensembles such as the Sunshine Junkanoo Band and the Miami Junkanoo Band regularly play at cultural events in the Bahamas, too, including Nassau's Junkanoo event every January 1.
Holidays Bahamian Americans celebrate Junkanoo on December 26 and January 1, but unlike the parade that is a major event in Nassau, immigrants observe the event in more low-key private family gatherings. For many years the original Afro-Bahamian settlers in Florida continued to celebrate August 1, the day of their emancipation from slavery in the British Empire. In some communities black Bahamian settlers even carried on the venerable English tradition of Guy Fawkes Night on November 5. This date commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, when rebels planned to blow up the House of Lords in London along with King James I. Guy Fawkes Night celebrations migrated to the British colonies, where Royalists celebrated the survival of the monarchy as they did back home in England by burning effigies of the treasonous Fawkes. In the 1930s, when Florida law enforcement authorities understood that black Bahamian immigrants were burning an effigy of a white person every November 5, the Fawkes Night revelries were outlawed.
Twenty-first century Bahamian Americans observe Bahamian Independence Day on July 10, the date in 1973 when the Bahamas became an independent, black-majority-rule nation. The Bahamian Consulate-General in Miami stages a series of weekend-long events commemorating Afro-Bahamian life, including a Junkanoo parade, goombay music, and a visit from the Royal Bahamas Police Force Band.
Health Care Issues and Practices The first Afro-Bahamians in America brought with them their reliance on traditional herbal medicines and remedies, many of which had roots in West African practices.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY LIFE
As islanders Bahamians tended to forge and keep close-knit kinship ties, even during the most active period of immigration to the United States between 1880 and 1930.
Gender Roles In the postslavery era women were accustomed to being left to fend for themselves for extended periods, especially those on the poorer Out Islands (which were isolated from the earlier-settled Page 218 | Top of Articleislands of New Providence and Grand Bahama). Their husbands were often absent for weeks at a time, working as spongers, salt collectors, or fishermen. Mothers and wives enjoyed an unusual degree of economic decision-making power and moral authority in their households and extended families. This pattern continued when young Bahamian men began leaving home to seek work in the booming South Florida economy. Eventually, entire families began immigrating to the Miami area on a more permanent basis. As in the islands Afro-Bahamian women maintained some independence even in this more traditional, settled family life. They usually worked outside the home, often as domestics or laundresses in private homes. They were active in their church communities and formed their own service clubs and social organizations or lodges.
Education Bahamians place a premium on education, and in the United States the majority of new immigrants sent their children to the segregated public schools in the Miami area. The temporary Afro-Bahamian college student immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s sought an education at historically black schools in the American South and at public universities in the New York City area.
Courtship and Weddings In British-regulated Bahamian society, interracial unions were strongly discouraged, a practice that continued among Afro-Bahamians in the United States. Dating and engagement were followed by a church wedding.
Relations with Other Americans Bahamian Americans tended to separate themselves from other Afro-Caribbean immigrants in South Florida, particularly from Haitians. Black Haitians spoke Haitian Creole or French, practiced Roman Catholicism, and were viewed as a negative influence on the more socially conservative Afro-Bahamians.
Death and Burial Rituals In the early 1900s the Afro-Bahamian community in Miami raised funds and secured municipal permission to erect the Coconut Grove Colored Cemetery. Founded in 1904, it replaced an earlier burial site and features the distinctive limestone above-ground tombs that are common to Bahamian burial practices. The Coconut Grove graveyard is sometimes erroneously reported to have been the filming location used for some scenes in pop star Michael Jackson's pioneering long-form 1983 video “Thriller.”
EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
The first Bahamian Americans used their tropical climate construction trade skills to help settlers in South Florida and the Keys build well-ventilated, insect-proof, hurricane-ready homes and resorts. They also built roads and were vital to Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway. The family members who joined them in Miami worked as domestics, cooks, and citrus pickers. Many became small business owners and prospered in the segregation-era South. Their offspring attained college educations and were among the first solidly African American middle class.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
The Afro-Bahamian immigrants who came during the Miami Craze were elated about the economic opportunities the building boom afforded them, but they were also appalled by the brutal racism of the segregated Southern United States. In the Bahamas they had certainly experienced discrimination, but a history of island revolts in the Caribbean had forced white colonists—confined as they were by the sea, and with limited militia on hand—to treat slaves with more tolerance. This carried over to the post-emancipation era, and newly arrived Afro-Bahamian blacks were shocked at the restrictions placed on them in Florida. Some took up the cause of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an early civil rights group formed by Marcus Garvey. Born in Jamaica in 1887, Garvey was educated at the University of London and settled in Harlem in 1916, founding the newspaper Negro World. Afro-Bahamians in Miami and New York City were a strong support base for Garvey's organization; at the height of UNIA's popularity just after World War I, there were twelve chapters of the group in Florida alone. UNIA added multiple for-profit sidelines that eventually ran afoul of U.S. law. Garvey was deported to Jamaica in 1927, and one of his successors as UNIA president was Nassau-born Frederick A. Toote.
During the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement in America, the pastor of Coconut Grove's Christ Episcopal Church, Father Theodore R. Gibson (1915–1982), played an active role in improving conditions for blacks of all origins in the Miami area. Gibson's Bahamian parents had come to South Florida during the Miami Craze and then separated. Gibson spent large portions of his childhood with his grandparents in George Town, on the Bahamian island of Exuma, which he said shaped both pride in his heritage and his religious convictions. He became head of Miami's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and eventually won a seat on the county board of commissioners. It was Gibson who forced local authorities to extend the sewer system to Coconut Grove's streets in the 1960s, and he also worked to end school segregation.
Broadcasting Al Roker (1954–) is a longtime national meteorologist for NBC's The Today Show. He was born in Queens, New York, to parents of Jamaican and Bahamian heritage and began visiting his father's relatives in the Bahamas as a teenager. One of several books he has published is Al Roker's Page 219 | Top of ArticleHassle-Free Holiday Cookbook (2007), which features a few traditional Bahamian recipes for the Boxing Day/Junkanoo celebrations.
Government In 2010, after a long career in public education and public service, Frederica Wilson (1942–) became the first Bahamian American elected to Congress. A Miami native whose Bahamian-born grandmother was a strong influence in her life, Wilson successfully petitioned the Speaker of the House to allow her to bypass a rule prohibiting the wearing of hats when Congress is in session. Wilson wears hats in honor of her late grandmother, who worked as a laundress.
Literature James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was one of the first major African American literary figures. Johnson was a writer, an activist, a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a guiding light of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. His mother, Helen Louise Dillet, was born into a free black family in Nassau in the 1840s and later became the first black woman to teach school in Florida. Johnson's maternal grandfather was a prosperous Haitian immigrant who became a land-owner in the Bahamas and even served in the colonial House of Assembly. The long tradition of activism in Johnson's maternal line—dating all the way back to the Haitian slave revolt of 1804, which his grandfather had witnessed and which had created the world's first black-ruled republic—was an instrumental force in Johnson's writings that helped him define the African American experience.
Music Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (1928–1975) was a renowned jazz musician born to Bahamian immigrants in Florida. He played saxophone in bands that backed Ray Charles and Miles Davis and later formed the Cannonball Adderley Quintet with his brother Nathaniel.
Stage and Screen Actor Sidney Poitier (1927–) is one of the Bahamian American community's most respected achievers. Born in Miami to parents from Cat Island in the Bahamas, Poitier has had a long career on the New York stage and in film. In 1964 he became the first African American performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor or Actress, which he won for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field.
Esther Rolle (1920–1998) had a long career on the New York stage, in film, and on television. A native of Pompano Beach, Florida, she came from a large Bahamian immigrant family and gained fame in black theater in the 1950s. Pioneering television producer Norman Lear cast her as the housekeeper to the titular brassy feminist in Maude, a 1970s sitcom spin-off of the top-rated All in the Family series. Rolle's character, Florida Evans, proved so appealing that she was given her own series, Good Times, which ran for six seasons on CBS from 1974 to 1979.
Another All in the Family spin-off that was one of the top-rated sitcoms of the era, The Jeffersons, featured Roxie Roker (1929–1995) as Helen Willis, a neighbor of upwardly mobile George and Louise Jefferson. Roker's Willis and her onscreen husband were one of prime-time television's first interracial couples. Roker was born in Miami to Bahamian immigrant Albert Roker. Her cousin Al Roker (1954–) is a meteorologist for The Today Show. Roxie Roker's son Lenny Kravitz (1964–) is a multiple Grammy Award–winning rock musician and songwriter.
The Bahamas Weekly
The Afro-Bahamian diaspora's main news source.
Phone: (242) 352-2988
Bahamian Americans keep up with news of the islands through Internet versions of the Nassau Guardian, the Bahamas' oldest newspaper.
Anthony Ferguson, President
4 Carter Street
P.O. Box N-3011
Nassau, Paradise Island
Phone: (242) 302-2300
Fax: (242) 328-6883
ORGANIZATIONS AND ASSOCIATIONS
Bahamian American Association, Inc. (BAAI)
Founded in 1912 as the Nassau Bahamas Association of New York, this group began as mutual-aid society and social organization for Bahamians living in New York City. Under the motto “Perseverance, Tenacity, and Courage,” the BAAI boasts a long history of promoting Bahamian American educational achievements, business aspirations, and the economic and political development of Afro-Bahamians in the Bahamas. In the 1940s the organization bought a property in Harlem that became its cultural center. The Bahamian Student's Association was created as an offshoot in 1959. In 2002 the Nassau Bahamas Association of New York was reorganized and renamed the Bahamian American Association, Inc. (BAAI).
William R. Dames, President
211 West 137th Street
New York, New York 10030-2406
Bahamian American Cultural Society
Founded in 1991 as a book-drive effort to aid schools in the Bahamas, this group works to promote Bahamian heritage in the United States, especially in the New York City area. It offers genealogical research tools; sponsors exhibitions of Bahamian artists and music events, including a late-summer cultural day held at one of the Hudson River piers; and promotes heritage tourism in the Bahamas.
Beryl Edgecombe, President
400 Second Avenue
New York, New York 10010-9998
Phone: (212) 213 0562
Fax: (212) 725 8979
National Association of the Bahamas
This Miami-based service organization promotes cross-cultural ties to the Bahamas and aids Bahamian students studying in the United States. It holds an annual picnic and scholarship fundraising gala featuring Junkanoo music.
Rosamon L. Gomez, President
St. Bernard de Clairvaux Episcopal Church
16711 West Dixie Highway
North Miami Beach, Florida 33160
Phone: (954) 673-0980
MUSEUMS AND RESEARCH CENTERS
The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc.
Founded in 1977 by Dorothy Jenkins Fields, a Bahamian American, the organization preserves the Afro-Caribbean contributions to the history and development of South Florida and the city of Miami.
Timothy A. Barber
5400 NW 22nd Avenue
Miami, Florida 33142
Phone: (305) 636-2390
Fax: (305) 636-2391
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library
The leading archival source for the history of the African diaspora in New York City, the Schomburg Center is a trove of archival materials honoring the contributions of black New Yorkers to American culture, music, art, literature, and political activism.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director
515 Malcolm X Boulevard
New York, New York 10037-1801
Phone: (212) 491-2200
W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research-Harvard University
The preeminent research authority on African American history and contemporary life.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director
104 Mount Auburn Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
Phone: (617) 495-8508
Fax: (617) 495-8511
SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL STUDY
Craton, Michael, and Gail Saunders. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People. Vol. 2, From the Ending of Slavery to the Twenty-first Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Reimers, David M. Other Immigrants: The Global Origins of the American People. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
“Resources of the Bahamas.” New York Times, June 30, 1861.
Swarns, Rachel L. “Holding On to Heritage before It Slips Away.” New York Times, Sept. 18, 2012.
West-Dur´n, Alan, ed. African Caribbeans: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.