For four centuries, the West Indies have made an outsized impact on New England. In 2018, West Indian stars and a West Indian manager brought the Boston Red Sox to a World Series championship.
West Indians have come to New England as doctors, teachers, ministers, slaves, farm workers and servants, depending on when they came.
Beginning in the 17th century, merchants like Connecticut horse jockeys, Rhode Island slavers and Boston banana importers have traded with the West Indies. Well into the 19th century, retail shops called West India Goods Stores sold items from the Caribbean and all over the world.
And West Indians came to New England in waves – from the British and Spanish West Indies, the French Antilles and the Dutch Caribbean. Some were Afro-Caribbean, like W.E.B. Du Bois’s father, some were Euro-Caribbean, like Oscar de la Renta, Jackie Kennedy’s favorite designer.
And some came as key players for the Boston Red Sox. Eduardo Nunez and Rafael Devers came from the Dominican Republic. Xander Bogaerts came from Aruba. Christian Vazquez and manager Alex Cora came from Puerto Rico.
So when the Red Sox clinched the world championship in Los Angeles, Cora acknowledged a historic relationship when he said, “I can’t imagine what’s going on in Boston, I can’t imagine what’s going on on my island.”
West Indies Trade
Tragically, the first documented West Indians in New England were slaves from Barbados. European slavers bought captured Africans and took them to Barbados in the British West Indies to work on ever-larger sugar plantations.
Because the West Indian planters grew few crops other than sugar cane, New England traders seized the opportunity to sell them farm produce, livestock, salted fish and wood products. They brought back sugar, molasses and some of their slaves on the two- to five-week voyage.
Enslaved Afro-Caribbeans first came to Massachusetts in 1638 and to Connecticut in 1639. At the end of the Pequot War in 1669, the Puritans tried to force captured Indians into slavery. The Indians, though, ‘would not endure the yoke,’ so the Puritans sent them to the West Indies in exchange for captive African laborers.
On the eve of the American Revolution, Massachusetts and Connecticut each had about 5,000 black people living within their borders. Most had lived in or were born in the Caribbean.
As late as 1860, one in five black Bostonians had a Caribbean birthplace. Many West Indians were free, and some quite successful. Prince Hall from Barbados founded the Negro Masonic Order in Boston in 1775. John Brown Russwurm from Jamaica founded the first African-American newspaper after graduating from Bowdoin College in 1826.
W.E.B. Du Bois, born free to a Haitian father in Great Barrington, Mass., in 1868, rose to international prominence as a historian, sociologist and civil rights leader.
2nd Wave from the West Indies
From 1900 to 1930, a second wave of immigrants from the West Indies arrived, mostly from the English-speaking islands. They were typically literate and skilled, and a significant number had worked as professionals and in offices. Others were dockworkers, porters, laborers and domestic servants.
They came because they suffered tremendous economic hardship due to the decline of the Caribbean sugar plantation during the late 19th century. And they came to New England for a very specific reason: cheap steamer fares.
During the late 19th century, a group of Boston merchants called Boston Fruit ran a steamship service between the West Indies and Boston. They imported bananas, coconuts, oranges and lemons, eventually becoming Chiquita Brands International.
Boston Fruit's steamer also carried passengers, including West Indians coming to Boston, the first port of call. They also settled in New Haven, Cambridge, Mass., and New York. Florida, though, had the highest concentration of Afro-Caribbean immigrants in 1900, just under 22 percent..
In 1924, immigration from the West Indies all but stopped with the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. The law sharply limited immigration from countries outside of Western Europe.
Then the Great Depression came, and many immigrants returned to the West Indies, forced home by economic hardship and even more restrictive immigration policies.
World War II
In 1900 Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens, and for the next 45 years about 90,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the continental United States. Some came to work in defense plants during World War II. But it wasn’t until 1945 that the Great Migration of Puerto Ricans started, lasting until 1964.
Half a million people from the islands, 21,000 a year, came to the mainland, many as farm workers. Some stayed in Springfield, Mass., and Hartford, Conn. They were joined by Jamaican contract farm workers picking apples, tobacco, melons and blueberries.
Life was harsh for Puerto Ricans in New England’s declining industrial cities. Young Puerto Ricans rioted from Worcester to Waterbury during the late 1960s through the 1970s. Many returned to the island.
The flow of West Indian immigrants slowed in 1952, when Congress enacted an immigration law, the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. It aimed to keep out black immigrants, and it worked.
But like a pendulum, immigration laws loosened up in 1968. They let in close to half a million Caribbean immigrants, mostly Cubans, to Florida. The number of Jamaicans rose eightfold, to about 75,000 in the '60s. Then it almost doubled in the '70s to 140,000 and rose again in the 1980s to 208,000 in the 1990s.
In New England, Jamaicans concentrated in the Hartford and Bridgeport areas of Connecticut, which has the fifth highest population of Jamaicans in the country. The Blue Hills neighborhood of Hartford, in fact, has the densest concentration of Jamaicans in the United States. Jamaicans have also settled in the Boston area and throughout New England. Jamaican musicians perform at reggae festivals all over the region. Even Brattleboro, Vt., has a Jerk Festival.
Today, three New England states – Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut – have some of the densest populations of people with West Indies heritage in the country. Only Florida and New York have more.
The arrival of Dominican immigrants from the West Indies contribute heavily to the West Indian presence in New England. Beginning with the assassination of President Trujillo in 1961, a series of political and economic crises drove waves of Dominicans to the United States.
Dominicans comprise the largest Hispanic group in Rhode Island – 35,008 in 2010. They also dominate the Hispanic population in eastern Massachusetts. The Connecticut cities of Danbury, Waterbury and Bridgeport have large Dominican populations.
Only New York City has more Dominicans than Lawrence, Mass., with 30,243 as of 2010. And when Marcos Devers was appointed as Acting Mayor of Lawrence, he became the first Dominican-American mayor of a U.S. city.
Massachusetts, in fact, has the fourth largest Dominican population (103,292 in 2010) in the United States. The Bay State can also claim David Ortiz, the Red Sox legend, now an American citizen living in suburban Boston.
Images: David Ortiz By Arturo Pardavila III from Hoboken, NJ, USA - CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52501471; Alex Cora By Eric Kilby - Three Amigos, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63535958.