"Every hour sees the Black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant." A century and a half ago, a deeply conflicted Frederick Douglass saw immigration as a looming threat to the fragile and piecemeal economic gains that Northern Blacks had made in some trades and industries.
Black leaders in Douglass' day waged ferocious fights with each other over ideology, politics and leadership, but they relentlessly opposed immigration.
"The continual stream of well-trained European laborers flowing into the West," warned Booker T. Washington in an 1882 speech, "leaves Negroes no foothold."
Washington's great fear was that immigration would displace Northern Blacks from manufacturing industries, and that Southern landowners would use cheap European and Asian labor to boot Blacks off the land. Educator and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois railed against Washington's official racial accommodation stance. Yet, like Washington, he attacked immigration as a dire threat to Blacks.
During and immediately following World War I, millions more Eastern and Southern Europeans poured into the country to escape war, poverty, and anti-Semitic pogroms. Many were poorly educated, marginally skilled workers that crowded the cities and muscled Blacks out of bottom-rung manufacturing and farm jobs. Black leaders and racist, America-first anti-immigration proponents screamed for Congress to stop the flood.
In an editorial in 1919, The New York Age skipped the niceties: "Speaking purely from a motive of self-interest, the American Negro can say that the passing of a law restricting immigration for four years is a good thing."
Two years later, the Chicago Defender, which had virtually become the bible for Black America readers by the early 1920s, chimed in: "The restrictions recently placed upon immigration to these shores ought to help us if they do not help anybody else."
In 1920, Black nationalist Marcus Garvey painted an even scarier picture of what unchecked immigration could mean: "We will be out of jobs, and we will be starving." It was vintage Garvey rhetoric, but it pricked a public nerve.
When Congress passed a racially exclusionary anti-immigration bill in 1924, the Black press cheered madly. The bill was a victory for Black workers, they said, and would open up more jobs.
A year later, The National Urban League's house organ, Opportunity, applauded the anti-immigrant assault: "The gaps made by the reduction in immigrant labor have forced a demand for Negro labor despite theories which hold that they are neither needed nor desired."
The restrictive 1924 immigration law didn't totally allay Black fears about immigration. Some Blacks viewed Mexican immigrants as the new threat. In 1927, the Pittsburgh Courier warned that Mexican immigrants would "menace" Blacks' position in industry: "The Mexicans are being used as laborers on the railroads, on public works and on the farms, thus taking the places of many Negro workers."
Though the Courier nailed employers for exploiting illegal immigrants, it did not take the next logical step and urge Black workers, labor groups and civil rights leaders to join with Mexican workers and fight for better wages, fair hiring practices and improved labor standards, and against segregation that impoverished Black and Mexican workers. But this was the pre Depression era of laissez-faire capitalism, and Black leaders banked on the goodwill of White corporate employers for Black economic gains.
A century ago, Douglass, Washington, DuBois, Garvey and the Black press sounded the alarm bell over legal and illegal immigration. They forged a strange bedfellow alliance with conservative anti-immigrant groups to portray immigrants as the ultimate peril to Blacks. As the national debate rages over illegal immigration today, they're doing the same thing again.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www. BlackNews.com.