Caribbean Immigrant Employment in New York City

A History

002Caribbean Islanders had little economic prowess in their homeland. The majority of people relied on companies established by foreign powers. This wasn’t because the working population couldn’t support themselves through shops, farms, etc., but it was because companies like the United Fruit Company (UFC) had a tight control over most of the arable land, and crushed any minor challenge to their economic grip (Watkins-Owens 1996). Thus when they had the chance, Black Caribbeans voluntarily began a significant migration to the United States (Thomas 2012). Beginning in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, Caribbean Blacks flushed into the United States, in search for a better and more fruitful life. Settling in New York, these early Caribbean immigrants took part in transnational networks of support, and were pioneers for following generations of Caribbean immigrants. However, where did these first Caribbean immigrants, and the following generations of immigrants setkurtz-phelan-600tle? And where did they work?







Coming to Harlem (1898-1950)

Caribbean Blacks had multitude of places to choose from when migrating to the United States, however, there was only one true choice: New York City. New York City was the already the immigrant hub of the world. With multiple waves of Europeans stumbling into the city each year, it was a mosaic of ethnicities. New York’s economy was only growing and commercial districts were only expanding (Mizrahi 2008).  New York also had one thing no other place could match: Harlem.

Thomas HarlemMap1935b

By the early 20th century, Harlem was the prime destination for every Black individual within the U.S., and outside of it (Parker 2004). Unlike other parts of Manhattan, Harlem gave native Black New Yorkers a “far greater chance for community building” (Watkins-Owens). Thus, a Harlem community was born by native Blacks for all Blacks. In Harlem, the number of Caribbean immigrants only grew as the emigrated settled and the incoming were invited. Harlem became a Caribbean powerhouse. Caribbean immigrants settled in Harlem and formed organizations to not only in aid of incoming immigrants, but also in aid of their home countries (Watkins-Owens 1996; Parker 2008). Harlem became such a hub for the political and social ventures of Caribbean islanders that historian Jason Parker refers to it as ‘The Capital of the Caribbean’.


Language and Niches

When searching for employment, most Caribbean immigrants did not have the hardest times. This was because many Caribbean immigrants had the the ability to speak the language of their island imperialists, for example French, as well as English. This intrigued  American employers (Watkins-Owens 1996). Furthermore, Caribbean immigrants were favored over African-Americans. This spawned from the idea that immigrants were usually harder working or passionate about surviving in New York, that employers would choose them over native Blacks (Kasinitz 1992).


Caribbean immigrants were involved in what Nancy Model labels, in her Islands in the City, ‘ethnic niches’. “An ethnic niche is an industry in which members of an immigrant or minority group are overrepresented”(Model 2001). Caribbean immigrants, usually of the same island, tend to reside in the same occupations . Such methods insured that Caribbean immigrants dominated a certain industry together and secured that they and incoming family members had a source of income to survive in Harlem and other parts of New York City.


Where Caribbean Men developed in the Industry

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 2.26.24 PM Industries show the advantage and favoritism Caribbean immigrants experienced. Compared to the 2.32 % of African-American men working in manufacturing, Caribbean men were represented a significant 10% (Model 2001). The most representation early Caribbean men had been in Transport and Trades (Model 2001). Transport jobs were undesirable as only 3% of all other New Yorkers were in the industry, while 10% of Caribbean men flooded this market (Model 2001). Therefore, early Caribbean immigrants were pursuing jobs available to them. However, in industries like Trade (represented by 11% of Caribbean men), Caribbeans were able to implement niches.

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A common misconception surrounding early Caribbean immigrants is that the many of them became entrepreneurs (Model 2001; Kasinitz 1992). This was believed because immigrants coming from under developed nations were believed to lack ownership. Thus in a place opportunity, they were envisioned to desire the owning a business. This was not the case however. In fact, only 0.24% of early Caribbean immigrants were employers (Model 2001). However, this miniscule number could be accredited to the possibility that early Caribbean immigrants did not have an economic foothold or enough experience in the American market to risk starting a business (Kasinitz 1992). In the case of the rest of the early Caribbean immigrants, 80% were workers (Model 2001).


Caribbean Women in the Workforce

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In the case of Caribbean women, one industry dominated the rest. An astonishing 77% of Caribbean women were employed in the personal services industry (Model 2001). Although occupations were limited for women at the time, the significance of Caribbean women in personal services is still startling. However, this can be attributed to ethnic niches as described by Philip Kasinitz. “Compatriots tend to follow one another into certain positions, leading in some cases to the virtual monopolization of certain jobs by members of the same ethnic group. For West Indians New Yorkers the concentration in service jobs is far greater among women than among men” (Kasinitz 1998). Although the ethnic niche is prominent, it is also possible that Caribbean women hold pride in personal service occupations like nursing and caretaking. It is also possible that the personal service industry is all that was available, and Caribbean women needed to work in support of their families.


On to Brooklyn (1951-Today)

During the 1950’s, there continued to be a great influx of Caribbean islanders into Harlem. However, there was no longer room to accommodate any more newcomers.Thus, incoming Caribbean immigrants had to look elsewhere to settle—Brooklyn. During the 1940’s, a small African-American community was growing in Bedford-Stuyvesant (Caribbean Migration 2015). Just like early Caribbean Islanders did in settling near native blacks in Harlem, new Caribbean immigrants did the same by settling in Brooklyn. Furthermore, unlike other Boroughs, Brooklyn had an abundance of homes to purchase in areas like Flatbush.


From novels, like Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall, it is described that Caribbean immigrants of the 1950’s had an affinity and desire to purchase homes. Therefore, Brooklyn offered the necessities by which incoming immigrants wished to live.

Finally, Brooklyn had an intricate subway system that connected it to the rest of New York City. Specifically, the establishment of the A-train was monumental in the formation of a Caribbean and African-American community. The A-train extended to Bedford in 1936 and provided a direct line to Harlem (Caribbean Migration 2015). This played an integral role in the development of Bedford-Stuyvesant, because now Caribbean immigrants and African-Americans had a means of transportation to the ‘Capital of the Caribbean’. Furthermore, they would have easy access to family already settled in Harlem (Caribbean Migration 2015). Therefore, Brooklyn was the next ideal place for incoming Caribbean immigrants.




A More Fruitful Life

After their settlement in Harlem, the percentage of Caribbean men working in high-income jobs was a combined 4%. However, in the 1970-2000’s, the combined percentage of Caribbean mean working in similar high-end occupations was 30% (Model 2001). Interestingly, 35% of Caribbean women worked in high-income occupations (Model 2001). The reason behind this is that men had a tendency to begin working at an earlier age than women, and thus polarized to labor intense jobs (Mizrahi 2008). Women, rather, aspired to receive a college education and work in higher-income occupations. However, the trend of Caribbean women remained from the early 1900’s as 25% were working in the personal services industry

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Caribbean men and women were also both subject to the recession of the early 1980’s. In 1970, the percent of Caribbean men and women working in the manufacturing industry was a combined 34% (Model 2001). In 1990, the combined percentage working in manufacturing took a hit in that it was only 18% (Model 2001). In other industries however, Caribbean immigrants actually seemed to have suffered less than whites. During the recession of the 70-80’s, there was 17% decrease in the total employment of native and foreign-born whites (Kasinitz 1998). However, Caribbean Blacks actually experienced a 6% increase in total employment (Kasinitz 1998). (Model 2001).

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Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 3.54.25 PMAlthough it is not the 77% it once was, the amount of Caribbean women working as nurses or caretakers is still massive and an illustration of the long lasting ethnic niche (Kasinitz 1998).

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My Interview with a Caribbean Entrepreneur

Caribbean immigrants also experienced a surge in entrepreneurship while settling in Brooklyn. This is not only due to an increased college education, and a more knowledgeable populace, but also the availability of local commercial areas like Flatbush Avenue (Caribbean Migration 2015). To further analyze the rise of entrepreneurship and business management in the Caribbean immigrant population, I spoke with a Caribbean entrepreneur:

I came to New York almost 23 years ago. I did speak English, but very little. I did not have family here, but I had family friends who were living here so I stayed with them. I didn’t have a choice when it came to work. I took what I got to live. However, I al20150513_133759ways dreamed of opening a Haitian restaurant. I started as a dishwasher in a diner about 1 year after I came to America. Then I became a waiter and about 15 years ago I began working at Outback. I have been working with them since and 2 years ago, I was given proprietorship of this Outback. I think Caribbean people always want to start their own business. Everyone wants to be their own boss, and Caribbean people are very very hardworking and can sometimes achieve that. Especially now when there are so many opportunities, I live in the Bronx but if you look at Flatbush, Caribbean people own everything. I couldn’t go to college, but imagine if they all go to college and open businesses. Oh, forget about it.

(Dame S., 46, proprietor of the 3rd most earning Outback Steakhouse in the Country)


Although Dame was not able to open his own restaurant, he is close enough. Today, 11% of Caribbean immigrants are entrepreneurs as compared to 0.24% almost a century ago (Model 2001).


Works Cited

Model, Suzanne. “Where New York’s West Indians Work.” Islands in the City (2001): 52-79. Web.

Thomas, Kevin. “A Demographic Profile of Black Caribbean Immigrants in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute, 01 Apr. 2012. Web. 01 May 2015.

Mizrahi, Terry, and Larry E. Davis. The Encyclopedia of Social Work. Washington, DC: NASW, 2008. Print.

Kasinitz, Philip. Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992

Unkown. “Caribbean Migration.” AAME :. African American Migration Experience, Jan. 2015. Web. 06 May 2015.

Watkins-Owens, Irma. Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900-1930. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. Print.

Parker, Jason. “”Capital of the Caribbean”: The African American-West Indian “Harlem Nexus” and the Transnational Drive for Black Freedom, 1940-1948.” The Journal of African American History 89.2 (2004): 98. Web.

S., Dame. Personal communication interview. Proprietor at Outback Steakhouse. April 25, 2015.

-Anwar Jammal

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