Symposium to Focus on Black Migrations

Assistant Professor Daive Dunkley
Assistant Professor Tristan Ivory
Professor Chris Wikle

Assistant Professor Daive Dunkley (top), Assistant Professor Tristan Ivory, and Professor Chris Wikle organized the 2019 Black "Migrations" Symposium to held at the University of Missouri Feb. 7-8. Scholars, students, and activists will discuss the central role migration has played in the histories of Africans and their descendants. 

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Black Studies

The national theme for Black History Month this February is Black Migrations, which emphasizes the movement of people of African descent to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities. Daive Dunkley, an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies and chair of MU’s Black History Month Committee, says that rather than celebrating Black History Month by putting together a few events to mark the occasion as they always do, he wanted to host an academic conference with scholars, students, and independent researchers who have been studying migration as it pertains to black populations.

Dunkley pitched the idea to colleague Tristan Ivory, an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies and the Department of Sociology, who also serves as the vice-chair of the Black History Month Committee at MU. Ivory agreed, and the two began searching for campus partners.

“All of the usual partners did not seem to fit this project, so we looked to the statisticians,” Dunkley says, “because they look at population movement. We approached Chris Wikle (chair of the Department of Statistics), and he said yes. I think we benefitted from Chris being in tune with the college’s mission to increase the number of partnerships of interdisciplinary work on campus.” He says Professor Wikle also was instrumental in putting together a grant application to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“This is exactly the kind of thing the NSF likes to see for conference funding—where you are exploring a new area and, in our case, trying to attract underrepresented groups into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines,” Wikle says. “We want young researchers to see the potential for collaboration and then potentially draw students from both disciplines to take classes and to learn more formally about what was going on in migrations research in the presence of uncertainty.” The organizers received word the NSF had approved funding for the 2019 Black “Migrations” Symposium, which will be held Feb. 7–8 in Memorial Union on the MU campus. The symposium is free and open to the public.

The Movement of People

In general, Americans tend to think of the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a uniquely American phenomenon, especially since this country fought a Civil War over the issue of slavery. Ivory and Dunkley say that perception is flawed.

“Brazil is an interesting country in that the largest number of people of African descent outside of Africa are in Brazil, and the largest number of Japanese people outside of Japan are in Brazil,” Ivory says. He notes several scholars from Brazil will participate in the symposium.

“Brazil received the largest proportion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and second to that was the Caribbean,” Dunkley says. “The U.S. actually received the smallest percentage from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in part because the U.S. got out of the trans-Atlantic slave trade very early, in 1808, the year after Great Britain got out. But then the U.S. relied on internal slave trading from the north to the south and some elicit slave trading from the Caribbean to shore up its population of slaves. The African population in the U.S. increased from less than 1 million in 1808 to almost 6 million in 1865.”    

Dunkley says a lot of black people tried to escape slavery by moving to British territories like Trinidad and Jamaica after Great Britain abolished slavery in 1834, but that emigration receded once they discovered slavery was illegal in name only, and the exploitation of their labor was similar to the conditions of slavery. He says another population shift occurred in 1865, when a number of African-Americans and West Indians moved to Panama to work on the Panama Canal. Some never returned, while others returned with spouses from Central America. He says a similar movement of black people occurred during World Wars I and II, when large numbers went to Europe to fight for the Allies, and quite a few decided not to return to the U.S.

“During the World War There was a Great Migration North by Southern Negroes,” by Jacob Lawrence

“During the World War There was a Great Migration North by Southern Negroes,” by Jacob Lawrence from The Migration Series, 1941, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

The Movement of Ideas

Ivory says this continuous circulation of people also led to a circulation of ideas, such as Pan-Africanism (a movement for the political union of all the African nations), repatriation, self-determination, socialism, and other political forms that were often kept from black populations in the U.S.

“If we look at things that were happening, especially around the Harlem Renaissance or late 19th- and early 20th-century political movements, those political movements were the result of people moving from place to place and bringing ideas with them,” Ivory says. “A number of Caribbean academicians and theorists were directly responsible for some of the ideas that popped out of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s the same thing with individuals coming from Africa, meeting with others in Europe, and realizing that many of the same social issues that were affecting people on the continent of Africa were affecting people of African descent everywhere.” Ivory says the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. is directly tied to some of these previous movements, as are some of the movements happening today, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Forced vs. Voluntary Migration

Dunkley says it’s important to distinguish between forced migrations, such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and voluntary migrations, such as the back-to Africa movements of African-Americans who went to Liberia in the early 19th century. Those back-to-Africa movements were later resurrected by Marcus Garvey in the early 1920s. Garvey was a Jamaican-born black nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement, which sought to unify and connect people of African descent worldwide. Garvey bought ships and tried to repatriate people to West Africa.

“When we think of (voluntary) black migration, we think that people go in search of opportunities, but people also go because they get invited based on what they have to offer in terms of skills and education,” Dunkley says. For example, U.S. higher education has immigrated many of the best black scholars from the Caribbean and Africa. Following the Second World War, Canada’s health care system was in dire need of nurses. Although Canada had prided itself on being a “white man’s country,” it welcomed a group of Caribbean nurses to fill the gaps. That history will be the subject of the closing keynote address on Feb. 8 by Karen Flynn of the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, “Unless You and the Congregation Can Accept Them Fully: Caribbean–Canadian Nurses and Nation Building.”

“Missouri—Remarkable Exodus of Negroes…,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 19, 1879

“Missouri—Remarkable Exodus of Negroes…,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 19, 1879, wood engraving, State Historical Society of Missouri.

A Statistician’s Perspective

Wikle says statisticians have a history of working with migrations and flow data, or how people move from one place to another.

“Yet I think it is kind of distinct from a lot of the research in terms of black migration, which has been more from a sociological or cultural perspective,” he says. Wikle says statistics has a role to play in this field because it deals with uncertainty quantification—in this case due to poorly recorded primary sources.

“Even with the data we collect now—like the American Communities Survey, which has information about population flows and has all of the sampling protocols you can imagine—because it is a sample there can still be a large amount of uncertainty, ” Wikle says. “So the great challenge for us as statisticians is going back in time and trying to quantify the numbers. Honestly, I don’t think we have all the answers yet, and that’s why it’s a good research problem.”

Wikle contacted the American Statistical Association to promote the symposium and ask for contacts. A group of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder responded and will present a technical keynote on Feb. 7 titled, “Using Statistics to Trace the Uncertain Origins of Enslaved Africans Leaving the Bight of Benin During the Collapse of the Oyo Empire, 1817–1836.”  

“The cool thing about this for me is we don’t see these kinds of interactions between the STEM disciplines and the more humanities-based disciplines very often,” Wikle says. “This is a chance for us to be leaders in building a bridge where that bridge didn’t exist before. It’s really more STEAM than STEM.”

“One of the Largest Race Riots Occurred in East St. Louis,” by Jacob Lawrence

“One of the Largest Race Riots Occurred in East St. Louis,” by Jacob Lawrence depicting the 1917 race riot associated with the Great Migration, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.  

Lessons for the Future

Dunkley says the heated rhetoric concerning immigration today served as an inspiration for the symposium—as a means of breaking through the demagogy to look at the issue of black migrations from a historical and an analytical approach, and to inform the future.

Ivory says the last time a blue-ribbon panel attempted to draft comprehensive immigration reform, in the early 1990s, the effort fell apart after one of the principle advocates, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, died from leukemia. At that time, Ivory says there were 2 to 4 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Today estimates range from 10 to 12 million.

“The big lesson there is doing nothing or keeping the status quo won’t solve any of the issues that are most likely to happen,” Ivory says. “So the food and water shortages that are likely to happen in the future due to climate change will force people to move to areas with secure sources of food and water, and to expect otherwise is to be out of touch with reality. We need to do a better job of preparing for a lot of these things that are inevitably going to happen.”

The 2019 Black “Migrations” Symposium is presented by the Department of Black Studies and the Department of Statistics and is funded by the NSF, with additional funding from the Paul Anthony Brick Fund, the College of Arts and Science, and MU. All information about the symposium can be found at:

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