Find A PhysicianHome  |  Library  |  myDownstate  |  Newsroom  |  A-Z Guide  |  E-mail  |  Contact Us  |  Directions
curve gif

February is Black History Month

February is Black History Month

As we all know, the United States, for better or worse, is a nation of immigrants, and the story of the American people is indeed a story of immigration and diversity. The USA has welcomed more immigrants to its shores than any other country — more than 50 million in all — and still as many as a million persons a year make the USA their new home.

Immigration patterns have changed over the years. Of course, the English were the dominant ethnic group among early settlers of what became the United States, and English became the prevalent American language. But people of other nationalities were not long in following. Herewith, some facts about America’s immigration and diversity:

In 1776 Thomas Paine, a spokesman for the revolutionary cause in the colonies and himself a native of England, wrote that "Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America." These words described the settlers who came not only from Great Britain, but also from other European countries, including Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Germany and Sweden. Nonetheless, in 1780 three out of every four citizens of the United States were of English or Irish descent.
Between 1840 and 1860, the United States received its first great wave of immigrants. In one year alone, 1847, the number of Irish immigrants to the United States reached 118,120. Today there are about 39 million Americans of Irish descent.
During the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), the U.S. Government -- the Union -- helped fill its roster of troops by encouraging emigration from Europe, especially from the German states. In return for service in the Union army, immigrants were offered grants of land. By 1865, about one in five Union soldiers was a wartime immigrant. Today, 22 percent of Americans have German ancestry.
Jews came to the United States in large numbers beginning about 1880. Over the next 45 years, two million Jews moved to the United States. The U.S. Jewish population today is more than five million.
Among the flood of immigrants to North America, one group came involuntarily. These were the Africans, 500,000 of whom were brought over as slaves between 1619 and 1808, when importing slaves into the United States became illegal. Today, people of African descent come to the United States willingly, not only from countries on the African continent, but also from the Caribbean, Canada, and South America. Today, African Americans constitute 12.7 percent of the total U.S. population.
It is not uncommon to walk down the streets of a U.S. city today and hear Spanish spoken. In 1950 fewer than four million U.S. residents were from Spanish-speaking countries. Today that number is about 27 million. About 50 percent of Hispanics in the United States have origins in Mexico. The other 50 percent come from a variety of countries, including El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Colombia.
>— Prior to 1924, U.S. laws specifically excluded Asian immigrants. People in the U.S. West feared that the Chinese and other Asians would take away jobs, and racial prejudice against people with Asian features was widespread. The law that kept out Chinese immigrants was repealed in 1943, and legislation passed in 1952 allows people of all races to become U.S. citizens. Today Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the country. About 10 million people of Asian descent live in the United States.
In 1990, the top 10 points of origin for immigrants were Mexico (57,000), the Philippines (55,000), Vietnam (49,000), the Dominican Republic (32,000), Korea (30,000), China (29,000), India (28,000), the Soviet Union (25,000), Jamaica (19,000), and Iran (18,000).
The United States continues to accept more immigrants than any other country. In 1990, our population included nearly 20 million foreign-born persons. The revised immigration law of 1990 created a flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants each year. That law also provides for "diversity" visas, encouraging immigration from countries heretofore underrepresented in immigration patterns. In 1990 about 9,000 people entered the country on “diversity visas” from such countries as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Peru, Egypt, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Obviously, the USA is a nation of cultural, religious, and ethic diversity. All of these people bring with them new and interesting foods, customs, and ways of looking at life. They also bring with them ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that many of us may find strange and discomfiting. But as someone once said - “we may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now”. Diversity is part of our heritage, and it is here to stay. So let’s embrace it, learn more about it, and accept it as the thing that makes America the noble country that it is.

This article was written with information from Portrait of the USA, a publication of the United States Information Agency, September 1997.