The Anglophone Caribbean Immigrant and Partisan Politics in New York City, 1900-1972

Article excerpt

Much has been written about the Caribbean immigrant, mostly those of Anglophone ancestry in recent years. Most of these studies are sociological, but they deal with the sociology of politics, identity and ethnicity. Calvin B. Holder, for example, in his "The Rise of the West Indian Politician in New York City, 1900-1952," gives a brief overview of Caribbean immigrant political activity, but his article is brief and incomplete.2

Similarly, Constance R. Sutton and Elsa M. Cheney, (eds.), in their Caribbean Life in New York City: Socio-cultural Dimensions, deal with immigrants from all parts of the Caribbean, but partisan politics is not part of this otherwise informative mosaic of Caribbean immigration and intercultural complexities.3 There are also an increasing number of recent books and articles. Philip Kasinitz's book Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race4 is excellent, but this work emphasizes race relations and questions of ethnicity. Party politics, that is, politics within the party structure, which usually propels the successful individual to a very good material life without ever having to run for public office, is given only brief look in this book. Neither does Winston James' excellent book Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America deal with the subject of party politics.5 Most recently, Mary C. Waters book, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities is a compelling socio-anthropological description and discussion of the Caribbean immigrant struggle to find safe harbor in America, but political struggle finds no place in this work. 6

For a more comprehensive understanding of the Caribbean immigrant experience in the United States it is necessary to examine also, how West Indian immigrant populations infiltrated, supported, and abandoned as necessary, the major political parties in the pivotal city of New York, rising through the ranks of these organizations to positions of power, prestige and influence.

Within the American population today, it is not well understood that leaders of political organizations in any city or state are power and patronage givers. The Borough President of Manhattan, that is New York County, though an elected official, was not as powerful as the Chief of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Organization of New York County. In effect, the Borough President served at the indulgence of the Tammany Hall organization, where its "chief" wielded enormous power. It was the same with the mayor if he were a Democrat, since the New York County Democratic organization, Tammany Hall, decided who would run for mayor. The successful candidate understood that Tammany Hall could always desert her/him at the next election if she/he did not behave as a good Democrat. Even the governor was beholden to Tammany Hall, because its influence in New York City and indeed, throughout the state, was formidable. Tammany Hall, representative of the northern wing of the Democratic Party, was by the beginning of the 20th century a very useful home receptacle for the significant wave of Anglophone Caribbean immigrants that began after the Spanish American War.

THE CARIBBEAN IMMIGRANT AND THE LURE OF PARTY POLITICS

Many of these immigrants had worked on the Panama Canal where they had come in contact with Americans, and from this association a significant number concluded that the United States would be a much more fruitful place than their homelands for their personal advancement. So they came. Others were drawn by tales of great financial wealth available to the enterprising. Others merely wanted to be employed. But the 1917 Immigration Act slowed the pace of Caribbean immigration, as did the 1924 Act. Interestingly both acts, though racist, preferring persons from Great Britain and northern Europe, insured that the successful Caribbean immigrant would now be, at the least, a literate one. …