African American Culture

Who is an African American?

Census Definition

Since 1977, the United States officially categorized black people (revised to black or African American in 1997) as “A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.”

However, this definition is controversial, as discussed below.

“African American": Criticisms of the Term

Generally speaking, when people from the United States talk about "African Americans," they are referring specifically to people whose ancestors came to the U.S. from sub-Saharan Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. The term also has been used to describe other, non-black, immigrants from Africa to the United States, such as white South Africans or Arabs from Northern Africa. However, members of these groups typically do not identify themselves as African American, and are generally not regarded as such in the United States. Additionally, the term “African American” has been incorrectly misused in lieu of “black” regardless of the individual’s nationality, ethnicity or geography.

Some who might defend the term claim that it was not meant to describe all Africans, or black people, but rather, people whose ancestors first came to this country as the result of enforced slavery. In this view, a shared history best defines this cultural group, not a shared racial or ethnic ancestry. Many members of this cultural group speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE)

Finally, the immigrant tradition of using the hyphenated American term has historically been used to indicate the person’s country of origin, such as “Italian-American”. Following this tradition, a person from Africa would be labeled as “Kenyan-American”, for example. However, for many the term “African-American has been deemed acceptable, since most black Americans of African ancestry cannot determine which African nation their ancestors were taken from.

The Great Migration

Beginning in the 1890’s African Americans began moving northward, looking for job opportunities and a better living situation, as well as to escape the racial tension and Jim Crow laws of the South. By 1910, 90% of African Americans still lived in the South, but the migration continued until the 1970’s. Between 1916 and 1969 more than 6 million African Americans moved north. After 1970, the trend reversed, and since that time, more African Americans have moved south annually than those leaving it.

African Americans in Oregon

  • In 1788 Marcus Lopez, cabin boy of Captain Robert Gray, is the first person of African descent known to be on Oregon soil.
  • In 1850 when Oregon was first included in the national census, there were only 55 African American residents of the state.
  • By 1940, the African American population of Oregon had grown to 2,565 out of a total state population of approximately 1 million people.
  • By 1950, the African American population had increased substantially to 11,529 people. This marked increase was directly related to the recruitment efforts of the Kaiser Steel company, which had sought workers to help meet the manufacturing demands associated with World War II.
  • By 1990, the African American population in Oregon had increased to approximately 46,000 people.
  • According to 2000 census statistics, African Americans in Oregon numbered approximately 55,000, or approximately 1.6% of the total state population of 3.4 million.