Great Migration to Global Immigration:
A Profile of Black Boston

By Peter Ciurczak and Luc Schuster, Boston Indicators, and James Jennings, PhD. Professor Emeritus, Tufts University

April 7, 2023

This report was produced by Boston Indicators, and is part of our Racial Wealth Equity Resource Center special initiative.

Symbolized by the unveiling of The Embrace - the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and dozens of other Boston civil rights leaders - new efforts have blossomed to help realize the unfulfilled promise of racial equity in our region. Recent political organizing has generated a new class of Black elected leadership. And the public discourse has shifted, with more people newly open to considering policy steps to repair past harms and build systems that are truly inclusive and welcoming. But there remains work to be done.

With this backdrop, Great Migration to Global Immigration: A Profile of Black Boston analyzes the region’s unique and growing intra-Black diversity, explores how the growing Black middle-class has helped revitalize cities and towns outside of Boston’s inner core, and details how disparities by income and wealth manifest across Black communities.

For the full report with lots of detail and analysis, click "Download the Report," below. For select highlights, continue scrolling below for brief discussion of nine key charts.

1. Boston's Black population grew during the Great Migration and then later as federal immigration policy liberalized post-1965. 

Black migration to Boston increased significantly after the Civil War and especially during the Great Migration of the 20th century—the movement of 6 million Black Americans from the South to escape extreme racial violence and seek better employment opportunities in the North. There were two major waves of the Great Migration: around the First World War and then 1940–1970. Between the 1900s and 1930s Southern-born Bostonians made up the largest component of the Black population (although still small relative to the growing Southern-born Black population in cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago).

In more recent decades, our Black foreign-born population has increased dramatically following the loosening of federal immigration restrictions in 1965.

2. Greater Boston’s Black population has grown continuously since 1980, while Boston’s has largely leveled off.

Focusing on more recent trends, we see that the Black population of Greater Boston has increased steadily over the last 40 years. This growth is new in two important ways: 1) much of it is now being driven by multiracial and multi-ethnic Black and Afro-Latino residents (primarily Afro-Dominican or Afro-Puerto Rican), and 2) since 1980, most of this growth has come in cities and towns outside of Boston.

For decades, Boston was the center of Black life in the region, with residents living in Boston neighborhoods like Roxbury, the South End, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and the former West End. As recently as 1980, 76 percent of the region’s Black population lived in Boston. Driven by factors like rising housing costs in Boston, this started to change, and in more recent years we’ve seen a growing suburbanization of our region’s Black population (mirroring some national trends). By 2020, almost two-thirds of the region’s Black population lived outside of Boston proper (64 percent).

3. Black populations have grown fastest in pockets north and south of Boston.

While the region’s Black population has grown steadily outside of Boston over the course of the past generation, growth has been concentrated in a subset of cities and towns. Many higher-income suburbs continue to be less welcoming, either explicitly through exclusionary zoning rules or implicitly through cultural norms and institutions that are less appealing for Black families looking to create community. Despite these challenges, Black families have persevered, creating new Black communities in places like Brockton, Randolph, Lawrence and Lynn. Notably, Brockton is the first municipality in Greater Boston to become majority-Black (51 percent as of the 2020 Census).

The city of Boston has also seen important shifts in recent years. In parts of Roxbury, the Black population share has dropped by more than 7 percentage points since 2010, while Hyde Park overall gained Black population, growing by more than 6 percentage points in some areas. The full report has a broader discussion of these changes across Boston neighborhoods.

4. Black residents of Greater Boston are far more likely to report ancestries connected to other countries.

Just over a quarter of Greater Boston’s Black residents report some form of “African American” or Black ancestry. Because this relies on open-ended write-in responses, there’s no perfect approach to the clustering shown here, but it attempts to distinguish between Black respondents who trace their heritage or cultural ties to territories or countries outside the United States, and those who trace their roots to the U.S. (i.e., the first bars on the left for “African American,” “Black” and “Afro-American”). This share for Greater Boston is far lower than it is nationally, where almost 2/3rds of Black Americans report these ties. By contrast, a far larger share of Black residents of the region claim ancestry from countries predominantly in the Caribbean and Africa. Haitians, for instance, make up about 15 percent of Greater Boston’s Black population compared to just 2 percent nationally.

5. Black residents of Greater Boston are almost 4x as likely to be foreign-born.

Greater Boston’s Black community has long had a large immigrant population, though it is only recently that this foreign-born share has grown significantly. This growth is largely due to the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which loosened immigration restrictions nationwide. This prompted nationwide growth in the Black foreign-born share, but increases here have been faster than the national average. As of 2020, 40 percent of the region’s Black population was foreign-born, roughly four-times as high as it is nationally.

6. Our Afro-Latino population has doubled in 20 years.

While Afro-Latinidad—the collective experiences of Black people with Latino origins and roots—has a long history, it is only in the last decade that its presence has been acknowledged in some places, including Boston and the region. At times Afro-Latinos have been invisible even in discussions about the significant growth of the overall Latino population. This chart aims to capture both aspects of Afro-Latinidad. We find that in Boston, the 2010 Afro-Latino population stood at 16,541 and grew to 23,259 by 2020 (an increase of 41 percent). These Afro-Latinos represent about 13.5 percent of the 172,039 Black persons in Boston reported by the 2020 decennial census. In Greater Boston the increase was also high: In 2010 there were 41,626 Afro-Latinos and this grew to 64,536 by 2020, an increase of 55 percent. Including both Boston and Greater Boston, Afro-Latinos represent approximately 13.5 percent of all 477,480 Black persons in the region.

7. Though there are differences between Black groups, Black households overall lag the median household incomes of Boston and Greater Boston.

For many Black people in Greater Boston, socioeconomic disparities exist in two dimensions: 1) between the overall Black population and other racial groups, and 2) across Black subgroups, such as when disaggregating by country of origin, significant because of the uniquely wide diversity in our region's Black populace. This graph comparing median household incomes helps illustrate both of these dimensions. Black households tend to have much lower incomes than residents of Greater Boston overall, reflecting historic and current discrimination against Black residents. Within the Black community, however, there are also important disparities, as foreign-born Black families report the highest median household incomes both regionwide and in Boston.

8. Racial homeownership gaps are large, even when comparing families of similar incomes.

It’s also important to look at disparities in wealth. Good data on net wealth at the local level is scarce, but we can look at individual components of wealth to analyze racial disparities. Homeownership is among the largest components of wealth for families in the bottom half of the distribution, and, troublingly, Greater Boston has an even larger racial homeownership gap than the country as a whole. These gaps are a consequence of decades of policy choices, from implementation of the GI Bill to modern-day exclusionary zoning, which have made homeownership much more difficult for Black and Latino households. The graph above shows that not only are there large racial homeownership gaps in the aggregate (highlighted in grey), but these gaps largely persist when looking at families of similar income levels.

9. Black households also lag on other measures of wealth, such as business ownership.

Another important component of wealth for which we have local data is business ownership. For this analysis we focus on businesses with at least one employee, so that small sole proprietorships do not skew results. And once again we see large racial gaps, with Black business owners making up just 1.9 percent of all businesses with one or more employees, well below the overall Black share of the population. The significantly lower rate of Black ownership speaks directly to many of the systemic difficulties these owners face. Access to capital, mentorship, and learning opportunities can be much harder for Black business owners to secure, and lower ownership rates may be due at least in part to these challenges.

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