UPDATED Coming to America: The Stories of Chicago Black Immigrants

When we look at immigration reform around our country, often the images of undocumented immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries flash across our screens. The rising statistics of immigrants and refugees from other countries have taken center stage as a rallying call for Donald Trump’s presidential speech. The former reality star and businessman struck a nerve with Americans worn down from a tattered recession which left millions picking themselves up and dusting themselves off bringing hidden feelings to the surface.

But as Trump pushed the “build a wall” button along the Mexican border, the message for anti-immigration advocates translated lack of jobs for U.S. citizens and corporate businesses leaving the country, sparking an “us against them” war—amping up profiling at airports, increasing ICE law enforcement and slowing down the citizenship approval process.

Since Trump took over the highest office in the country, Americans have witnessed drastic and bold changes in travel restrictions to and from countries in the Middle East and pulling support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival [DACA] program—threatening close to 800,000 undocumented young people who arrive as children in the U.S. but are guaranteed temporary stay without deportation.

While Democratic legislators in D.C. work on bi-partisan efforts to save the program, the African-American community barely blinked on the necessity to keep such a program alive. Why? Because we don’t always understand the perplexities of immigration within our own community. It is not just a problem restricted to Spanish-speaking, Syrian and Middle Eastern residents. While Chicago is now 26 percent Hispanic, there is a diverse mix of cultures within Chicago’s Black community which includes immigrants from Africa, Haiti and the Caribbean.

Often forgotten when immigration comes to mind, these countries and its natives were recently thrust into the forefront. According to Senator Dick Durbin, behind a closed-door meeting in discussing a resolution to save the DACA program, President Trump repeatedly referred to Africa and Haiti as sh*thole countries and did not want to welcome its natives.

Coming to Another Country

Olasupo Laosebikan has lived in Chicago since 1994 when he returned back from his native country of Nigeria. Having gone to college in the States to return back to Africa in 1978, he taught for 17 years at the university. In the early 1990’s, under the leadership of President Sani Abacha, the country was in turmoil with government restrictions in place and very little freedom of speech—Laosebikan returned to the U.S.

“We had a very terrible military government. It was just terrible. It was a very dangerous atmosphere,” he said. “I have been here since that time. I had come back to Nigeria in 1978 and I was there happy.”

Currently a professor at Chicago State University, he has taught Psychology there since 2011. The latest comments by Trump has prompted him to rethink his current residency in the U.S.

“I would not be back here if it weren’t for very notorious dictatorship in Nigeria. Our lives were at risk at the university and I came back here. I had finished with America. There are problems in Nigeria but it’s not about the skin you’re in—there are other problems,” he says.

“I am planning my return now. I want to go back. I’m tired of the racism especially from this President. To be a Black person, Trump is creating an atmosphere which in society there have always been racism but it’s creating an atmosphere that being Black or a minority feels more dangerous. Before, racism was hiding, now it seems to be quite glaring.”

Laosebikan says centuries of colonialism from other countries have raped Africa of its beauty, identity and tradition.  In response to the racist remark of his country, he replied:

“First and foremost, he and his people have contributed to the place Africa is now. They traumatized Africa with slavery. Bringing them here [U.S.]. The American oil companies are dirtying Nigeria as we speak. Those are the kind of things I saw. I thought that it’s time for me to leave and go back. In Africa, many of those countries were stolen properties. They were established by a colonial government: Britain, France, Belgium, Germany.” He explains. “They’re not indigenous countries, there were stolen property and threatened by machine guns. When the anti-independence movement drove the White colonists away, Africans were back in power to change the nature of the government that was established by White supremacy. But, we’re continuing the same kind of government, we have not really liberated our party,” said Laosebikan.

David and Danielle with our sons, Ashton and Preston.

American with Haitian Roots

When we think of Haiti, we think about the last decade of natural disasters that have ravaged the countryside between Hurricane Hanna in 2008 to the outreach and aid which drew millions of dollars in relief. But prior to this, Haiti had earned its independence in 1805 becoming the first colonized island to rebel earning its independence under General Jean-Jaques Dessalines’ rule. Since then, Haitians have endured a great deal of political uprisings and economic downfall, shunned by their Dominican neighbors next door—for many it is a motivator to be better, not worse—seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Danielle and David LeRoy are descendants of Haitian parents. As a married couple, they share the common bond of having families who came to America seeking refuge for better opportunities and independence.

Danielle can recall her father, in his early twenties, being beaten for his rebellion against the dictatorship under the Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier rule.

Lesly Benodin donates the bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable in 2009.

“My father came to the United States in the 1960s. He was leaving his country because he was in danger. He had been in prison, beaten and became motivated behind it. I’m afraid it was a political issue. In Haiti if you speak out against the government, you get punished. Apparently, it was just kind of general abuse of power. If you rubbed the wrong person the wrong way, they could imprison you. My dad was beaten almost to death. Many people thought he was dead. Later my grandmother made arrangements to have him leave,” she said.

Her father, Lesly Benodin, worked as a mechanic saving up his money and eventually establishing his own business. In 2009, he donated the bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable statue to the city of Chicago. DuSable, a Haitian native, opened the first trading post in the 1770s along Michigan Ave. and the Chicago River.

She says, “He briefly landed in NYC and soon after came to Chicago. I don’t know how long he stayed in NYC. He’s always loved Chicago. He thought Chicago was very clean. For his entire life, he said, ‘never turn your back on Chicago’.”

Making a Better Way

Danielle’s husband, David LeRoy, had a different experience. His mother’s family was part of the Black affluent families who owned a sugar cane plantation in Haiti and would sell to some of the bigger corporations. His father, Emanuel LeRoy, was in a family of doctors who made a modest living. During his parent’s courtship, his father left Haiti to live in Chicago for a few years before sending for his mother. The middle child of three boys, he said his childhood wasn’t your typical Black Chicago experience.

Emanuel and Janine LeRoy

“Around 1972, the family moved to Wilmette in the North Shore. We were the only Black family in the neighborhood and the only Haitian family. Growing up was interesting…not only growing up as a Black person in a predominately White neighborhood but a Black person who was raised with nothing but Haitian culture. With our family in Chicago, my father’s brother eventually moved to Wilmette also,” he said.

As a successful engineer, Emanuel LeRoy wanted the best education and quality of living for his family and knew there were no excuses in achieving that success. Danielle LeRoy believes this was the foundation of most Haitian households including her own. She’s a lawyer and her brother is a doctor because their father understood what it meant to have freedom, opportunity and a platform for expression.

She recalls. “There was this unspoken expectation. There are no excuses when you are in a country that has dictatorship, you don’t grow up with this expectation of ‘fairness’. Whatever you can do to survive. He was a survivor, he knew how to hustle, he worked as a mechanic. He saved his money and worked around the clock. Started his business and it took off from there. He didn’t expect nothing less from us. In fact, he expected more because he invested heavily in our education. Haiti is a Catholic country. There are strong core values of hard work and integrity. My dad was always like that.”

The motivation to build from the ground up in a foreign country, away from the support system of family and close friends can be intimidating and scary. For many immigrants of African descent, there are more checks and balances in place than immigrants from Latin countries which can build hostility. America was built from various cultures from other countries yet several generations later, the same discrimination and class divisions that forced Irish, Italian and Polish families from their homeland are repeated on people of color today.

A Problem Bigger Than Trump

Much has changed since Laosebikan returned to Chicago to raise his family with his wife.

“My wife is from the South Side of Chicago. When I returned, I have my family and President Clinton was saying some of the right things and it seemed like he was leading in the right direction. The country seemed promising, slowly. But with the economy booming, people forget to be racist. There is a saying ‘there is more lynching in the South when the price of cotton goes down’. The atmosphere was better because it looked like there was more in society.”

The college professor feels although there has always been systematic racism in America, a bad economy and the threat of a middle class brought up feelings that Trump tapped into with his blatant racist propaganda.

The lack of support from Black Americans for immigrants from Black islands and countries can also hurt and co-sign Trump’s policies and reverse decades of Civil Rights legislation put in place to protect everyone.

A business owner himself, David LeRoy believes it is our responsibility to understand our history better to build a solid bridge between our cultures. “I think the problem goes back to what has been taught—the history that has been taught. Because America’s deliberate exclusion of not only Black American history but world history, it’s just not understood. Once the history is learned, then I think that would invoke more respect and it wouldn’t be this division,” he said.

UPDATED: The photo online and in the newspaper listed Olasupo Laosebikan was not the correct photo. It has been removed.

Follow Mary L. Datcher on Twitter @globalmixx






















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