Contributing to the Immigration Conversation: Students Interview African Immigrants in Chicago through Course Connection

By: Jake Smith, Fourth-Year Student and Civic Journalist for Chicago Studies

In 2007, Assistant Professor of History Rachel Jean-Baptiste noticed that something was missing from the American immigration debate.

She had read a Chicago Tribune article about an immigrant pride demonstration in Chicago, which mentioned that the popular discourse on immigration policy in the U.S. had become focused on immigrants from Central and South America. "Yet quietly in Chicago,” she explains, “there was actually a large, significant African population" going largely unnoticed. That population had developed from “this new immigration, this twentieth-century migration" of Africans that “dates back to the 1980’s” and still continues today. But to Jean-Baptiste’s surprise, there was virtually zero academic research on this phenomenon.

Jean-Baptiste wanted to help fill in that gap.

This quarter, Jean-Baptiste is teaching African Women in Chicago: Immigration, Gender, and Oral History in the 20th Century. The course, which is jointly funded by the Chicago Studies Program and the Human Rights Program, explores how this significant migration affects black identity, gender roles, and immigration policy in the United States, particularly in Chicago. "We have so little information about African immigrants in Chicagoland," asserts Jean-Baptiste, that we do not yet fully understand "who they are, how they got here, [or] what are the resources they need."

But Jean-Baptiste wanted the course to do more than just look at the existing historical literature on African identity and immigration—she thought students should actively contribute to that body of work. "I wanted to see how we could take advantage of the tremendous resources of the city of Chicago and also get our students into the field," she explains. In addition to reading a broad variety of literature on African migration to the U.S., her students are conducting one-on-one interviews with African women who have immigrated and settled in Chicagoland. 

The oral histories are part of a collaboration between the class and the United African Organization (UAO). The UAO website describes the organization as "a dynamic coalition of African community-based organizations that promotes social and economic justice, civic participation, and empowerment of African immigrants and refugees in Illinois.” The UAO connected the majority of student interviewers from Jean-Baptiste's course with African women in Chicagoland. With the women’s permission, each interview will be audio recorded and added to the UAO’s ongoing Africans in Chicago Oral History Project.

Students in the course designed interview questionnaires that would elicit detailed personal histories from the women. Jean-Baptiste brought in sociologists from other universities as well as local nonprofit representatives with relevant experience to coach the students on methodology and how to think about interviews in terms of power and identity relationships.

“There are always certain gender-intoned things throughout the conversation,” says Tom Leavitt, a student in the class who interviewed a Ugandan woman and her fiancée at their home in the Arlington Heights suburb. Leavitt, who is currently pursuing an M.A. in International Relations, spent over two years studying and doing research in Uganda as an undergraduate, so he was not surprised when his female interviewee appeared “critical of patrilineal descent [in] Uganda, which is basically an ethnic group kingdom.”

Leavitt focused his interview on "how people imagine their communities in a transnational context." He mentions that the couple "said some interesting stuff about why they think Ugandans are so focused on the American elections. They think [who's President in the U.S.] affects Ugandans [in Africa] more than it affects a lot of Americans."

Jean-Baptiste thinks that this transnational focus is relatively new, as much of the historical research on African identity has revolved around the impact of colonialism. But there is now "a whole generation of people across the continent who have come into being never having known colonialism," so she argues that social scientists need to adapt the literature accordingly. "We have these sociological categories that some of these populations are kind of buttressing against," she describes. "What do we do with that when your interviewee says to you, 'I haven't been affected by racism, I haven't been affected by sexism’? What do you do with that when they don't fit into your categories?"

Fourth-year economics major Katie Tu appreciates that the course invites students to break new ground rather than just revisit old. "Although it’s a history course, it's very much grounded in a modern phenomenon. I feel like we're studying something that's current, rather than something we're studying in retrospect," says Tu. 

Tu, who interviewed a Guinean hair-braider in South Shore, has come to see oral histories as a useful story-telling form and plans to apply the methodology she developed in this course to her other academic pursuits. Tu will study abroad the next two quarters in China, where she will devote some time collecting oral histories from people who lived through the Cultural Revolution in Beijing.

“Presenting people’s stories and collecting them and interpreting them is an area of interest for me,” says Tu. “I think that this course really helped academically inform that interest.”

If you are a faculty member or a graduate assistant interested in supplementing your class with a Chicago Course Connection, please email

Relevant links:

Rachel Jean-Baptiste’s Faculty Page

Chicago Tribune article, ‘We’re proud of our lives’

United African Organization

Africans in Chicago Oral History Project