African-Born Blacks in the Washington, D.C., Metro Area

Black African immigrants began arriving in the Washington, D.C., area in the late 1950s and early 1960s as diplomats of newly independent African countries and as students, particularly at historically black Howard University. Beginning in the 1980s, these early immigrants were joined by growing numbers of refugees, diversity visa holders, and other immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

The Washington metropolitan area became a top destination for refugees accepted into the United States. Between 1983 and 2004, more than 12,000 sub-Saharan African refugees were settled in the area. Sub-Saharan Africans made up an increasingly large share of all refugees coming to the area: 11 percent in the 1980s, 30 percent in the 1990s, and 67 percent between 2000 and 2004.1

Interviews with black African immigrants in Washington revealed that the metropolitan area is attractive to them for four main reasons: its cosmopolitan nature (including its racial diversity); its manageability (especially compared with New York, which was noted as too big and too expensive); its status as a center for international work; and its standing as the capital city (which is viewed as the most important city in many African countries).2

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey counted 114,000 black African immigrants in the Washington metropolitan area, accounting for about 11 percent of the area’s total immigrant population.

The Washington area stands out as a preferred destination for Ethiopians, who account for almost one of every five black African immigrants. The West African countries of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Cameroon follow, with more than 10,000 people each. These countries, together with Liberia, Somalia, Guinea, Sudan, and Eritrea complete the top 10 sending countries that account for three-quarters of the black African immigrant population in the metro area. These differ slightly from the national totals, in which Nigerians are the largest group and Kenyans are in the top 10.

More than two-thirds of black African immigrants in the Washington metro area arrived in the United States since 1990, more than one-third just between 2000 and 2005. Less than 6 percent arrived before 1980. The recency of their arrival may explain why they are less likely to be U.S. citizens than other immigrants in the metro area, since it usually takes at least five years of residency to qualify for citizenship. Thirty-two percent of African foreign-born were citizens in 2005, compared with 41 percent of the total immigrant population in Washington.

Higher Education and Incomes

The population is primarily of working age, with 84 percent ages 18 to 64. Just over one-half (52 percent) is male. Black African immigrants in Washington have more education, higher salaries, and are more likely to hold higher-status jobs than other African-born blacks. In 2005, 42 percent held a bachelor’s degree or higher, and just over one-third worked in management, professional, and related occupations (see table). Another quarter worked in service occupations, while 23 percent worked in sales and office occupations. Production, transportation, and material moving occupations—which include taxi drivers—account for another 11 percent. The median household income for black African immigrants in Washington is almost $53,000, well above the $36,700 median for the African-born as a whole. This population also has one of the highest levels of English proficiency among U.S. immigrant groups: 62 percent speak English very well.

But many of these immigrants struggle to support their families in lower-paying jobs in the high-cost Washington area. Their unemployment and poverty rates are above the national average, but lower than that for black Africans nationally. About 7 percent were unemployed in 2005 and 11 percent were in poverty. Because Washington has a high cost of living relative to other cities, and poverty thresholds are not adjusted for local living costs, these poverty rates probably underestimate the share of immigrant families that face economic hardship.

Settlement Patterns

Within the Washington metropolitan area, Africans are more likely to settle in the inner suburbs and central city than in outlying areas. There are black African immigrants in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland, where 60 percent of the area’s African immigrants lived in 2000. African immigrant communities are also common in Arlington and Alexandria in Virginia, as well as in central and northeastern neighborhoods of the District of Columbia.


African-Born Blacks, 2005 Washington, D.C. Metro Area United States
Total Number  114,101  870,744
Country of Origin (%)
Ethiopia 19 12
Nigeria 12 18
Sierra Leone 12 3
Ghana 10 9
Cameroon 9 3
Liberia 4 7
Somalia 3 7
Guinea 3 1
Sudan 2 3
Eritrea 2 2
Educational attainment, ages 25+
Less than high school (%) 8 12
Bachelor’s degree or higher (%) 42 38
Limited English proficient (%) 38 38
Below poverty (%) 11 21
Median household income (2005)  $52,998  $36,691
Percent unemployed 7 9
Occupation, ages 16+ (%)
Management, professional 35 31
Service 25 27
Sales and office 23 22
Construction, extraction, maintenance 5 3
Production, transportation 11 16
Other 1 2

Source: Author’s analysis of the 2005 American Community Survey. The Washington metropolitan area includes the District of Columbia, five counties in Maryland, 15 jurisdictions in Virginia, and one county in West Virginia. The population includes all those born in Africa to non-U.S. citizens who identified as black alone or black in combination with another race.

Jill H. Wilson is a research analyst at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, Washington, D.C. This article was adapted from Mary Mederios Kent, “Immigration and America’s Black Population,” Population Bulletin 62, no. 4 (2007).


  1. Author’s calculations of data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. “The 1980s” reflects the period from 1983-1989. See Audrey Singer and Jill H. Wilson, From Here to There: Refugee Resettlement in Metropolitan America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2004), accessed at, on Jan. 24, 2008.
  2. Jill H. Wilson and Shelly Habecker, “The Lure of the Capital City: An Anthro-Geographic Analysis of Recent African Immigration to Washington, D.C.,” Population, Space and Place (forthcoming).