Updated: May 15, 2021
The Nigerian-American journey is still relatively new compared with that of other major immigrant communities that grew in the U.S. in the 20th century. The Nigerian-American population stood at 376,000 in 2015, according to the Rockefeller Foundation–Aspen Institute. That was roughly the strength of the Indian-American community back in 1980, before it emerged as a leading light in fields ranging from economics to technology. But Nigerian-Americans are already beginning to make a dent in the national consciousness. In the case of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, he’s helping fix hits to the brain. The 49-year-old Omalu was the first to discover and publish on chronic traumatic encephalopathy in American football players (Will Smith played him in the 2015 film Concussion). ImeIme A. Umana, the first Black woman elected president of the Harvard Law Review last year, is Nigerian-American. In 2016, Nigerian-born Pearlena Igbokwe became president of Universal Television, making her the first woman of African descent to head a major U.S. TV studio. And the community has expanded rapidly, up from just 25,000 people in 1980.
Traditionally, education has been at the heart of the community’s success. But success isn’t so easily defined within the culture anymore. Nigerian-Americans are beginning to make a mark in sports, entertainment and the culinary arts too — like Nigerian chef Tunde Wey in New Orleans, who recently made headlines for using food to highlight racial wealth inequality in America.
It was education that brought an early wave of Nigerians to the U.S. in the 1970s. After the war against Biafra separatists in the ’60s, the Nigerian government sponsored scholarships for students to pursue higher education abroad. English-speaking Nigerian students excelled at universities in the U.S. and U.K., often finding opportunities to continue their education or begin their professional career in their host country. That emphasis on education has since filtered through to their children’s generation.