The first people of Nigerian ancestry in what is now the modern United States were imported as slaves or indentured laborers from the 17th century onwards. Calabar, Nigeria, became a major point of export of slaves from Africa to the Americas during the 17 and 18th centuries. Most slave ships frequenting this port were English. Most of the slaves of Bight of Biafra – many of whom hailed from the Igbo hinterland – were imported to Virginia (which accounted for 60% of the Biafra´s slaves imported to United States, as well most of all slaves of Virginia) and South Carolina (arriving there the 34% of the Biafra´s slaves), surpassing in together the 30.000 slaves hailing from the Bight. These colonies were followed fundamentally by Maryland (where arrived the 4% of the Biafra´s slaves imported to United States, arriving more of 1,000 people of the Bight).
Under conditions in the European colonies, most English masters were not interested in the tribal origins, and often did not bother to record them at all, or if they did, accurately. After two and three centuries of residence in the United States and the lack of documentation because of enslavement, African Americans have often been unable to track their ancestors to specific ethnic groups or regions of Africa. More to the point, like other Americans, they have become a mixture of many different ancestries. Most slaves who came from Nigeria were likely to have been Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa. Other ethnic groups, such as the Fulani and Edo people were also captured and transported to the colonies in the New World. The Igbo were exported mainly to Maryland and Virginia. They comprised the majority of all slaves in Virginia during the 18th century: of the 37,000 African slaves imported to Virginia from Calabar during the eighteenth century, 30,000 were Igbo. In the next century, people of Igbo descent were taken with settlers who moved to Kentucky. According to some historians, the Igbo also comprised most of the slaves in Maryland, although other sources say that most there were from Gambia. This group was characterized by rebellion and its high rate of suicide, as the people resisted the slavery to which they were subjected.
Some Nigerian ethnic groups, such as the Yoruba, and some northern Nigerian ethnic groups, had tribal facial identification marks. These could have assisted a returning slave in relocating his or her ethnic group, but few slaves escaped the colonies. In the colonies, masters tried to dissuade the practice of tribal customs. They also sometimes mixed people of different ethnic groups to make it more difficult for them to communicate and band together in rebellion.
Since the mid-20th century particularly, after Nigeria gained independence, many modern Nigerian immigrants have come to the United States to pursue educational opportunities in undergraduate and post-graduate institutions. In the 1960s and 1970s after the Biafra War, Nigeria's government funded scholarships for Nigerian students, and many of them were admitted to American universities. While this was happening, there were several military coups, interspersed with brief periods of civilian rule. The instability resulted in many Nigerian professionals emigrating, especially doctors, lawyers and academics, who found it difficult to return to Nigeria. Almost all of these new immigrants have come from ethnic groups in the southern part of the country, primarily the Igbo, Yoruba, and Ibibio peoples, including Annang and Efik. Due to adverse economic and political conditions in Nigeria, some immigrants stayed in the United States and began to raise their children there.
During the mid- to late-1980s, a larger wave of Nigerians immigrated to the United States. This migration was driven by political and economic problems exacerbated by the military regimes of self-styled generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. The most noticeable exodus occurred among professional and middle-class Nigerians who, along with their children, took advantage of education and employment opportunities in the United States.
This exodus contributed to a "brain-drain" of Nigeria's intellectual resources to the detriment of its future. Since the advent of multi-party democracy in March 1999, the former Nigerian head-of-state Olusegun Obasanjo has made numerous appeals, especially to young Nigerian professionals in the United States, to return to Nigeria to help in its rebuilding effort. Obasanjo's efforts have met with mixed results, as some potential migrants consider Nigeria's socio-economic situation still unstable.
According to census data, almost 40% of Nigerian Americans hold bachelor's degrees, 17% hold master's degrees, and 4% hold doctorates, more than any other ethnic group in the nation.
Many cite a combination of factors that have contributed to the large number of educated Nigerians in America. Seeking chances for better job opportunities and economic stability has led many educated Nigerian professionals to migrate to America over the years. Similarly, the Diversity Lottery Program increased the number of Nigerians who were able to receive visas in America to study. Finally, Nigerian culture has long emphasized education, placing value on pursuing education as a means to financial success and personal fulfillment. Famous Nigerian Americans in education include Professor Jacob Olupona, a member of the faculty at Harvard College of Arts and Sciences as well as Harvard Divinity School. Migrating to the US from Nigeria more than 40 years ago, Professor Olupona has furthered the academic study of traditional African religions, such as the Yoruba traditional religion, and has been a vocal advocate for Nigerian Americans and education initiatives.
A disproportionate percentage of black students at elite universities are immigrants or children of immigrants. Nigerian immigrants have the highest education attainment level in the United States, surpassing every other ethnic group in the country, according to U.S Bureau Census data. Harvard University, for example, has estimated that more than one-third of its black student body consists of recent immigrants or their children, or were of mixed-race parentage. Other top universities, including Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Duke and Berkeley, report a similar pattern. As a result, there is a question as to whether affirmative action programs adequately reach their original targets: African Americans who are descendants of American slaves and their discriminatory history in the US.
The top five U.S. institutions with the largest population of students of Nigerian descent (in no particular order) are Texas Southern University, University of Houston, University of Texas at Arlington, University of North Texas, and Houston Community College. In the 2015–2016 academic school year, 10,674 Nigerian immigrants studied in the U.S. which was the highest number in 30 years and the highest number from any African country.
Based on DNA studies, an estimated 80 percent of African Americans (about 35 million) could have some Igbo or Hausa ancestry. Therefore, 60 percent of them, according to historian Douglas B. Chambers, could have at least one Igbo ancestor. The USA has the world's second-largest Nigerian community, after the nation of Nigeria. Nigerian Americans reside in nearly all 50 states but are concentrated in major metropolitan areas offering educational and economic opportunities. There are also notable Nigerian American populations in the US territory of Puerto Rico.
Sizeable communities are concentrated in the following states and jurisdictions (in order of size):
1. Washington, D.C. and Maryland: The Baltimore–Washington metropolitan area has the third-largest Nigerian-American community, found primarily in Prince George's County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and also in Howard and Montgomery counties, both part of the MSA.
2. New York: All boroughs of New York City, comprising the second-largest Nigerian-American community in the US; plus Nassau and Westchester counties
3. Texas: Harris (esp. the city of Houston), Fort Bend (southwest suburban Houston). Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas counties, for the Dallas-Fort Worth MSA. Travis County, which includes the university city of Austin, is another center. Texas has the most Nigerian Americans of any US state.
4. Georgia: Cobb, Dekalb, Fulton, Gwinnett County, Georgia counties; the Atlanta metropolitan area is the 5th-largest Nigerian-American community in the United States.
5. New Jersey: Hudson, Essex, Bergen, Union and Middlesex counties, with a large proportion of Nigerians living in Newark. In recent years, many Nigerian Americans have left the state.
6. Illinois: Cook County (especially the city of Chicago)
7. California: san luis obispo county Los Angeles (city and county), where many Nigerians, along with Kenyan and Ethiopian American groups, live in the Fairfax and Crenshaw districts of L.A. They have also settled in, San Bernardino (primarily the city of San Bernardino), Orange, and San Diego counties in Southern California. In the central area, they are in Sacramento and Fresno counties. In the San Francisco Bay Area: they have settled in Solano, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Many reside in West Oakland, along with other African and Yemeni immigrants.
8. Ohio: Hamilton and Montgomery counties, with Columbus being the sixth largest Nigerian-American community
9. Michigan: Metro Detroit (with significant numbers of Nigerian Americans in Flint, and Lansing)
10. Virginia: Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties; Northern Virginia has the fourth-largest Nigerian-American community
According to the 2013 US census, there were 299,310 Nigerian Americans.
The top 10 US states with the largest Nigerian populations are:
- Texas – 43,969
- New York – 30,056
- Georgia – 29,505
- Maryland – 23,005
- California – 20,358
- New Jersey – 18,511
- Illinois – 12,413
- Florida – 7,220
- Minnesota – 6,794
- Virginia – 6,181
In terms of religion the Nigerian community is split, with the majority of Nigerians practicing Christianity (70%) and many others following Islam (23%) and other religions (7%).
Historically, Nigerian fashion incorporated many different types of fabrics. Cotton has been used for over 500 years for fabric-making in Nigeria. Silk (called tsamiya in Hausa, sanyan in Yoruba, akpa-obubu in Igbo, and sapar ubele in Edo) is also used. Perhaps the most popular fabric used in Nigerian fashion is Dutch wax print, produced in the Netherlands. The import market for this fabric is dominated by the Dutch company Vlisco, which has been selling its Dutch wax print fabric to Nigerians since the late 1800s, when the fabric was sold along the company's oceanic trading route to Indonesia. Since then, Nigerian and African patterns, color schemes, and motifs have been incorporated into Vlisco's designs to become a staple of the brand.
Nigeria has over 250 ethnic groups and as a result, a wide variety of traditional clothing styles. In the Yoruba tradition, women wear an iro (wrapper), buba (loose shirt) and gele (head-wrap). The men wear buba (long shirt), sokoto (baggy trousers), agbada (flowing robe with wide sleeves) and fila (a hat). In the Igbo tradition, the men's cultural attire is Isiagu (a patterned shirt), which is worn with trousers and the traditional Igbo men's hat called Okpu Agwu. The women wear a puffed sleeved blouse, two wrappers and a headwrap. Hausa men wear barbarigas or kaftans (long flowing gowns) with tall decorated hats. The women wear wrappers and shirts and cover their heads with hijabs (veils).
Among Nigerian Americans, traditional Nigerian attire remains very popular. However, because the fabric is often hard to acquire outside of Nigeria, traditional attire is not worn on an everyday basis but rather, reserved for special occasions such as weddings, Independence Day celebrations and birthday ceremonies. For weddings, the fabric used to sew the outfit of the bride and groom is usually directly imported from Nigeria or bought from local Nigerian traders and then taken to a local tailor who then sews it into the preferred style. Due to the large number of Nigerians living in America and the cultural enrichment that these communities provide to non-Nigerians, the traditional attire has been adopted in many parts of the country as a symbol of African ethnicity, for example, clothes worn during Kwanzaa celebrations are known to be very influenced by Nigerian traditional attire. In recent years, the traditional fabric has attracted many admirers especially among celebrities such as Solange Knowles and most notably Erykah Badu. On the fashion runway, Nigerian American designers like Boston-born Kiki Kimanu are able to combine the rich distinct colours of traditional attire with Western styles to make clothes that are highly sought after by young Nigerian professionals and Americans alike.
Igbo Americans are people in the United States that maintain an identity of a varying level of Igbo ethnic group that now call the United States their chief place of residence (and may also have US citizenship). Many came to the US following effects of the Biafran War (1967–1970). The Igbos used to live in small clans during pre colonial era.
Yoruba Americans are Americans of Yoruba descent. The Yoruba people (Yoruba: Àwọ̀n ọ́mọ́ Yorùbá) are an ethnic group originating in southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin in West Africa.The first Yoruba people who arrived to the United States were imported as slaves from Nigeria and Benin during the Atlantic slave trade. This ethnicity of the slaves was one of the main origins of present-day Nigerians who arrived to the United States, along with the Igbos. In addition, native slaves of current Benin hailed from peoples such as Nago (Yoruba subgroup, although exported mainly by Spanish, when Louisiana was Spanish), Ewe, Fon and Gen. Many slaves imported to the modern United States from Benin were sold by the King of Dahomey, in Whydah.
The native tongue of the Yoruba people is spoken principally in Nigeria and Benin, with communities in other parts of Africa, Europe and the Americas. A variety of the language, Lucumi, is the liturgical language of the Santería religion of the Caribbean.
Nigerian-American organizations in the US include Houston, Texas-based Nigerian Union Diaspora (NUD); Houston, Texas based Nigerian-American Multicultural Council, NAMC (namchouston.org); Washington, DC-based Nigerian-American Council or Nigerian-American Leadership Council; The Alliance of Nigerian Organizations in Atlanta, Georgia; National Council of Nigerian Muslim Organizations in USA; The Nigerian Association Utah; the Nigerian Ladies Association of Texas (NLAT); the Nigerian American Multi Service Association, NAMSA (namsausa.org); First Nigeria Organisation; and United Nigeria Association of Tulsa.
The Alliance of Nigerian Organizations in Georgia is an organization that tries to satisfy the interests of the community, and represents all Nigeria nonprofit associations in the state (such as Nigerian Women Association of Georgia – NWAG-), in tribal issues, ethnic, educational, social, political and economic. Through the ANOG, the Office of Nigerian Consulate in Atlanta reaches the Nigerian community associations. The National Council of Nigerian Muslim Organizations is an organization that teaches Islam, study the elements of religion, favoring Muslim integration in the US, creating an Muslim American identity and promoting interpersonal relationships. Nigerian Ladies Association of Texas (NLAT) is an apolitical, non-profit formed by Nigerian women that promote fellowship, community and family values. NLAT is looking for ways to improve the lives of its members and their families and contribute to improving the life and development of Nigeria and the United States of America. The association teaches its members on individual rights (especially the rights of women, creating media to promote respect for these rights, to promote equality and peace between the sexes) and establishes job opportunities for Nigerians living in Texas, organizes and provides resources to women and children in Nigeria and the US, teaches Nigerian culture to the new generations, working with women's groups in the US and drives programs to promote education and health services. and the Nigerian American Multi Service Association (NAMSA) provides services to community members.
Nigerian American associations representing the interests of determinated groups are the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas (ANPA) and Nigerian Nurses Association USA.
NNAUSA is an organization for the Ngwa Diaspora in America.