Archive for 27 febrero 2015


Credit Rachel Levit

When Americans Lynched Mexicans

William D. Carrigan & Clive Webb

The New York Times    February 20, 2015

THE recent release of a landmark report on the history of lynching in the United States is a welcome contribution to the struggle over American collective memory. Few groups have suffered more systematic mistreatment, abuse and murder than African-Americans, the focus of the report.

One dimension of mob violence that is often overlooked, however, is that lynchers targeted many other racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, including Native Americans, Italians, Chinese and, especially, Mexicans.

Americans are largely unaware that Mexicans were frequently the targets of lynch mobs, from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century, second only to African-Americans in the scale and scope of the crimes. One case, largely overlooked or ignored by American journalists but not by the Mexican government, was that of seven Mexican shepherds hanged by white vigilantes near Corpus Christi, Tex., in late November 1873. The mob was probably trying to intimidate the shepherds’ employer into selling his land. None of the killers were arrested.

From 1848 to 1928, mobs murdered thousands of Mexicans, though surviving records allowed us to clearly document only about 547 cases. These lynchings occurred not only in the southwestern states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, but also in states far from the border, like Nebraska and Wyoming.

Some of these cases did appear in press accounts, when reporters depicted them as violent public spectacles, as they did with many lynchings of African-Americans in the South. For example, on July 5, 1851, a mob of 2,000 in Downieville, Calif., watched the extralegal hanging of a Mexican woman named Juana Loaiza, who had been accused of having murdered a white man named Frank Cannon.

Such episodes were not isolated to the turbulent gold rush period. More than a half-century later, on Nov. 3, 1910, a mob snatched a 20-year-old Mexican laborer, Antonio Rodríguez, from a jail in Rock Springs, Tex. The authorities had arrested him on charges that he had killed a rancher’s wife. Mob leaders bound him to a mesquite tree, doused him with kerosene and burned him alive. The El Paso Herald reported that thousands turned out to witness the event; we found no evidence that anyone was ever arrested.

While there were similarities between the lynchings of blacks and Mexicans, there were also clear differences. One was that local authorities and deputized citizens played particularly conspicuous roles in mob violence against Mexicans.

On Jan. 28, 1918, a band of Texas Rangers and ranchers arrived in the village of Porvenir in Presidio County, Tex. Mexican outlaws had recently attacked a nearby ranch, and the posse presumed that the locals were acting as spies and informants for Mexican raiders on the other side of the border. The group rounded up nearly two dozen men, searched their houses, and marched 15 of them to a rock bluff near the village and executed them. The Porvenir massacre, as it has become known, was the climactic event in what Mexican-Americans remember as the Hora de Sangre (Hour of Blood). It led, the following year, to an investigation by the Texas Legislature and reform of the Rangers.

Between 1915 and 1918, vigilantes, local law officers and Texas Rangers executed, without due process, unknown thousands of Mexicans for their alleged role in a revolutionary uprising known as the Plan de San Diego. White fears of Mexican revolutionary violence exploded in July and August 1915, after Mexican raiders committed a series of assaults on the economic infrastructure of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in resistance to white dominance. The raids unleashed a bloody wave of retaliatory action amid a climate of intense paranoia.

Historians have often ascribed to the South a distinctiveness that has set it apart from the rest of the United States. In so doing, they have created the impression of a peculiarly benighted region plagued by unparalleled levels of racial violence. The story of mob violence against Mexicans in the Southwest compels us to rethink the history of lynching.

Southern blacks were the group most often targeted, but comparing the histories of the South and the West strengthens our understanding of mob violence in both. In today’s charged debate over immigration policy and the growth of the Latino population, the history of anti-Mexican violence reminds us of the costs and consequences of hate.

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Myth, Reality and the Underground Railroad

New York Times      February 27, 2015

disunion45On Feb. 24, 1865, William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the antislavery weekly The Liberator, published an odd column – odd, because the piece, written by the New York minister Thomas Jefferson Sawyer, had already appeared in the paper, less than a year before. But Garrison believed that the article’s point – about collective memory, and collective forgetting – was an important one, and with the war’s end in sight, he wanted to make sure his readers saw it.

“It is a very curious fact in the history of public opinion,” Sawyer wrote, “that the mass of people who never think or act with early reformers gradually come to persuade themselves, as the reformation goes on and grows popular, that they were always of that party, or at least sympathized with its spirit. … Twenty years hence, there will not be a man in all the North who favored secession, or cherished any sympathy with rebels! Even now it is rare to meet one who has ever wished well to slavery, or desired anything but its final abolition!”

Garrison and Sawyer were not alone in their concern. A year earlier, Garrison’s colleague Lydia Maria Child had remarked in a letter to The Liberator that “new anti-slavery friends” who claimed to have “always been anti-slavery” were “becoming as plenty as roses in June.” Unable to bring herself to challenge these assertions, Child confessed that she simply smiled “inwardly,” marveling “at their power of keeping a secret so long!”

After the Civil War, few Northerners appeared interested in keeping their antislavery sympathies — whether longstanding or brand-new — secret at all. As Lost Cause apologists and “plantation school” novelists waxed wistful about life in antebellum Dixie, a second set of postwar writers traded their own nostalgic tales about the days of slavery. But these mostly white Northerners did not craft stories of the loving relationships forged between masters and slaves on the bucolic plantations of the Old South. Instead, they chronicled the heroic exploits of abolitionists who steered fugitive slaves through the mysterious world of the Underground Railroad.

Newspapers from Iowa to Maine overflowed with melodramatic accounts of runaways and their Northern benefactors eluding slave hunters under the cover of darkness. Story after story captivated readers with references to special codes, false walls and hide-outs in attics, barns and cellars. “A secret cave behind the beautiful sheet of water know as Butler’s Falls …within a mile from the Ohio river, was the first place to which runaways were taken,” explained a special correspondent for The Indianapolis Freeman, who in 1891 sketched out the details of a shadowy trail that began near the Indiana village of Hanover. “All operations were carried on at night, and after a brief rest in the cave, the fugitives would be conducted … to another place of safety, and from thence to other points rarely if ever more than fifteen miles apart, each night bringing them nearer and nearer that longed-for haven, Canada.”

A painting from 1893 showing white abolitionists helping slaves escape along the Underground Railroad.

A painting from 1893 showing white abolitionists helping slaves escape along the Underground Railroad.Credit Library of Congress

The clandestine air that surrounded these illegal exploits only added to the romance of the Underground Railroad. “Their organization had no rules, no bonds, no by-laws,” reported a New York newspaper in 1881. “Its secrets were as well preserved as those of the Ku-Klux, or the Inquisition in the time of Torquemada.”

The term “Underground Railroad” had come into regular usage by the 1840s, just as the equally sublime but far more tangible network of steam locomotives was spreading across the country. “The Underground Railroad is in high flight, and doing a fair business here,” wrote the black abolitionist Martin Robison Delany to Frederick Douglass from Pittsburgh in 1848. But postwar portraits, such as H.U. Johnson’s semi-fictionalized 1894 history “From Dixie to Canada: Romances and Realities of the Underground Railroad,” stretched the metaphor to extremes. The Underground Railroad “extended its great trunk lines across all the northern states,” wrote Johnson. “It was most efficiently officered, and had its side tracks, connections and switches; its stations and eating houses all thoroughly well recognized by the initiated; its station agents and conductors…; its system of cypher dispatches, tokens and nomenclature.”

These stories captured the imagination of a young Ohio State University professor named Wilbur H. Siebert, who set out in the 1890s to write the definitive history of what he called “the Road.” A dogged researcher, Siebert pored over the recollections of abolitionists and their family members in newspapers and memoirs, reached out to hundreds of antislavery veterans and compiled the names of more than 3,000 railroad “operators,” almost all of them white men. Siebert published his findings in his influential 1898 book, “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom,” which, along with a handful of other works that he produced between 1896 and 1951, cemented the popular image of the Underground Railroad as “a vast network of secret routes over which fugitive slaves were passed along, chiefly in the night time, from the Southern States to Canada during a prolonged period before the Civil War.”

Although Siebert tempered some of his contemporaries’ hyperbole, he nonetheless took many Underground Railroad stories at face value. Undaunted by a dearth of antebellum documentation — most railroad activists had not kept records in order to protect runaways and themselves — Siebert relied on the reminiscences of “‘old time’ abolitionists” to fill “the gaps in the real history of the Underground Railroad.” The Ohio scholar offered a specious defense of these sources, maintaining that “the abolitionists, as a class, were people whose remembrances of the ante-bellum days were deepened by the clear definition of their governing principles, the abiding sense of their religious convictions, and the extraordinary conditions” under which they worked.

Siebert also disregarded responses that complicated his findings. “We had no regular route and no regular station[s] in Massachusetts,” the abolitionist William I. Bowditch told Siebert in 1893. Three years later, Thomas Wentworth Higginson added: “There was no organization in Mass. answering properly to the usual description of the U.G.R.R.” Yet Siebert characterized the Underground Railroad as “a great and intricate network” that reached from slave states like Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky to every corner of the North. And he reinforced this image by producing a series of detailed maps of the railroad routes, replete with trunk and branch lines, several of which cut across Massachusetts.

The Underground Railroad did exist, but it was not nearly as formal, extensive or popular as Siebert and company imagined. Post-bellum literature suggested that railroad “stations” could be found in every town and hamlet north of the Mason-Dixon line and that “men and women from every class, sect, and party” aided runaways. Yet abolitionists and their activities provoked widespread hostility in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Proslavery forces killed the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Ill., in 1837. Twenty-four years later, on the cusp of the Civil War, Wendell Phillips was heckled off the stage at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston by an anti-abolitionist mob, which then chased the reformer through city streets.

Fort SumterThousands of slaves did, in fact, escape to the North between 1830 and 1860, and many of them benefited from the help of activists such as William Still, David Ruggles and Sydney Howard Gay during their journey. White and black reformers in frontier towns and east coast cities organized vigilance committees and other antislavery organizations to provide fugitives with financial and legal support as well as more covert (and frequently illegal) assistance. But these often ad hoc groups were not coordinated at the statewide or regional level, and many of them lasted only a short time.

Most fugitive slaves gained their freedom largely through their own efforts. Although a small number of individuals, including Louis Napoleon, Calvin Fairbank and, most famously, Harriet Tubman, ventured south to retrieve slaves, a majority of runaways made the harrowing journey north alone or with fellow fugitives.

Yet postwar accounts — nearly all of which were produced by white Northerners — tended to portray runaways as “passengers,” effectively reducing them to a supporting role in their own liberation. Some authors inflated the number of fugitive slaves that they had helped, while others neglected the work of black railroad operatives. Over all, they painted a picture of the Underground Railroad as a white-dominated enterprise in which runaways were spirited to freedom by their Northern guardians.

Veteran abolitionists, of course, had good reason to share their memories of the Underground Railroad. Some believed that by reminding Americans of the antebellum crusade against slavery they were bolstering the post-bellum campaign to protect the rights of freedpeople. But Underground Railroad tales could also be self-serving, a way for Northerners who had not participated in the antislavery movement to bask in the glory of the cause.

Even more troubling, many memorialists failed to connect their stories of the Underground Railroad to the postwar struggle for black civil rights. Instead, they served up what the historian David Blight describes as “a mythos of accomplished glory, a history of emancipation completed.” Just as Lost Cause ideologues strove to conceal the rise of Jim Crow — from segregation and disenfranchisement to an epidemic of lynching — behind a facade of Old South harmony, Northerners told “self congratulatory adventure tales” that implied that the nation had solved its racial problems decades earlier. In this way, they joined their Southern counterparts in turning nostalgia for life before the war into a refuge from the disturbing realities of the postwar racial landscape.

Sources: Liberator, Feb. 19 and June 10, 1864, and Feb. 24, 1865; Cleveland Leader, March 12, 1896; The Truth, April 24, 1881; Indianapolis Freeman, Oct. 31, 1891; North Star, March 3, 1848; The Elevator, Jan. 11, 1873; “The History of Clinton County, Iowa”; H.U. Johnson, “From Dixie to Canada: Romances and Realities of the Underground Railroad”; Wilbur H. Siebert, “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom”; William I. Bowditch to Wilbur H. Siebert, April 5, 1893 and Thomas Wentworth Higginson to Wilbur H. Siebert, July 24, 1896, Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio Historical Society; David W. Blight, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory”; David W. Blight, ed., “Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory”; Fergus M. Bordewich, “Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement”; John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”; Eric Foner, “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad”; Larry Gara, “The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad”; Graham Russell Gao Hodges, “David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City”; Stephen Kantrowitz, “More Than Freedom: Fighting for Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889”; Lowell J. Soike, “Necessary Courage: Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle against Slavery.”

Ethan J. Kytle

Ethan J. Kytle, the author of the book “Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era,” is an associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno. Carl Geissert is a graduate student in history at California State University, Fresno.

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Rosa Parks, Radicalism, and Remembrance


African American Intellectual History Society       February 17, 2015

Its Black History Month, which means that mainstream society pulls out the iconic images of African American freedom fighters including Rosa Parks. Mrs. Parks provides an interesting case study in how we commemorate African American history. She is frozen in our collective consciousness as older, respectable woman who, “had been pushed around all her life” and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Indeed, the moment that Mrs. Parks “decided” not to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus has become the symbol of the triumph of the black spirit over white supremacy. This moment, as Parks’s biographer Jeanne Theoharis noted, has become a “narrative of national redemption” in which the country portrays Parks as “an accidental midwife without a larger politics.” [1]

Indeed, Mrs. Parks led a textured activist life that has been largely hidden from public view. This is due, in part, to the fact the her papers (manuscripts, photos, etc.) have been caught up in “controversies around profit, control, and the use of her image.” Parks, in an effort to tell her story to future generations, donated many of her personal correspondences, letters, and memorabilia before her death. The collection, priced 6 to 10 million dollars in 2013, sat in storage because most institutions, particularly those that collect black history, could not afford to purchase it.[2] All the more remarkable then, that the public will be able to view Park’s archive this year at the Library of Congress. [3]

Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, heard about the papers and instructed his foundation to make what would become the winning bid for the collection. The foundation will loan the Parks papers to Library of Congress for ten years.[4] With the 1,500-item collection now publicly available, we will finally get a chance to hear Parks’s thoughts on her community, race relations, and politics. African American women are rarely the subjects of histories. And often, like Parks, we are only represented in a particular historical moment or one dimension of black struggle. For African Americans, access to Parks’s papers is a chance to see our history formally appreciated in the archive, an experience that is still all too rare.

The physical location of Parks’s papers is just as important as how they became available to the public. Housing her papers at a national, government sanctioned and sponsored archive, can represent a moment of national celebration and validation of black struggle. It can also reinforce state-sponsored narratives of black progress. The Library of Congress will incorporate some pieces from the collection in a exhibit called “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” From the title, it appears that Parks will be featured as a key figure in our collective and inevitable march towards achieving the liberal integrated American dream. The aspects of her life that don’t fit into this linear story line – her training at the Highlander Folk School, her criticism of gradualism in the black freedom struggle, her assertion that Malcolm X was her hero – recede from public view.[5] In the very moment that we celebrate the opening up of Parks’s remarkable life, the place in which we house her history possibly forecloses dynamic perceptions of her activism.

Parks’s importance in our national history and her critical role in the black freedom struggle cannot be disputed. But what is gained and lost by white control over the Parks collection and our ability to access her thoughts, ideas, and worldview through a repository designed to foster a national identity? Are we able to collectively shift our understanding her ideas, intellectual development and activist trajectory while encountering her within the walls of an institution invested in a particular narrative of her life? And, if a foundation has the ability to buy, sell, and lend Parks’s legacy as it sees fit, how do we understand the intersection of capitalism, black history, and the valuation of black life today? I don’t have the answers to these questions. And, last month, I argued that we need all the documentation of African American women’s lives that we can get. But if Black History Month is about remembering and celebrating African Americans, their achievements, and their contributions, we should also think about where the national remembering is taking place and who is deploying the images and narratives of remembrance.


The public can access Parks’s papers at the same moment in which African American women are leading Black Lives Matter protests and when activists are (again) asserting that black life, past, present, and future, is valuable. Parks’s archive and the histories that develop from it are linked to this struggle. Not only because Parks was more radical than our collective consciousness allows. But also because, through Parks, we can better understand how African American women engage in liberation politics, how respectability politics shapes black women’s lives and choices, and how she was one of the many African American women who have consistently worked at the grassroots level to assert the value of black life and humanity.

Parks’s role in the civil rights movement was no more spontaneous than contemporary protests. Both are part of a long, rich history of African American women activists who consistently fight the intersection of racism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. Its time we recognize and remember Parks for her methodical dedicated radical activism as much as for her movement symbolism and no longer let institutions and foundations frame black struggle as individualist, respectable, progressive, male-centered, and “accidental.”[6] This seems to be a good use of the short time we have access to Parks’s archive in the short month dedicated to black history.

[1] Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), ix, xi.

[2] Theoharis, The Rebellious Life, xv.

[3] Emmarie Huetteman, “Who Rosa Parks Was, Not Just What She Meant,” New York Times, February 5, 2015.

[4] Library of Congress Press Release, “Rosa Parks’ Papers to Reside at Library of Congress,” September 9, 2014; “Warren Buffet’s Son Buys Rosa Parks Archive,” The Detroit Free Press, August 29, 2014.

[5] Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, 207.

[6] Theoharis has developed a body of literature intent on reframing Parks. See: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and ““A Life History of Being Rebellious: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks,” in Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

Ashley Farmer

Farmer%20headshot Ashley Farmer is a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Duke University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University.

Her manuscript, What You’ve Got is a Revolution: Black Women’s Movements for Black Power, is the first comprehensive intellectual history of women in the black power movement. The book introduces new and overlooked women activists into the history of black power, examines the depth and breath of their political and intellectual engagement, and shows the relationship between women’s gendered theorizing and the trajectory of the black power movement.

She is also the author of several articles about African American women’s black power activism and intellectual production and her research interests include African American history, gender history, and intellectual history. Her research has been supported by Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Texas-Austin and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It has also been featured on the History Channel. For more information visit http://www.ashleydfarmer.com or follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer

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Equal Justice Initiative   February 10, 2015

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) today released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents EJI’s multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states during the period between Reconstruction and World War II. EJI researchers documented 3959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia between 1877 and 1950 – at least 700 more lynchings of black people in these states than previously reported in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.

Lynching in America makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity. Not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a black person in America during this period.

The report explores the ways in which lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the contemporary geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans. Most importantly, lynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

No prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America. Lynching in America argues that is a powerful statement about our failure to value the black lives lost in this brutal campaign of racial violence. Research on mass violence, trauma, and transitional justice underscores the urgent need to engage in public conversations about racial history that begin a process of truth and reconciliation in this country.

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson. “The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”

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The “Black Republic:” The Meaning of Haitian Independence before the Occupation

Dessalines (1758-1806) famously declared that he had "avenged America" after securing Haitian independence.

Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) famously declared that he had “avenged America” after securing Haitian independence.

This is the second entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The introduction to this series can be found here.

On January 1, 1804, Jean Jacques Dessalines and his fellow generals met at Gonaïves to declare formally their independence from France. The Haitian Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the first republic governed by men of African descent in the Western Hemisphere stunned whites and blacks in the United States. White planters and their sympathizers denounced Haiti, inventing the phrase “the horrors of Saint-Domingue” to describe the violent process by which an enslaved people had risen up, overthrown their masters, and fulfilled the worst fears of a slaveholding nation.[1] African Americans, however, articulated a much different interpretation of the Haitian Revolution. For some, the act of self-emancipation in Haiti stirred their own hopes for freedom. For others, the creation of a “Black Republic” was a radical assertion of racial equality, an unprecedented opportunity for blacks in the Western Hemisphere to demonstrate their ability to prosper as citizens and leaders of a modern nation. For many, then, Haiti had a special mission—a mission endorsed by its own political leaders—to the entire world. 

Enslaved blacks in the antebellum South were quick to embrace Haiti as an emblem of black freedom. In his biography of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington noted that enslaved men and women knew “of the Haytian struggle for liberty” even if they were ignorant of everything except [their] master and the plantation.”[2] This was certainly true in the region of Douglass’s birth. One bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1821 recalled “old people speaking about persons going to Hayti” during his childhood. In particular, he remembered hearing a song about an enslaved youth who, “on account of bad treatment,” fled to Philadelphia before boarding a ship bound for Haiti. It went:

Poor Moses, poor Moses,

Sailing on the ocean.

Bless the Lord,

I am on the way,

Farewell to Georgia.

Moses is gone to Hayti.[3]

Moses, like some thirteen thousand other African Americans in the antebellum era, chose to leave the United States for Haiti. The United States was all slavery and “ill-treatment.” Haiti was freedom.

Free blacks in Philadelphia and other northern cities were no less enamored with Haiti. While some promoted emigration to that country, a greater number urged the United States to extend diplomatic recognition to it. In 1849, escaped slave and New York-based abolitionist Samuel Ringgold Ward lambasted white politicians who “refuse to acknowledge the independence of a Republic, the majority of whose citizens are black men, lest such an acknowledgement should offend negro haters in Washington.”[4] In Ward’s estimation, Haiti was not only a site where blacks could experience unparalleled freedom. Instead, it was a country that could prove wrong those who claimed that African Americans were unfit for citizenship because they could not claim a “legitimate” external nationality.[5] Consequently, Ward demanded that the United States finally acknowledge the sovereignty of a “Republic half a century old . . . that has done more to prove its capacity for self-government . . . than the United States.”[6]

The ideas about Haiti expressed by African Americans corresponded to the self-image held by Haitian elites. Believing that a mass influx of industrious African Americans would strengthen the economy of Haiti and help it win diplomatic recognition from the United States, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer, a veteran of the Haitian Revolution, promoted emigration in U.S. newspapers. In doing so, he assured African Americans that Haiti’s “wise constitution . . . insures a free country to Africans and their descendants.” Moreover, he guaranteed that “Providence has destined Hayti for a land of promise, a sacred asylum, where our unfortunate brethren will, in the end, see their wound healed by the balm of equality, and their tears wiped away by the protecting hand of liberty.”[7] Such bold claims emboldened African Americans, leading individuals like Moses to equate Haiti with black freedom and others including Ward to link Haiti to elusive rights of citizenship.

They also set Haitians and African Americans up for disappointment. By romanticizing Haiti, elite Haitians and their African American counterparts recognized an indisputable fact: a nation birthed in slave insurrection and governed by black people would always possess a unique standing in global affairs. But they also placed an unfair set of expectations upon Haiti and those citizens who would bear the burden of ensuring that their country existed not only in reality but also in symbol; that it would embody everything an idealized “Black Republic” could and should be. Given the political and cultural confines of the nineteenth-century West, such lofty expectations would prove hard (perhaps even impossible) to meet.

Next month: “Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

[1] White Americans, particularly white southerners’, reaction to the Haitian Revolution receives a more extended treatment in Alfred Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 107-147.

[2] Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass (Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Company, 1907), 144.

[3] Alexander Walker Wayman, My Recollections of African M.E. Ministers, or Forty Years’ Experience in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Rooms, 1881), 4.

[4] Impartial Citizen, August 15, 1849.

[5] My fellow AAIHS blogger, Patrick Rael, has, of course, captured these nationalist sentiments in his Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[6] Impartial Citizen, August 15, 1849.

[7] Niles’ Weekly Register, July 1, 1820. For further reading on the African American emigration movement to Haiti, I recommend Sara Fanning, Caribbean Crossing: African Americans and the Haitian Emigration Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

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President Obama, the National Prayer Breakfast, and Slavery
HNN   February 9, 2015

The controversy over President Obama’s remarks at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast is a strange one. Noting the horrors carried out by the so-called Islamic State and others around the globe claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, the President asserted that American Christians might want to reflect with some humility upon their own past before they condemn an entire faith based on the actions of its most twisted adherents. After all, he observed, “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was [sic] justified in the name of Christ.” The speech enraged former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who claimed Obama’s comments were “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” Somewhat less heatedly, Richard Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, took issue with Obama’s historical characterization, insisting that “the evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

It is hardly unusual for President Obama to elicit criticism, of course, but the criticisms in this instance are particularly odd because, as a matter of history, the contention he put forth at the National Prayer Breakfast is so obviously true. With regard to the defense of slavery especially, Christian justifications for the institution were so ubiquitous in the American South before the Civil War that the only real challenge is in listing their variations. Slavery’s defenders routinely turned to the Old Testament and observed that the Hebrew patriarchs were all slaveholders and that the laws of the ancient Israelites were rife with rules about slaveholding. Looking to the New Testament, they pointed out that Christ himself never condemned slavery, took comfort from the Epistle to Philemon in which Paul urged the enslaved fugitive Onesimus to return to his master, and regularly cited verses commanding that slaves be obedient and submissive. Some defenders made a case for the notion that people of African descent were the lineage of Noah’s son Ham condemned by God to be eternal servants and thus a divinely sanctioned enslaved race, and others argued that slaveholding was part of white southerners’ religious duty to bring Christianity to African heathens.

So vital was Christianity to the southern defense of slavery that some historians have estimated that ministers penned roughly half of all proslavery literature in the decades after 1830, though it was hardly only ministers like Baptist leader Richard Furman who one might have heard state that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures.” Secular politicians drew upon such arguments as well. Jefferson Davis, for example, claimed that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God” and was “sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation,” while his contemporary, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, blasted opponents of slavery by arguing that “the doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants” and that “man cannot separate what God hath joined.”

It is no less the case that the worldview of many abolitionists was deeply shaped by Christianity as well, and that a significant number of them saw their activities on behalf of the enslaved as their moral responsibility as Christians. Their liberationist faith, however, was not nearly so widely embraced in the public sphere. The dozens of instances of antislavery activists in the North and the South being shouted down, warned out, fired, assaulted, attacked by mobs, and occasionally murdered amply demonstrate this, put the lie to Richard Moore’s belief that Christianity served more as weapon against slavery than it did its greatest shield, and bolster President Obama’s fundamental point that any religion is susceptible to being used for good and evil alike. Mr. Moore, in fact, ought to know this better than most people. The Southern Baptist Convention, after all, was in its origins an explicitly pro-slavery denomination. It only exists in the first place because Baptists in slaveholding states insisted upon the allowance of slaveholding missionaries and broke away from their northern brethren in 1845 rather than accept a restriction on or judgment of their “property rights.” That the SBC has since apologized for and repudiated its historical relationship to slavery is surely something supported by Mr. Moore. That it took until 1995 for it to do so may recommend his reconsideration of how “clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity” slavery was in the United States.

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of “Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson” (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.  This article was first published at www.werehistory.org: serious history for regular people

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In December, Presidents Barak Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would be taking steps to normalise US-Cuban relations thereby ending decades of animosity between the two governments. In a public statement, Obama declared it time ‘to cut loose the shackles of the past’ and do away with the enmity that brought about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although Cuba is currently in the headlines, the Caribbean island does not figure as prominently in US politics as it once did. During the Cold War, developments in Cuba had a profound effect on US policy towards Latin America as a whole. In particular, Washington officials feared that the Cuban Revolution would pave the way for other communist governments, allied with the Soviet Union, to emerge throughout the region. For President John F. Kennedy, this prospect made Latin America ‘the most dangerous area in the world’.

As a senator, Kennedy had initially called for a ‘patient attitude’ towards Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro who, after coming to power in January 1959, repeatedly denied being a communist. However, as Castro nationalised US property, delayed elections and accepted aid from the Soviet Union, Kennedy’s view shifted. 1 In the run up to the 1960 election, he repeatedly argued that Latin America was threatened by future communist revolutions.  ‘I have seen Communist influence and Castro influence rise in Latin America’ he declared and asked ‘By 1965 or 1970, will there be other Cubas in Latin America?’ 2

As President-Elect, Kennedy’s fears were supported by a government report which warned that ‘the present Communist challenge in Latin America resembles, but is more dangerous than, the Nazi-Fascist threat of the Franklin Roosevelt period and demands an even bolder and more imaginative response.’ A response came as, once in office, Kennedy established the ‘Alliance for Progress’ which ostensibly aimed to undermine support for radical social movements by funding Latin America’s economic development. 3  Kennedy asserted that the Alliance should aim to ‘eliminate tyranny’but as historian Thomas C. Field Jnr has revealed, in practice, US aid was used to support the increasingly authoritarian regime of Bolivian President Víctor Paz Estenssoro. 4

In 1961, Kennedy’s advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger cautioned that ‘Bolivia might well go the way of Cuba’ and argued that ‘we simply cannot let another Latin American nation go Communist; if we should do so, the game would be up through a good deal of Latin America.’ 5 By providing Paz with financial support and military hardware, Washington was able to ensure that the country’s leadership maintained an anti-communist stance and liberalised the national economy against the wishes of armed, left-wing trade unions. Yet the authoritarianism that Washington encouraged ultimately inspired civilian and military revolt against Paz, culminating in the 1964 coup that overthrew him. 6

Fears of ‘another Castro situation’ also informed Kennedy’s attitude towards British Guiana which, by 1963, was taking steps towards independence from the British Empire. At the time, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) held a majority in the colony’s assembly but US officials had concerns regarding the possible ‘communist connections’ of its leader Cheddi Jagan. Fearing that British Guiana would emerge as a ‘Castro-type state in South America’, Washington was keen to see the more conservative Forbes Burnham, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), assume leadership of the colony following its independence.

The US government persuaded London to alter British Guiana’s electoral system to proportional representation and, in 1964, despite receiving the highest share of the popular vote, Jagan’s PPP lost its majority status in the legislative assembly to a coalition led by the PNC. Subsequently, in May 1966, the colony became an independent state, renamed Guyana and led by Burnam. 7

The Kennedy administration’s interventions in Latin America took a number of forms with each aiming to prevent ‘another Castro’.  As Thomas G. Paterson has argued, US officials were gripped by the ‘fear that the Cuban Revolution would become contagious and further diminish United States hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.’ 8 Now, with the Cold War concluded, this fear has diminished and at least some US officials desire a more cordial relationship with Havana.

Significant steps have already been taken to improve US-Cuban relations with prisoners released and the announcement that Washington will ease restrictions on commerce and travel between the two countries. Fidel Castro has tentatively backedhis brother’s rapprochement with Obama who intends to set up an embassy in Havana but tensions remain as officials from both countries have continued to criticise the others’ human rights record. While the future of this relationship is uncertain, it seems unlikely that Cuba will ever again be so central to US foreign policy as it was during the Kennedy presidency.

Mark Seddon completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2014. His research focuses on British and US interventions in Latin America during the Second World War and Cold War. You can find him on Twitter @MarkSedd0n.

For an overview of Kennedy’s policy towards Latin America see: Stephen G. Rabe, The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999)


  1. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 124-125. 
  2. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29403 
  3. Jeffrey F. Taffet, Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America (New York, NY, 2007), pp. 11-28. 
  4. Thomas C. Field Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (New York, NY, 2014). 
  5. Ibid., p. 14. 
  6. Ibid., pp. 189-196. 
  7. Stephen G. Rabe, U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (Chapel Hill, NC), pp. 105-151. 
  8. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), p. 127. 

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