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The U.S. Occupation of Haiti: A Bibliography

U.S. Marines in occupied Haiti

U.S. Marines in occupied Haiti

July 28, 2015 marked the one-hundred year anniversary of the landing of U.S. Marines on Haitian soil. A number of organizations marked the occasion and, to conclude my own series on the U.S. occupation of Haiti, I would now like to present a bibliography of important works on that event. This list highlights not only books, dissertations, and articles that pertain to political relations between the United States and Haiti during that era but also to those that address the black intellectual response to U.S. imperialism in Haiti. It is by no means exhaustive, though. I welcome further suggestions for readings in the comments and also encourage readers to consult The Public Archive, Haiti: Then and Now, and The Haitian History Blog for additional resources about the occupation. Finally, scholars in a range of disciplines should look forward to a special issue of The Journal of Haitian Studies dedicated to the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. That issue is slated for a Fall 2015 publication.

Alexis, Yveline. “Nationalism & The Politics of Historical Memory: Charlemagne Peralte’s Rebellion Against U.S. Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1986.” Ph.D. dissertation., The University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2011.

Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick. In the Shadow of Powers: Dantés Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1985.

Blancpain, François. Haïti et les États-Unis: 1915-1934: Histoire d’une occupation. Paris, L’Harmattan, 1999.

Brissman, D’Arcy Morgan. “Interpreting American Hegemony: Civil Military Relations during the United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.” Ph.D. dissertation: Duke University, 2001.

Corbould, Clare. “At the Feet of Dessalines: Performing Haiti’s Revolution during the New Negro Renaissance.” In Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930, edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, 259-288. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Dalleo, Raphael. “’The Independence So Hardly Won Has Been Maintained:’ C.L.R. James and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti.” Cultural Critique 87 (Spring 2014): 38-59.

Davidson, Matthew. “Empire and its Practitioners: Health, Development, and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.” M.A. thesis: Trent University, 2014.

Dubois, Laurent. “Occupation.” In Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.

Gaillard, Roger. Charlemagne Péralte le caco. Port-au-Prince: R. Gaillard, 1982.

Ménard, Nadève. “The Occupied Novel: The Representation of Foreigners in Haitian Novels Written During the United States Occupation, 1915-1934.” Ph.D. dissertation., University of Pennsylvania, 2002.

Millet, Kethly. Les paysans haïtiens et l’occupation américaine d’Haïti, 1915-1930. La Salle,        Québec: Colectif Paroles, 1978.

Pamphile, Leon D. The NAACP and the American Occupation of Haiti. Phylon 47, no. 1 (1st Qtr., 1986): 91-100.

Polyné, Millery. “‘To Combine the Training of the Head and the Hands’: The 1930 Robert R. Moton Commission in Haiti.” In From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010.

Plummer, Brenda Gayle. “The Afro-American Response to the Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.”Phylon 43, no. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1982): 125-143.

Renda, Mary. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.2nd ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Shannon, Magdaline W. Jean Price-Mars, the Haitian Elite and the American Occupation, 1915-1935. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Suggs, Henry Lewis. “The Response of the African American Press to the United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.” The Journal of African American History 87 (Winter 2002): 70-82.

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Killing Haitian Democracy

The US’s repeated imperialist interventions in Haiti have left a legacy of despotism.

 
US Marines marching in Haiti in 1934. Bettmann / CORBIS

US Marines marching in Haiti in 1934. Bettmann / CORBIS

On July 28, 1915 the United States invaded Haiti, and imposed its diktat on the nation for close to two decades. The immediate pretext for the military intervention was the country’s chronic political instability that had culminated in the overthrow, mob killing, and bloody dismemberment of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.

The American takeover was in tune with the Monroe Doctrine, first declared in 1823, that justified the United States presumption that it had the unilateral right to interfere in the domestic affairs of Latin America. But it was not until the late 1800s when America had become a major world capitalist power that it actually acquired the capacity to fulfill its extra-continental imperial ambitions. In 1898 it seized Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam and soon afterwards took control of the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

The US’s goal was to transform the Caribbean into an “American Mediterranean” inoculated from the influence of French, German, and Spanish power.

The 1915 invasion was in fact the culmination of America’s earlier interferences in Haiti — on eight separate occasions US marines had temporarily landed to allegedly “protect American lives and property.” The latter part of this claim was more accurate than the former, for these earlier skirmishes served to solidify and enhance the presence of American financial banking interests.

This priority became clear when, on December 17, 1914, US marines, acting on the orders of US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, forcibly removed Haiti’s entire gold reserve — valued at $500,000 — from the vaults of Banque Nationale. The bullion was transported to New York on the gunboat Machias and deposited in the National City Bank.

American imperialism had thus announced its designs; it was bent on undercutting French and German economic dominance as well as signaling to Haitian authorities that they would be forced to pay their debt to US private banks. From Washington’s perspective, Haiti had to establish a political order serving American economic and strategic objectives. Ultimately, the means to that end was an occupation.

The first task of the occupiers was to select a new president to replace Sam. Rosalvo Bobo, who headed a caco army that led the insurrection ending with Sam’s brutal demise, was on the verge of moving into thePalais National. The United States, however, had other ideas. Washington viewed Bobo as too nationalistic to assume the reins of power.

While Capt. Edward Beach, the chief of staff of Adm. Caperton who led the Marines’ takeover of Haiti, acknowledged Bobo’s immense popularity, he deemed him “utterly unsuited to be Haiti’s President” because he was “an idealist and dreamer.” In fact, Beach informed Bobo that the United States considered him “a menace and a curse to [Haiti]” and thus forbade him to stand as a candidate for the presidency.

A revolutionary nationalist like Bobo was inimical to American interests. While he was being forced into exile and his cacos were launching a futile uprising against the occupying forces, Adm. Caperton installed a new president who would “realize that Haiti must agree to any terms laid down by the United States.” This new president was Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave.

The US not only imposed the unpopular Dartiguenave on Haiti, it also compelled Haitian authorities to sign a treaty legalizing the occupation. Caperton had orders “to remove all opposition” to the treaty’s ratification. If that failed, the United States had every intention to “retain control” and “proceed to complete the pacification of Haiti.”

Not surprisingly, on November 11, 1915 the Haitian Senate ratified the treaty and placed the country under an American protectorate. The United States was to take full control of the country’s military, law enforcement, and financial system. The repressive and fraudulent means by which the occupation was rendered officially “legal” symbolized what “democracy” and “constitutional rule” meant under imperial rule.

Not satisfied with the mere ratification of the treaty, the United States sought to compel the Haitian National Assembly to adopt a new constitution made in Washington. Faced with the assembly’s opposition, Maj. Smedley Butler, the head of the Gendarmerie d’Haiti — the military contingent created by the United States to replace the Haitian army that it had disbanded — arbitrarily dissolved the assembly.

Having no room to maneuver, Dartiguenave signed the decree of dissolution. In waging their own coup d’état, the occupying forces continued a long-held practice of Haitian politics, but they modernized it. As Butler proclaimed, the gendarmerie had to dissolve the assembly “by genuinely Marine Corps methods” because it had become “so impudent.”

The “impudence” of the assembly partly stemmed from its refusal to grant foreigners the right to own property in Haiti. The US found this refusal unacceptable and decided that a coup was warranted to impose the laws of the capitalist market.

Armed with military power, imbued with an imperial mentality, and convinced of their “manifest destiny” and racial superiority, the American occupiers expected deference and obedience from Haitians. In fact, the key American policymakers in both Washington and Port-au-Prince entertained racist phobias and stereotypes and were bewildered by Haitian culture.

At best, the occupiers regarded Haitians as the product of a bizarre mixture of African and Latin cultures who had to be treated like children lacking the education, maturity, and discipline for self-government. At worst, Haitians were like their African forbears, inferior human beings, “savages,” “cannibals,” “gooks,” and “niggers.”

Robert Lansing, the secretary of state in the Woodrow Wilson administration, exemplified the racist American view:

The experience of Liberia and Haiti show that the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization and lack genius for government. Unquestionably there is in them an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature . . . It is that which makes the Negro problem practically unsolvable.

For the occupiers, Haitians thus had no capacity to run their own affairs or even appreciate the alleged benefits of America’s invasion. As High Commissioner Russell put it, “Haitian mentality only recognizes force, and appeal to reason and logic is unthinkable.”

And indeed, the American-led gendarmerie used brutal force to impose its grip on Haitian society and squash all opposition. Adm. Caperton declared martial law on September 3, 1915. It would last fourteen years, facilitating the establishment of a new regime ofcorvée (forced, unpaid labor), as well as the brutal suppression of thecaco guerrilla resistance against American forces.

Overseen by the repressive control of the gendarmerie, the unpopularcorvée system compelled peasants to work as virtual “slave gangs.” The massive mobilization of coerced labor helped build roads that reached remote areas of the territory; the creation of a viable network of transportation was not merely a means of spurring economic and commercial development, but a result of American strategic considerations.

Putting down the cacos who had supported Bobo and joined the popular guerrillas of Charlemagne Péralte required the penetration of the countryside to prevent any further recruitment of peasants into the forces of resistance.

The corvée system of forced labor extraction,and the military repression of the guerrillas were thus symbiotically connected. Riddled with abuse, the corvée failed to stifle opposition, however. Instead, coercing the peasantry to labor on infrastructural projects just fueled greater resistance to the occupation.

Popular support for the cacos grew, and soon there was an embryonic movement of national liberation with an increasingly sophisticated guerrilla force under the leadership of Péralte. Péralte, who called himself Chef Suprême de la Révolution en Haïti, explained that he was fighting the occupiers to gain Haiti’s liberation from American imperialism.

In the eyes of American authorities, however, the cacos, Péralte, and his supporters were nothing but “bandits,” “criminals,” and “killers” who had to be thoroughly “pacified.” And so they were. Péralte was shot on November 1, 1919 and his successor, Benoît Batraville, suffered a similar fate on May 19 of the following year. By 1921 the American pacification of the country was virtually complete. Some 2,000 thousand insurgents had been killed, and more than 11,000 of their sympathizers had been incarcerated.

Still, pacification did not imply popular acquiescence. It is true that the traditional Haitian elites initially collaborated with and even welcomed American imperialism. But as they experienced the unmitigated racism of the occupying forces, the elites turned against them and espoused varied forms of nationalist resistance.

While not inclined to back the caco insurgents, these elites developed a sense of nationhood that curbed the significance of color but had little impact on the salience of class identities. In the eyes of most Haitians, those who had participated actively in the occupation machinery, like President Dartiguenave or his successor, Louis Borno, were opportunistic collaborators or simply traitors.

In fact, many of these collaborators had authoritarian reflexes and shared some of the paternalistic and racist ideology of their American overlords. Convinced that Haitians were not prepared for any democratic form of self-government, these elites believed in thedespotisme éclairé of the plus capables (the enlightened despotism of the most capable).

In addition, from their privileged class position they regarded the rest of their compatriots — especially the peasantry — with contempt. In an official letter to the nation’s prefects, President Borno openly expressed this disdain:

Our rural population, which represents nine-tenths of the Haitian population, is almost totally illiterate, ignorant and poor . . . it is still incapable of exercising the right to vote, and would be the easy prey of those bold speculators whose conscience hesitates at no lie.

[The] present electoral body . . . is characterized by a flagrant inability to assume . . . the heavy responsibilities of a political action.

Borno was a dictator, but a dictator under American control. His rule embodied what Haitians called la dictature bicéphale, the “dual despotism” of American imperialism and its domestic clients. This regime of repression had unintended consequences. It intensified the level of nationalist resistance to the occupation and contributed to a convergence of interests between intellectuals, students, public workers, and peasants.

This growing mobilization against the occupation precipitated the 1929 Marchaterre massacre, when some fifteen hundred peasants protesting high taxation confronted armed marines who then opened fire on the crowd. Twenty-four Haitians died and fifty-one were wounded. The massacre set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead the United States to reassess its policies and presence in Haiti.

President Herbert Hoover created a commission whose primary objective was to investigate “when and how we are to withdraw from Haiti.” The commission — which took the name of its chair, Cameron Forbes, who served in the Philippines as chief constabulary and then as governor — acknowledged that the US had not accomplished its mission and that it had failed “to understand the social problems of Haiti.”

While the commission astonishingly claimed that the occupation’s failure was due to the “brusque attempt to plant democracy there by drill and harrow” and to “its determination to set up a middle class,” it ultimately recommended the withdrawal of the United States from Haiti.

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The commission advised, however, that the withdrawal not be immediate, but rather that it should take place only after the successful “Haitianization” of the public services as well as the gendarmerie. Forbes also understood that President Borno had no legitimacy and could be sacrificed. Borno was forced to retire and arrange the election of an interim successor who would in turn organize general elections. Sténio Vincent, a moderate nationalist who favored a gradual, negotiated ending to the occupation, thus became president in November 1930.

Vincent’s gradualism was in tune with the Forbes Commission’s recommendation for the accelerated Haitianization of the commanding ranks of the government and the eventual withdrawal of all American troops. While Forbes and Vincent operated on the assumption that the United States’ withdrawal would not occur until 1936, the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 altered events.

Roosevelt’s new “Good Neighbor” strategy toward Latin America was rooted in the premise that direct occupation through military intervention was expensive, counterproductive, and in most instances unnecessary. It was not that the forceful occupation of another country was precluded; it simply became a last resort.

Roosevelt understood that in Latin America, the United States could impose its hegemony through local allies and surrogates, especially through military corps and officers that it had trained, organized, and equipped. It is this perspective that explains the American decision to withdraw from Haiti. In fact, what Haitians came to call “second independence” arrived two months earlier than expected. On a visit to Cape Haitien, in the north of the country, Roosevelt announced that the American occupation would end on August 15, 1934.

After close to twenty years of dual dictatorship, Haitians were left with a changed nation. American rule had contributed to the centralization of power in Port-au-Prince and the modernization of the monarchical presidentialism that had always characterized Haitian politics. With the American occupation, praetorian power came to reside in the barracks of the capital, which had supplanted the regional armed bands that had hitherto been decisive in the making, and unmaking, of political regimes.

Moreover, the subordination of the Haitian president to American marine forces had nurtured a politics of military vetoes and interference that would eventually undermine civilian authority and help incite the numerous coups of post-occupation Haiti. To remain in office, the executive would have to depend on the support of the military, which had been centralized in Port-au-Prince.

The supremacy of Port-au-Prince also implied the privileging of urban classes to the detriment of the rural population. Peasants continued to be excluded from the moral community of les plus capables, and they came under a strict policing regime of law and order.

The occupation never intended to cut the roots of authoritarianism; instead, it planted them in a more rational and modern terrain. By establishing a communication network that became a means of policing and punishing the population, and by creating a more effective and disciplined coercive force, American rule left a legacy of authoritarian and centralized power. It suppressed whatever democratic and popular forms of accountability and protests it confronted, and nurtured the old patterns of fraudulent electoral practices, giving the armed forces ultimate veto on who would rule Haiti.

Elections during the occupation, and for more than seventy years afterward, were never truly free and fair. In most cases, the outcome of elections had less to do with the actual popular vote than with compromises reached between Haiti’s ruling classes and imperial forces. Thus, elections lacked the degree of honesty and openness required to define a democratic order. The occupation imposed its rule through fraud, violence, and deceit, and little changed after it ended.

It is true that the imperial presence from 1915 to 1934 contributed to the building of a modest infrastructure of roads and clinics, but it did so with the most paternalistic and racist energy. American authorities convinced themselves that their mission was to bring development and civilization to Haiti. They presumed that Haitians were utterly incapable of doing so on their own. Not surprisingly, they used methods of command and control to achieve their project, a practice that reinforced the existing authoritarian patterns of unaccountable, undemocratic governance.

Interestingly, when one examines the strategy and rhetoric from the 1915–1934 occupation, one can see that it foreshadowed the contemporary “modernization” and “failed states” theories that have justified western interventionism during and after the Cold War era. Except for its unmitigated racism, the old interventionism differs little from the twenty-first century doctrines of “humanitarian militarism” and “responsibility to protect.”

In fact, since the fall of the US-backed Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 and the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, the country has been involved in an unending democratic transition marred by persistent imperial interventions that have transformed it into a quasi-protectorate of the international community.

Foreign powers, particularly the United States and to a lesser extent France and Canada, have regarded Haiti as a “failed state” that could not function without the massive political, military, and economic presence of outsiders.

One hundred years after the first American occupation and three decades after Jean-Claude Duvalier’s popular ouster, Haiti has been reoccupied twice by American marines, who have paved the way for the current, interminable, and humiliating presence of a United Nations “peace-keeping” force. The imperial language has barely changed. American rhetoric justifies occupation in the name of “stability,” “domestic security,” and the dangers of “populist and anti-market political forces.” The US continues to promise the development of a modern capitalist economy, a middle class society, and a democratic order.

That all of these occupations failed miserably to achieve these goals indicate the obdurate limits and contradictions of any project of development sponsored and imposed by imperial forces. These occupations warn us also about the justifications, dangers, and vicissitudes of interventions in the current era of neoliberal globalization.

Facilitated by the corruptions of its ruling classes, old and new imperial interventions have consistently failed to deliver what they promise; in fact, they have condemned Haiti to virtual trusteeship, a vassal country suffering from a recurring emergency syndrome.

Robert Fatton Jr is a professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is Haiti: Trapped in the Outer Periphery.

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Haitian Intellectuals and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti: An Interview with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

 African American Intellectual History Society   June 14, 2015

In the sixth part of my series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, I interview Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Dr. Bellegarde-Smith is a Professor Emeritus of Africology at theUniversity of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has written dozens of articles, book chapters, and books that have been translated into English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Those works include In The Shadows of Power: Dantes Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought and Haiti: The Breached Citadel, and Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in the New World.

 Bellegarde-Smith is also the recipient of a number of professional awards including the Medaille Jean Price-Mars from Universite d’Etat d’Haiti the Lifetime Achievement Award for Scholarship from the Haitian Studies Association. He is President of the latter organization and the Associate Editor of its journal, the Journal of Haitian Studies. Dr. Bellegarde-Smith also serves as the President of the Congress of Santa Barbara (KOSANBA)

 Our interview focuses on Haitian intellectuals during the period of the U.S. occupation. Topics addressed include the social thought of Dantès Bellegarde (1877-1966), a leading Haitian diplomat and the grandfather of Dr. Bellegarde-Smith.

Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor Emeritus at the UWM

Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor Emeritus of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Byrd: Let’s start by discussing someone you have written extensively about: your grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde. Who was he? What should readers know about his upbringing? His personality? His career?

Bellegarde-Smith: His great-great grandfather on his mother’s side whose life was saved by [Emperor Jean-Jacques] Dessalines himself became essentially the Minister of Justice under [President] Jean Pierre Boyer. That’s one thing. The great-great grandfather was also said to be the founder of Haitian Freemasonry.

On his father’s side, you are talking about people who fought during the Revolution. You are talking about a man who becomes duke of the second empire under [Emperor Faustin] Soulouque and becomes one of the henchmen of Soulouque. And that also amassed a great deal of money. A great deal of property and the family lost all of it because the family became quite destitute.

On the mother’s side, you are talking about French and mulattoes and on the father’s side you are talking about black. And that would be the black elite in terms of all this. But they lost the fortune. And so when my grandfather was born, out of wedlock, his mother, whom I remember quite well, born in 1857 died in 1952. She was totally white looking. Long hair all the way down to her buttocks and she only spoke Kreyòl. She was uneducated. Did not read or write. Non-literate. So my grandfather started life being Kreyòlophone. He learned French when he went to school.

In a very real sense, this juxtaposes him to Jean Price-Mars who was his friend and they went to school together. [Bellegarde] was saved, and I use the word advisedly, by his skin color. He was able to climb the social ladder in Haiti partly because of his color and he became widely popular abroad, which really helped matters. Once you’re recognized abroad therefore you must be an important person while Price-Mars was destined to play the role that he did even though he was probably more highly born than my grandfather. That was solid middle-class at that point, in terms of Jean Price-Mars. It’s no surprise that he becomes the founding father of what becomes Négritude. Certainly the founding father of Haitian indigénisme and a cultural opposition to the American occupation.

My grandfather was very ambivalent because of course he is seen as the leader of the pro-French forces in Haitian social thought. And he describes Haiti in many of his works as French speaking and Catholic. And Haiti is neither French-speaking nor Catholic . . . [Today] French has lost a great deal of ground in Haiti. I don’t think it can be recovered at all.

Byrd: In the schools, too?

Bellegarde-Smith: The schools such as they are today. It depends on which schools you go to. Once upon a time the public schools were decent. They were quite good. My grandfather went to public schools. So did Jean Price-Mars and they others. They learned French. They learned classical French. Now you have the private schools that are good.

Dantès even though he warned against the U.S. occupation as far back as 1907, that “the U.S. is too close and God is too far,” he served the occupation. He was a cabinet member during the first part of the U.S. occupation. So this is where I see the ambivalence. A portion of the Haitian elite were essentially for it. They were not saying it necessarily publicly. Sténio Vincent, President Vincent, said so publicly. But it was one way to speed up the civilization process. They were concerned that French would lose ground . . . Of course, as you know, the light-skinned elite was re-establishing power in Haiti and kept power until [President Dumarsais] Estimé in the 1940s.

Dantès Bellegarde, early 1900s

Dantès Bellegarde, early 1900s

Byrd: Can we go back to that point about the civilizing process. How exactly did Bellegarde picture it?

Bellegarde-Smith: Well, he thought that Haiti could not remain independent unless it stayed essentially in the cultural orbit of France. And he saw Haiti as being an intellectual province of France. It’s interesting if you see the way his family lived, he and his seven children in Port-au-Prince, you would be transported to southern France in terms of the way the house was set-up, in terms of what they ate, in terms of what they talked about. As he got older, after he got to be about 80, the only time he would leave his house was to go to a funeral which was quite often and also go downtown once a week to pick up French conservative newspapers that were reserved for him, that came into Port-au-Prince once a week. So I was raised reading those newspapers after he was done with them. We’re talking about Le Monde. We’re talking about Le Figaro Littéraire, which is one of the right-wing publications in France and that kind of thing. But he was certain and he said it over and over again that a Dahomeyen island in the middle of the Americas would not survive because see what happened to Africa. Dahomey did not survive colonization. Why should Haiti imitate, take on that process itself?

I have one of Price-Mars’s books, La Vocation de l’Elite, where my grandfather read it, that was part of his library, he had about 10,000 books in his library, and when he was intrigued by a passage he would take his thumb and with his nail mark it. So you have markings all over the page and sometimes he wrote notes in the margin. And when Price-Mars accused the Haitian elite including my grandfather, who was his friend, of cultural bovarism, as inMadame Bovary, he said “but I’m a mulatto, what do you want me to do? (laughs)” “Not a negro, I’m a mulatto.” A “leave me alone” kind of thing. But at the end of his life when he was dying and my aunt said that he was delirious and not to believe what he said, he kept repeating over and over again “but I’m black, but I’m black, but I’m black.” He kept saying that he was black, something that he did not say publicly earlier.

He was minister of education and agriculture in the first cabinet installed by the Americans. And when for instance the U.S. wanted to impose a loan to the Haitian government and the Haitian government said absolutely not, we are not going to borrow money, the Americans stopped payments of the salaries of all the public persons including my grandfather. And the Haitian cabinet caved in because he said he had seven babies at home and they were very young and he had to feed his kids. So they accepted that onerous loan from the U.S. government. At first they resisted.

His opposition to the occupation occurred internationally while he was a government official. That was starting with the League of Nations in Geneva and also as a member of the Pan-African Congresses especially the one in 1921 in Paris, the second reunion of that particular congress where everybody was attacked by the French government and especially by the American government. [He] developed a very close friendship at that time with [W.E.B.] Du Bois and with this very young whippersnapper Rayford W. Logan (laughs).

At the League of Nations when he [Bellegarde] assailed the United States, making everybody uncomfortable, he was essentially fired. The American government forced his resignation. He was recalled back to Haiti. He had attacked the United States while trying to forge a grand alliance between all the Latin countries. Of course, Haiti, he saw it as a Latin country . . . he wanted a grand alliance of all Latin American countries even though Latin America did not come to the rescue of Haiti. They were more likely to protest the invasion of the Dominican Republic but not of Haiti.

Byrd: I’m interested in this development, the emergence of Bellegarde’s public opposition to the occupation. By the 1920s, Du Bois and his peers are staunchly against the occupation. Is that burgeoning collaboration influencing Bellegarde?

Bellegarde-Smith: There was a sturdy friendship between Du Bois and my grandfather and James Weldon Johnson and also Walter White. Growing up there was a picture of Walter White in my grandfather’s library in Port-au-Prince to the point that I thought he was family. Since he was always there, on the mantle.

The NAACP, and I have found papers in my grandfather’s library going through these things, where there was a great deal of support given by the NAACP advising the Haitian government as to how to quicken the exit of the Americans out of Haiti. The NAACP was highly respected in governmental circles in Haiti. They were taking advice from the NAACP as to how to handle the U.S. government and that was not pleasing to the American government, of course. And I remember, for instance, in 1931 when my grandfather was sent as the ambassador to Washington, D.C.

He was recalled after making a horrible speech attacking the U.S. at the Pan-American Union (now the Organization of American States) where he called the U.S. all kinds of names in French and Cordell Hull, who was Secretary of State, was smiling and applauding not understanding a word of what was being said.

Also there was anger on the part of the American government because my grandfather had established some very strong connections with the African American bourgeoisie. People like Raymond Pace Alexander, the judge out of Philadelphia . . . and other luminaries in the African American world. People from the Gold Coast on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., what it was called in those days.

That irritated because supposedly Haitian ambassadors had not entertained the African American population up to that point from what was said. I don’t believe that that was necessarily true. But there was close friendships developed at that point.

My grandfather stopped his dealings with Du Bois when he became a communist. He had no interest in that. My grandfather was a rabid anti-communist. He was essentially a positivist.

When my grandfather died the first person to come to the house was Price-Mars himself . . . they remained friends despite public spats (laughs).

Jean Price-Mars, 1956

Jean Price-Mars, 1956

Byrd: Could you elaborate on Price-Mars and the changes that were occurring within the Haitian intellectual community during the occupation?

Bellegarde-Smith: Price-Mars was an outsider in many ways. Highly-educated. A physician. A medical doctor. Coming from a Protestant family. So outsider, outsider, outsider. From the provinces. Outsider again. Dark-skinned. That kind of thing. So it was almost foretold that he could possibly lead folks into new ways of thinking about the Haitian culture. At the very same time, he was quite flattered when a French senator referred to Haiti as an advanced lighthouse of “Latinity” in the Americas. And he was very flattered by that. He liked the fact that Haiti was an advanced beacon of “Latinity” in the Americas. And he was a positivist. Auguste Comte was one of his heroes and that kind of thing. And Herbert Spencer and these folks.

Yes, he was radical in many of his ideas. Not so much so in terms of politics, actually . . . but he obviously talked about the obvious. Haiti is not exactly, we are not, colored Frenchman.

Byrd: It sounds like there was always this distinction made between the United States and, say, France. I’m sure they [Haitian intellectuals] were very cognizant of American racial politics . . .

Bellegarde-Smith: It’s interesting. The Haitians would not consider the French as being racist. Not that they were not. But somehow it did not occur to Haitian intellectuals because they were well-treated in Paris. Then again they were distinguished people to start with. In the very same way that James Baldwin and the others and Josephine Baker and all these African Americans who at some point were in exile in Paris were treated beautifully. And so France had that aura about it.

The first black generals of European armies were French generals. From Toussaint Louverture to Alexandre Dumas and the other people. And so France was seen as civilized. It’s interesting. In the early ‘60s when I was thinking of coming to the U.S. to continue my education, my mother was against it. The first thing was, “you have to go to France.” Because it is civilized. So she was against the U.S. She said “maybe Canada.” And I said, “what about the U.S?” She said “maybe Boston. That’s the only civilized place in the U.S.” No other place is civilized . . . When I finally said that I am going to the U.S., she made me swear that I would never go below the Mason-Dixon line. And I said, “why?” And she said, “because you are just like me. The first time a white person looks at you funny, you are going to kill him” (laughs).

The U.S. was seen as uncivilized. Certainly the U.S. was seen in Haiti as wanting to institute sort of a Booker T. Washington field to Haitian education which the Haitian elite revolted against.

Now my grandfather was in charge of the Ministry of Education for a very long time and this is one ministry that the U.S. paid very little attention to. They forgot all about it. So he was able to institute a number of reforms which, by the way, gave rise to a large number of people who would rise to become middle-class in Haiti, which a generation later were able to revolt and change the complexion of Haitian politics, pun intended. But the U.S. cannot be given credit for that. In terms of the schools that were created at the time. Now people want to claim that the U.S. reformed Haitian education. They may have reformed the road system to get the Marines from one point to another but I don’t think they reformed the education system and that sort of sticks in my craw because my grandfather had something to do with it.

Byrd: Your scholarship covers such an impressive scope but two of your works are of particular importance to this series and in thinking about Haitian intellectuals, the occupation, and imperialism in general. I was hoping you could talk about the titles—the meaning behind—The Breached Citadel and In the Shadow of Powers. What, if any, message about Haitian intellectual history do they convey?

Bellegarde-Smith: It’s interesting. I had to fight with my publisher in Canada because of the translation of the title. He wanted to do In the Shadow of Powers as A L’ombre des Pouvoirs. I said, “No!” My grandfather was in power in those days. He was not in the shadow of power. He was the power in Haiti. Power means puissance not pouvoir. Puissance meaning the United States, France, England, Germany. So in the shadow of these world powers, that’s what was meant by that particular title. I insisted on putting Haiti in the context of Latin American intellectual development, in terms of what was happening in places like Mexico and Argentina and especially France and England, which was quite powerful in the minds of Haitian intellectuals. Something that was not done. Even in early Haitian history they talk about Haiti as if it did not belong to the rest of the world, as if it were not an important colony of France therefore subject to all those international influences in the nineteenth century and the seventeenth century. So they looked at it in isolation. And people are still looking at Haiti in isolation. It’s resilient. It’s different. It cannot be contrasted with Nicaragua or Bolivia because it is black and there’s always going back to this thing: people see color and they don’t see much else.

And by the way, Haitian intellectuals were very much concerned about U.S. power. Obviously from the very beginning it was an imperialistic force. It was a successor of Rome. And one of the reasons so many intellectuals went with France is because economically and militarily it was not going to re-colonize Haiti. If you were to choose between imperialism, choose France. Because it’s more “benign.”

By Breached Citadel, I was thinking in terms of culture, that an autonomous culture if it wants to maintain its integrity and be self-sustaining controls and chooses how it is going to integrate various elements from the outside. It has that choice.

Brandon R. Byrd

brandon byrdI am a recent recipient of a Ph.D. from the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a current assistant professor of History at Mississippi State University. My research specialty lies in nineteenth and early-twentieth century African-American History, particularly political culture and thought. More specifically, I am working on a book manuscript, An Experiment in Self-Government: Haiti in the African-American Political Imagination, that focuses on the ways in which leading African Americans imagined a link between Haiti’s independence and the prospects of racial progress, communal self-determination, and full citizenship in the postemancipation United States.

I further explore my interests in African-American history, Haiti, and the African Diaspora as a contributor to Haiti: Then and Now (http://haitithenandnow.blogspot.com) and on twitter @bronaldbyrd. Additional information about my research and teaching can be found at http://www.brandonrbyrd.com.

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“We Must Look Only to Ourselves to Save the Situation:” The Emergence of Opposition to the Occupation

African American Intellectual History Society      May 13, 2015
Calvin Chase, editor of The Bee

Calvin Chase, editor of The Bee


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

Booker T. Washington was correct. Just as he predicted one month before his death, countless African Americans did watch the unfolding events in Haiti with the utmost interest. While consistent in their opinion that the occupation mattered a great deal, those observers would, however, exhibit little consensus in their initial reactions to it.

Washington’s ally George L. Knox was certain that the occupation would benefit Haitians. The editor of the Indianapolis Freeman informed his readers that “most of the leading thinkers of the race see nothing but the fitness of things in the move of the United States to look out for the prosperity of Haiti.” Those who did not think that the United States was looking out for Haiti’s best interests were mistaken. Knox chastised the “few” black leaders who “demurred, thinking of the thing of independence in the abstract.” Appropriating the social philosophy of the pioneering president of Tuskegee Institute, Knox contended that “a negro nation that conducts itself as other nations . . . should be proud of the opportunity to make good.” But one that did not should be ashamed. The Indianapolis journalist concluded that “no negro government is preferable to the kind presented by [Haiti] in the recent past.”[1]

Sol Johnson agreed. Indeed, the editor of the Savannah Tribune insisted that all the “well informed colored people” in his city also felt “that the establishment of a provisional protectorate over Haiti is about the best thing that could be done to guarantee a stable government for the Black Republic.” He even speculated that “ten years of steady training in industry and civic righteousness” under the guidance of the Americans would “work a ‘revolution’ in Haiti that will make it the garden spot of the entire West Indies.”[2]

Those who articulated such beliefs shared a favorable opinion of the civilizing mission used to justify U.S. imperialism. For Johnson, Knox, and their ilk, the promotion of a puppet president in Haiti, the establishment of a new treaty advantageous to U.S. business interests, and the squashing of dissent in the Haitian capital were means of securing rather than diminishing democracy in Haiti. If “progress” came at the point of a bayonet (and it most certainly had) then responsibility for that violence lay at the feet of its victims. According to one black Baltimorean, “Haiti made [the occupation] possible by continual revolutions—which are a disgrace to civilization.” Rather than sympathizing with Haitians, African Americans needed to take heed and commit themselves to self-improvement. “The moral of this international incident,” he surmised, “is . . . of application to the Negro in the United States. The greatest enemy of the Negro in the United States is the Negro himself.”[3]

Still, to the chagrin of Knox, some African Americans did, in fact, demur and sympathize with the plight of Haitians from the very outset of the occupation. Calvin Chase was one of them. The editor of the Washington Bee called the acts “committed by the United States upon the black republic of Haiti” some of the most “diabolical and unconstitutional” in recorded history. “What right,” he asked, did the United States have “to go and seize the republic of Haiti and administer her affairs?” In Chase’s opinion, the erosion of Haitian sovereignty was a defining moment in African American history; it was a time for “the Negro to define his position.” Decades of uplifting their communities, of proving themselves civilized and appealing to the better sensibilities of their white counterparts, had sustained African Americans but produced little improvement in their political and social status. It was clear to the Bee editor that “speaking about right and justice toward the Negro in this country is all mockery and a farce to American civilization.” The moment had arrived to demand not suggest that the U.S. government distance itself from white supremacy at home and abroad and “let Haiti alone.”[4]

The firm repudiations of the occupation that emerged from some black leaders at its outset sparked the imaginations of Haitian nationalists. As the Americans usurped Haitian political independence, Alonzo P. Holly issued an appeal to African Americans on behalf of their “brethren” in Haiti. The Haitian son of leading nineteenth-century black nationalist James Theodore Holly acknowledged that many African Americans had “come to look at your brethren of Haiti through the biased vision of the unrelenting critics of our race” and had thus “unwittingly voiced their criticisms.” But he figured that the moment had arrived for them to transcend that past myopia. Holly alerted African Americans that “we of Haiti need your fraternal sympathies and moral support just now” because “we are having our rights as a free, independent and ‘sovereign’ nation . . . entirely ignored by an American expeditionary force.” He hoped—indeed expected—that African Americans would lend that support once informed of the censorship of the Haitian press and other excesses of occupation. Echoing the words of a recent editorial written by Crisis editor W.E.B. Du Bois, Holly issued a succinct directive to his “ten million brethren in the United States.” “LET US SAVE HAITI,” he thundered. It was, after all, “the ultimate refuge of the Negro race.”[5]

At the same time that Holly issued his appeal, Ernest Chauvet was traveling to Washington, D.C. The editor of leading Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste hoped to convince Woodrow Wilson that his administration was committing grave errors in how it was carrying out the occupation. In particular, he was incensed by the recent actions of U.S. officials who shut down a different Haitian newspaper, ordered the impounding of its existing copies, and arrested and fined its editors and printer. Chauvet knew that such measures served no purpose other than to bolster the power of the Americans in Haiti. He understood that they belied the notion that the occupation was benevolent in any meaningful way.[6]

Chauvet was, of course, correct. Still, his points fell upon deaf ears. Woodrow Wilson did not give the Haitian journalist an audience. And neither did some leading African Americans. Du Bois, the intellectual who Holly pictured as a chief advocate for Haiti, informed Chauvet that there was little that African Americans could do for Haitians in that moment. In fact, his “Save Haiti” editorial quoted by Holly did not demand an immediate end to the occupation. Instead, it recommended a “Haytian Commission of white and colored men appointed by the President to co-operate with Hayti in establishing permanent peace.” Although well-intentioned, the proposal did the exact opposite of what Haitian activists wanted. It afforded Wilson and the U.S. government a continued leading role in policy-making in Haiti.[7]

African Americans including Du Bois would eventually play a key role in the powerful, transnational opposition movement envisioned by Holly. But, at the outset of the U.S. occupation, their activism was still in its nascent stages. Nobody realized that truth more than Solon Menos. As calls for justice in Haiti were met with ambivalence abroad, the Haitian ambassador in Washington, D.C. called upon his compatriots to assume sole responsibility for securing the removal of U.S. Marines from Haitian soil. “We must look only to ourselves to save the situation,” he surmised, “and can count on no one else to break the spell.”[8]

Next Month: “Our Courage Gave us Our Independence:” Grassroots Resistance to the Occupation

[1] Indianapolis Freeman, September 11, 1915.

[2] “Protectorate for Haiti Favored,” The Savannah Tribune, September 25, 1915.

[3] Baltimore Commonwealth, August 21, 1915.

[4] “Haiti,” The Washington Bee, August 28, 1915.

[5] Alonzo P. Holly, “An Appeal from Haiti to the Editors and Their Ten Million Brethren in the United States,” Indianapolis Freeman, October 30, 1915.

[6] Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 220.

[7] “Hayti,” The Crisis 10, no. 5 (September 1915): 232.

[8] Dubois, 220.

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

March 13, 2015   African American Intellectual History Society

William Pickens

This is the third entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The previous post can be found here.

1903 was a demanding year for Pierre Nord Alexis. After seizing the Haitian presidency in a coup, the octogenarian politician had to plan a grand party. Haiti would celebrate one hundred years of independence in 1904, an extraordinary feat given the attempts made by the United States and Western Europe to diminish Haitian sovereignty in the preceding decades. The commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent efforts made to sustain its gains thus had to be remarkable. It had to be worthy of Toussaint Louverture, of Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Alexis established a National Association for the Centennial to ensure that it was. Among its other tasks, the Association staged a competition for the composition of a national anthem. The winner was La Dessalinienne. In January 1904, hundreds of thousands of celebrants flocked to the new Palais du Centenaire in Gonaïves while thousands of their compatriots heard the official introduction of the new anthem in Port-au-Prince. As the ode to the fathers of Haitian independence rang out among the descendants of former slaves, government authorities christened the Place des Héroes de l’Indépendence and unveiled monuments to the nation’s most cherished heroes including Louverture and Dessalines. Surely, the celebration organizers must have thought, these ancestors would be proud. 

Others were not so certain. In particular, Rosalvo Bobo questioned why his compatriots were celebrating at a time when the corruption of the Haitian state threatened to undermine national progress. “Centennial of our freedom,” he scoffed.

 No. Centennial of blacks enslaving blacks. Centennial of our follies, of our turpitudes, and, amidst unceasing pretensions, of our systematic retrogression. Centennial of our fraternal hatreds, and of our triple weakness: moral, social, and political. Our Centennial amidst murders in our towns and countryside. Centennial of our vices, of our political crimes. Centennial of everything that could be most hateful inside the breast of men. Centennial of the ruin of a country by misery and filth. Centennial of humiliation and, perhaps, the definitive degradation of the black race, by its Haitian representatives.[1]

Bobo was severe in his critique. But he did not offer it without aim or purpose. The Haitian intellectual sought to recover the prosperity of the recent past, which was evidenced, in part, by the sizable contingents of Germans, Syrians, and other foreign businessmen who pursued commercial ties with Haitian elites and flocked to Haitian cities. His remarks, then, were a call for reform akin to the jeremiads that flourished among his African American contemporaries who demanded improvements in their communities or in the broader U.S. society. To that end, Bobo urged Haitians “to ask forgiveness from Dessalines, from Toussaint” and “work to emerge from the stupor of an entire century.” If they did, he promised that

1904 will not be a celebration of nothing at all, but the first year of the existence of a gathering of brave black people working modestly and with dignity to be a people. And the tiny republic of Haiti will be able to be a huge thing to all of Europe! And the old continent will be able to take notice, in the year 2004, of the first centennial of the GREAT FREEDOM of the HAITIAN PEOPLE![2]

Yale student William Pickens was less sanguine about the prospects of Haitian independence. In February 1903, the son of former slaves entered the annual “Ten Eyck Prize” oratorical competition at his university. His oration was about Haiti. Pickens first argued that Haiti commanded the attention of Americans because its history shed light “upon the much-mooted questions which involve the welfare of the whole southern section of our country.” He proceeded to elucidate his version of that history. Pickens asserted that the success of the Haitian Revolution was illusory. “With the gain of absolute independence,” he maintained, “the uncivilized horde gained the most efficient weapon of self-destruction” and “destroyed every trace and hope of internal civilization.” In Pickens’s reckoning, they relapsed “into a savagery and cannibalism comparable to any state of their African ancestry.”[3]

This was no call for internal reform. It was a plea for occupation. The future NAACP field secretary surmised that “the savage and the child to rise to higher things must feel the power of a stronger hand.” Haitians, in other words, needed to submit themselves to American civilization. In fact, Pickens assumed that U.S. policymakers were uniquely suited to undertake a benevolent intervention in Haiti because they were “schooled as no other in the problems of the negro race.” He insisted that Haitians would accrue numerous benefits from the proposed foreign intervention because “under American institutions the blacks as a race have reached the highest plane of civilization of which the negro’s history has record—a fact sometimes obscured by the remonstrance against injustice and oppression.” For Pickens, flattering influential whites and critiquing the purported failures of black self-government in Haiti thus became a convenient means of validating his own success while making a case for the inclusion of African Americans in U.S. politics and public life.[4]

To be sure, the shortcomings of this attempt to prove the “Americanness” of African Americans were apparent to some of his peers. John Edward Bruce was one of the countless Americans who learned of Pickens’s essay as it became the subject of newspaper headlines and gossip throughout the entire United States. He was less than pleased with it. In a column appearing in an April 1903 edition of The Colored American, the activist editor better known as Bruce Grit argued that the Yale student mistook “the temper of the Haitians” when he assumed that they “ought to submit to a benevolent assimilation.” The testimony of Haitians proved his point. Bruce quoted at length a Haitian resident of New York who was “greatly astonished” that an African American would vilify a country that had “maintained a Negro government . . . without the aid or consent of any outside nation” for a century. “I am very sorry,” the Haitian confidant told Bruce, “to see that Hayti is a subject of criticism even by the Negroes of this country, seeing that they have so much of their own trouble to mind.” How could a child of former slaves—a product of the Jim Crow South—not see that “in putting down our people he has equally spoken against the people of his own race in this country?”[5]

The salient question raised by Bruce and his Haitian friend was explicit. But their greatest concerns were more indirect. As the 58th United States Congress debated a resolution to annex Haiti, the two men expressed bewilderment over why Pickens would treat his subject with such callous indifference. How could he contribute to prevailing discourses about black inferiority? How could he not realize that white Americans were waiting for an excuse to take control of Haitian political, social, and economic life? How could he fail to see that U.S. imperialism in Haiti would have the same effect as Jim Crow in the United States? In sum, how could Pickens treat occupation as an academic question when it was a looming reality for those Haitians who foreigners disregarded as incapable of self-government?

Next month: “Ten Million Black People . . . are Watching:” Ambivalence at the Outset of the U.S. Occupation

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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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Reflecting on the U.S. Occupation of Haiti, One Hundred Years Later

Brandon Byrd

African American Intellectual History Society

January 13, 2015

Occupation_of_Haiti

U.S. Marines Patrol Haiti, 1915

This year marks the anniversary of two cataclysmic events in Haitian history: the U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915 and the earthquake of 2010. While the latter deserves (and is receiving) ample attention, I plan on devoting my posts this year to the centennial of the occupation. This post introduces what I hope will be a compelling series for readers interested in the links among U.S. imperialism, Haiti, and black intellectual history.

In 1915, United States Marines invaded Haiti. U.S. policymakers justified the invasion by pointing to the death of Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam at the hands of a mob. But this violence was more a convenience than a concern. U.S. officials had spent the previous decades attempting to obtain Haitian territory for use as a coaling station and sanctioning the seizure of Haitian finances by U.S. banks. Now, with the outbreak of World War I portending a German encroachment in the Caribbean, President Woodrow Wilson and his subordinates identified the unrest in Port-au-Prince as the perfect excuse to realize longstanding military and economic aspirations. It allowed them to act on their racism, too. In the estimation of Wilson’s Secretary of State, Haitians had proven their “inherent tendency to revert to savagery.”[1] It never occurred to him that a government committed to Jim Crow had no business acting as an agent of civilization.

An occupation motivated by these prejudices had an unsurprising effect: it crippled Haiti. Occupation administrators revived old labor laws and conscripted Haitians for public works projects. At the same time, they formed the Gendermarie, a law enforcement body that gave Marines full control over Haitian soldiers. The restructuring of the Haitian political system allowed for both excesses. Occupation authorities arrested dissidents, censored the press, enforced racial segregation, installed a puppet president, seized the state treasury, and crafted a new constitution that eliminated an historic ban on foreign landownership in Haiti. These developments convinced Haitians that the Americans had come to re-enslave a people whose ancestors had dared to emancipate themselves.

The attempt to re-forge the bonds of slavery broken during the Haitian Revolution met considerable resistance, though. Peasants mobilized throughout the countryside to repel the Marines. Moreover, Haitian journalists published anti-occupation articles, politicians resigned their posts, musicians penned songs of liberation, professionals established nationalist organizations, workers unionized, and students went on strike. African Americans joined this resistance. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Field Secretary James Weldon Johnson implored his peers to take special interest in restoring the sovereignty of Haiti, “the one best chance that the Negro has . . . to prove that he is capable of the highest self-government.”[2] Many did. Black men and women collaborated with Haitian nationalist groups and formed their own anti-occupation organizations. They reported on conditions in occupied Haiti, inspired white liberals to oppose the occupation, and refused to vote for any politician who did not do likewise. Black activists realized a truth voiced by the NAACP: “it was unquestionably the race prejudice which prevails in the United States that made possible the brutalities practiced . . . upon citizens of the Negro Republic of Haiti.”[3] It was their hope that the restoration of Haitian independence in 1934 would hasten the death of white supremacy in America.

Although the occupation has been remembered (if at all) as a minor episode in U.S. imperialism, it had a profound impact on Americans. As historian Mary A. Renda shows, the polemics of Marines who occupied Haiti entrenched a paternalistic concept of empire and a fantastic idea of “voodoo” in the American consciousness.[4] The occupation also transformed black political culture. Black elites had traditionally embraced Western theories of civilization and asserted their equality by stressing their “Americanness.” But as Haiti groaned under the weight of imperialism, black intellectuals now prioritized race over nation. Alongside Haitian intellectuals, they defended black folk culture and critiqued capitalism as well as imperialism. Their decision to challenge the global structures of racial inequality rather than operate from within them provided the foundations of modern black political protest.

The impact of the occupation was, however, most pronounced in Haiti. Besides killing upwards of 11,500 Haitians, U.S. Marines destabilized Haitian economic and political geographies by ensuring that all roads literally led to Port-au-Prince. Occupation officials also militarized Haiti to an unprecedented extent through the creation of the Gendermarie (later changed to the Garde d’Haiti). Finally, the occupation eroded local governance and solidified the influence of the United States and other outside nations upon Haiti. Indeed, the present proliferation of United Nations troops and foreign non-governmental organizations conjures images of the U.S. occupation to many Haitian activists. The comparisons are not baseless.

Historian Laurent Dubois notes that “a different Haiti is—always, and still—possible.”[5] But only if we grapple with its history and the outsized role that the United States has exerted upon it. The centennial of the occupation offers the ideal opportunity to do so. The invasion of Haiti by U.S. Marines transformed U.S. culture and foreign policy. It changed black thought. It devastated Haiti. Any thought of a “different” Haiti must, then, proceed from the acknowledgment that contemporary Haiti is not ahistorical. Instead, it is a product of imperialist intervention. It is the result of Pan-African solidarity. It is the consequence of past decisions made by outsiders who also envisioned a “different” Haiti, for better or worse. I hope, then, that this series becomes just one part of a larger conversation about the material and intellectual effects of an occupation that is more present than past.

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

[1] Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 213-215.

[2] James Weldon Johnson, “The Truth About Haiti: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation,” Crisis 20, no. 5 (September 1920) 223-224.

[3] Eleventh Annual Report of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the Year 1920 (New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Office, 1921), 7.

[4] Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[5] Dubois, 370.

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