Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Early Saint Domingan Migration to America and the Attraction of Philadelphia

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Early Saint Domingan Migration to America and the Attraction of Philadelphia

Article excerpt

On May 19,1791, Philadelphians watched 15 Saint Domingue refugees step off the ship Charming Sally. In the next six weeks, five more ships brought in 39 Saint Domingans. From July through December 1791, eight more ships with 82 passengers reached the docks of Philadelphia. By the spring of 1792, however, events on the island worsened, and what was once a trickle became a steady stream: Nine vessels arrived in March and April with a total of 37 passengers. In May, 16 ships with a total of 179 passengers made their way to Philadelphia, and from June through August, another 244 passengers disembarked on Philadelphia!! soil. It is estimated that more than 3,000 people fleeing Saint Domingue would enter Philadelphia in the next 30 months, establishing a link between Saint Domingue-later to become Haiti-and Philadelphia that exists to this day (Nash 1998:47).

From a political or philosophical point of view, no other American destination was as influenced by the presence of refugees or émigrés as Philadelphia-a city that endeavored to live up to the ideals of the founding fathers of a young republic. Unlike other American cities in the late 18th century, Philadelphia was a free city in a free state and the center of an anti-slavery movement, making the reception of black refugees, still bound by slavery, a particularly thorny issue. Moreover, Pennsylvania's gradual abolition acts of 1780 and of 1788 guaranteed freedom after six months to any enslaved black brought into the state by an owner establishing residence (Nash and Soderlund 1991). In New York City, in contrast, a majority of the African American population was still enslaved (72.6 percent) (Gilje 1987). Indeed, the Encyclopedia Britannica identified Philadelphia during this period as a leader in global efforts to better the human condition. Its initiatives in penal reforms, educational innovations, and public health, and above all, its campaign against slavery marked Philadelphia as a center of civil reform (Nash 1988).

In the midst of this reform-minded city, white émigrés from Saint Domingue accompanied by their enslaved blacks created a contradiction that fundamentally challenged the ideals that Philadelphia, and by implication the nation, aspired to. The aim of this paper is to examine that contradiction and the impact that it had on ideas of freedom and equality that pervaded the city. To begin and to place this early migratory flow in a historical context, a brief overview of the Haitian Revolution will be presented. Next, to illustrate the almost national impact of early Haitian migration to the United States, and as a contrast to Philadelphia, other American cities that were ports of destination for Haitians during this period will be explored. This paper will then focus on Philadelphia and its appeal to refugees trying to escape the Revolution. It will provide a detailed description of the migrants who arrived to the city, examining the political, legal, and moral challenges that ensued because of their presence. The paper will also consider the reception by native Philadelphians to these new arrivals and conclude by discussing the lasting impact these black refugees had on the nation, the city, and particularly African Americans.

The Haitian Revolution: The Impetus for Migration

The driving force behind the historical exodus to Philadelphia is what historians would eventually distinguish as the "Haitian Revolution" (Madiou 1848; Ott 1973). The Haitian Revolution, perhaps the most thorough case of revolutionary change anywhere in the history of the modern world, created a stream of refugees to the United States that contributed to American and African American culture (Hunt 1988). Indeed, the events that occurred on the western third of the island of Hispaniola from 1791 to 1804 would reverberate around the world and challenge the established institution of chattel slavery and notions of freedom and equality (Geggus 2001).

On the eve ofthat insurrection, Saint Domingue had firmly established itself as the wealthiest of France's territorial possessions, accounting for 40% of its foreign trade, and was often referred to as the "pearl of the Antilles" (James 1963). …

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