Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Garveyism in Haiti during the Us Occupation

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Garveyism in Haiti during the Us Occupation

Article excerpt

One would not have expected the Garvey movement to emerge in Haiti. Although the Universal Negro Improvement Association and its varied programs were at the crux of a worldwide Black nationalist movement in the 1910s and 1920s, Haiti had already won its nationhood in a bloody struggle one hundred years earlier. The circumstances of the US occupation, however, changed the equation. The personalities to which Garveyism appealed and the aims they pursued would later feed into the changing consciousness of a new Haitian middle class after the US occupiers were gone.

In July 1915 a contingent of United States marines marched off an armored cruiser in Port-au-Prince, initiating two decades of military occupation and forcing Haitians to face the trauma of the loss of their independence. Internal political conflict leading to the assassination of a president provided the rationale for this intervention, but in reality Haitian-US relations had rarely been harmonious throughout the 112-year existence of the Black Republic. The ensuing occupation was noteworthy for its duration, violence, repression, and effort to extend US-style racial segregation to Haiti. The post-World War I climate in which it took place was marked by anti-Black rioting in the United States and Britain, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the US government's suppression of radicalism.1

Racism played no small part in US conduct in Haiti. It was manifested not only in the guerrilla war fought against rural Haitian insurgents, but also in the perception of Haiti as a childlike nation that required US tutelage. Efforts to "improve" the country included plans to modify public administration, education, physical infrastructure, and fiscal management, concerns that also preoccupied the so-called Progressive Era reformers in the United States. Occupation authorities assumed that their mission was to teach Haitians how to better run their country.

Ironies abounded when, at the Versailles Conference in 1919, US president Woodrow Wilson took the lead in expressing his belief in the right of nations to self-determination. The Haitian government had appointed Tertulien Guilbaud as minister plenipotentiary to the conference. Guilbaud had won the respect of his compatriots when he refused to serve as president of the republic while it was under occupation. He was vanquished at Versailles, however, when pressure from the United States forced him to reject the Japanese proposal that a clause banning racial discrimination be written into the League of Nations charter documents.2

The Haitian Revolution, and the country's precarious maintenance of independence through 1915, not only fired the Black radical imagination, but also formed the substance of the greater African diaspora's sense of history. Accordingly, the US intervention in Haiti had numerous critics. These included whites in the United States who, for reasons both racist and nonracist, did not wish to see their country become a colonial power, and African Americans who condemned the prejudice and brutality evinced by the military authorities. Working from liberal organizations such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the American Civil Liberties Union, these citizens addressed letters to the State Department, to newspapers, and to the president of the United States. If tyranny and political chaos had occasioned the occupation, they argued, the only meaningful solution for Haiti was the establishment of democracy and autonomy.3

Haiti was of particular concern to NA ACP secretary James Weldon Johnson. Johnson, a poet and songwriter, had served as US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, countries that had also experienced military intrusions by the United States. As an NAACP official, Johnson felt keenly the "Jim Crow" racial conventions being imposed on Haiti and networked with others to pressure Washington into withdrawing the marines and the highhanded civilian bureaucrats. …

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