Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

"To Start Something to Help These People": African American Women and the Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

"To Start Something to Help These People": African American Women and the Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934

Article excerpt

On July 28, 1915, United States marines landed on the shores outside Port-au-Prince. US policymakers justified the invasion by pointing to the death of Haitian president Vilbrun Guillaume Sam at the hands of a mob incensed by the recent executions of political prisoners. But this unrest was more a convenience than a concern for the invaders. US government officials had spent much of the preceding decades either attempting to obtain territory in northwestern Haiti for use as a coaling station or sanctioning the seizure of Haitian finances by US banks. With the outbreak of World War I portending a German encroachment in the Caribbean, Woodrow Wilson now identified the insurrection in Port-au-Prince as a perfect excuse to realize longstanding US military and economic aspirations. He promoted the invasion as a humanitarian intervention, as a reluctant and impermanent means of bringing order out of chaos in Haiti. That Haitians could not accomplish this themselves seemed obvious to a Democratic president who excluded Blacks from positions of political authority, including the job of minister resident and consul general in Haiti previously occupied by John Mercer Langston, Frederick Douglass, and other Black diplomats.1

Numerous works show that African Americans saw through yet another threadbare lie told in defense of white supremacy. In particular, they demonstrate the extent to which organizations established or led by Black men opposed the US occupation of Haiti. African Methodist Episcopal Church missionaries stationed in Haiti documented the abuse of Haitians by US marines. Their reports inspired the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NA ACP) to send field secretary James Weldon Johnson on an investigative mission to Haiti. Published in 1920, his account of the economic corruption, forced labor, press censorship, racial segregation, and wanton violence introduced to Haiti by the US occupation encouraged numerous African Americans to flood the State Department and the offices of Republican Party officials with letters demanding the removal of US troops from Haiti. These protests were successful. In 1934, the activism of African Americans and the resistance of Haitians led to the liberation of a country that Johnson called "the one best chance that the Negro has . . . to prove that he is capable of the highest self-government."2

Although welcome, this scholarship has obscured the complicated ways in which Black women confronted the US occupation of Haiti. To be sure, Black women throughout the United States became vocal antioccupation activists. The more prominent among them created a female domain in the antioccupation movement by promoting greater awareness of Haitian history, reporting on the excesses of the US marines stationed in Haiti, and making the restoration of Haitian independence the central goal of their organizations. At the same time, though, some of these same middle-class and elite Black women spoke of the need to civilize Haiti. The schools and philanthropic groups they created in Haiti not only emerged from imperialist discourses but also sometimes relied upon the ideological structures of the US occupation to fulfill their mission: the uplift of the Haitian masses from material and moral poverty to Victorian respectability.

In the end, these competing impulses-to demand Haitian independence while attempting to correct its perceived deficiencies-reveal a remarkable moment in Black intellectual history. The period between the two world wars was a time in which Blacks throughout the African Diaspora amplified their attacks on white supremacy. Haitian and African American intellectuals moved beyond the bourgeois Black nationalism of the nineteenth century toward a Black internationalism that featured critiques of capitalism, opposition to imperialism, and vindications of Black working-class culture. This process was, however, complex and uneven. Older ideas about racial progress lingered even as new understandings of gender, race, and nationality emerged. …

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