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

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.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Brandon Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and working on a book manuscript entitled, An Experiment in Self-Government: Haiti in the African-American Political Imagination. Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.

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

  • Great post Brandon. I’ve been reading a lot about the Harlem Renaissance and for me, this essay puts a number of their concerns in a different light, especially the defense of black folk culture and critiques of capitalism and imperialism. Would you say the conceptions of Haiti and its importance after the occupation were markedly different from those of 19th century thinkers such as James Forten or David Walker? What I’ve read of people like Walker and even Frederick Douglass were fairly staunch critiques of American culture and politics while drawing close connections between the destinies of Haitians and black Americans, in a similar vein as some of the 20th century thinkers you describe. It may just be that these were more isolated opinions than they would later become.

  • Thanks for your comment, Chris. The idea that Haiti held broader relevance for people of African descent was certainly not unique to the interwar years. But the conceptions of Haitian political and popular culture articulated by individuals like James Weldon Johnson and, in Haiti, Jean Price-Mars were. I look forward to elaborating further in subsequent posts (and in my book!).

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