“Ten Million Black People . . . are Watching:” Reactions to the Outset of the U.S. Occupation

Booker T. Washington, 1905
Booker T. Washington, 1905

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

On August 1, 1915, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial on the recent invasion of Haiti by the United States. It argued that the U.S. government had “landed American marines to restore order and prevent further outrage on foreigners there.” And it was obvious, of course, that the “execution of this benign purpose” had only become necessary “when murder and anarchy became rampant in Port-au-Prince.”[1]

In fact, the prospect of not invading Haiti struck the leading Baltimore paper as absurd. Taking aim at the “[William Jennings] Bryans and the Jane Addamses and the “strict neutrality” advocates,” the Sun noted sardonically that “if war is always indefensible and criminal, then the American marines or those who ordered their invasion of a foreign country are criminals.” “What right,” it continued, “has the United States to forbid the Haitians from following their own Ethiopian instincts and cutting each other’s throats if they see fit, even if white people are endangered and robbed thereby?”[2]

Conjuring this well-worn trope of black-on-black crime run amok was meant to silence debate about the occupation and prove beyond doubt that Uncle Sam was a benevolent patriarch not “a bully and a war lord and a murderer.”[3] It did neither. The Haitians who were meant to appreciate the oversight of their Anglo-American guardians were unimpressed by the arguments for occupation. Many reviled it from the outset. One man who witnessed the initial landing of U.S. Marines outside of Port-au-Prince later noted how he and his compatriots fled from the foreign invasion. “You just had to see them [Americans],” he remembered, “with their weapons, their swaggering and ostentatiously menacing attitude, to immediately understand both that they had come to hurt our country and that resistance was impossible.”[4]

As white journalists cheered the dissolution of Haitian sovereignty and Haitians fled the American invaders, Booker T. Washington watched the unfolding events from Alabama. He was unsure about what he saw. In an article published in the New York Age a month before his death, the most influential black man of his time contended that “Haitians themselves are largely at fault for their present unhappy conditions.” He cited various “facts” to prove this point. Haitian elites enamored with French culture had devoted “themselves to politics, little knowing, it seems, that political independence disappears without economic independence, that economic independence is the foundation of political independence.” This folly, in Washington’s view, left the country underdeveloped, reliant on the financial largesse of foreigners, and ultimately responsible for the actions of the U.S. Marines. Washington surmised that the U.S. government had to take control of Haiti or else Europeans, in violation of the Monroe Doctrine, would have done so themselves.[5]

Indeed, Washington was in agreement with his pupil William Pickens. To a considerable degree, he saw great promise in a foreign occupation of Haiti. The Tuskegee President suggested that the United States would seize “the opportunity to do a big piece of fine work for Haiti.” It would act with “unselfish benevolence” in the “Black Republic.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he thought education was a particularly fruitful area for development. Washington hoped that the U.S. occupiers would give working-class Haitians “a thorough up-to-date system of common school, agricultural and industrial education.” Moreover, he saw the occupation as a providential opportunity for those African Americans “educated in the best methods of education in this country to go to Haiti and help their fellows.” They might even bring “promising” Haitian youths to black schools in the United States, and give them “something they have never had . . . education, real education.”[6]

Despite this optimism, though, Washington had his misgivings. He insisted that the U.S. government needed to be careful “in the class of white men sent to Haiti” because the “average American white man” was ill-suited to work with blacks. Washington cautioned that “there are only a few white men in the United States who understand, or even undertake to understand, the American Negro, and there are still fewer white men in this country who can go into Haiti and get the sympathy, the co-operation and the confidence of the Haitians.” Much care, then, was needed in selecting those who would help Haitians “establish a republican form of government on the basic principles of liberty, fraternity and equality.”[7]

This ambivalence—expressed not only by Washington but also a number of his peers—reflected a broader uncertainty about race relations in the United States. Washington argued that the United States had the opportunity to prove to Haitians “that in spite of the many wrongs inflicted upon their fellows in the United States that in all the real things of civilization [African Americans] are further ahead of any similar number of black people anywhere in the world.” Washington’s real meaning was difficult to miss. After witnessing the heightened legal and physical challenges to black citizenship during his lifetime, Washington knew that it was African Americans, not Haitians, who needed the convincing. To this point, he guaranteed that “the ten million black people in the United States are watching this government prayerfully, watching to see if it will exercise the same patience with Haiti that it has exercised with larger and more important countries that have been as disorderly as Haiti.” In essence, they, like generations of African Americans before them, would be watching events in the “Black Republic” hoping to see signs of a brighter future for blacks in the United States.[8]

Those signs were not forthcoming.

Next month: “We Must Look Only to Ourselves to Save the Situation: Haitian Resistance to the Occupation.”

[1] “What About Haiti,” The Sun, August 1, 1915.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gaillard, Premier écrasement du cacoïsme (Port-au-Prince: R. Gaillard, 1981), quoted in Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 215.

[5] Booker T. Washington, “Dr. Booker T. Washington On American Occupation of Haiti,” New York Age, October 21, 1915 in The Booker T. Washington Papers Vol. 13, 1914-15, ed. Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 395-397.

[6] Ibid., 398-399.

[7] Ibid., 399-401.

[8] Ibid.

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Brandon Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and author of 'The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti.' Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.