“We Must Look Only to Ourselves to Save the Situation:” The Emergence of Opposition to the Occupation

Calvin Chase, editor of The Bee
Calvin Chase, editor of The Bee

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

Booker T. Washington was correct. Just as he predicted one month before his death, countless African Americans did watch the unfolding events in Haiti with the utmost interest. While consistent in their opinion that the occupation mattered a great deal, those observers would, however, exhibit little consensus in their initial reactions to it.

Washington’s ally George L. Knox was certain that the occupation would benefit Haitians. The editor of the Indianapolis Freeman informed his readers that “most of the leading thinkers of the race see nothing but the fitness of things in the move of the United States to look out for the prosperity of Haiti.” Those who did not think that the United States was looking out for Haiti’s best interests were mistaken. Knox chastised the “few” black leaders who “demurred, thinking of the thing of independence in the abstract.” Appropriating the social philosophy of the pioneering president of Tuskegee Institute, Knox contended that “a negro nation that conducts itself as other nations . . . should be proud of the opportunity to make good.” But one that did not should be ashamed. The Indianapolis journalist concluded that “no negro government is preferable to the kind presented by [Haiti] in the recent past.”[1]

Sol Johnson agreed. Indeed, the editor of the Savannah Tribune insisted that all the “well informed colored people” in his city also felt “that the establishment of a provisional protectorate over Haiti is about the best thing that could be done to guarantee a stable government for the Black Republic.” He even speculated that “ten years of steady training in industry and civic righteousness” under the guidance of the Americans would “work a ‘revolution’ in Haiti that will make it the garden spot of the entire West Indies.”[2]

Those who articulated such beliefs shared a favorable opinion of the civilizing mission used to justify U.S. imperialism. For Johnson, Knox, and their ilk, the promotion of a puppet president in Haiti, the establishment of a new treaty advantageous to U.S. business interests, and the squashing of dissent in the Haitian capital were means of securing rather than diminishing democracy in Haiti. If “progress” came at the point of a bayonet (and it most certainly had) then responsibility for that violence lay at the feet of its victims. According to one black Baltimorean, “Haiti made [the occupation] possible by continual revolutions—which are a disgrace to civilization.” Rather than sympathizing with Haitians, African Americans needed to take heed and commit themselves to self-improvement. “The moral of this international incident,” he surmised, “is . . . of application to the Negro in the United States. The greatest enemy of the Negro in the United States is the Negro himself.”[3]

Still, to the chagrin of Knox, some African Americans did, in fact, demur and sympathize with the plight of Haitians from the very outset of the occupation. Calvin Chase was one of them. The editor of the Washington Bee called the acts “committed by the United States upon the black republic of Haiti” some of the most “diabolical and unconstitutional” in recorded history. “What right,” he asked, did the United States have “to go and seize the republic of Haiti and administer her affairs?” In Chase’s opinion, the erosion of Haitian sovereignty was a defining moment in African American history; it was a time for “the Negro to define his position.” Decades of uplifting their communities, of proving themselves civilized and appealing to the better sensibilities of their white counterparts, had sustained African Americans but produced little improvement in their political and social status. It was clear to the Bee editor that “speaking about right and justice toward the Negro in this country is all mockery and a farce to American civilization.” The moment had arrived to demand not suggest that the U.S. government distance itself from white supremacy at home and abroad and “let Haiti alone.”[4]

The firm repudiations of the occupation that emerged from some black leaders at its outset sparked the imaginations of Haitian nationalists. As the Americans usurped Haitian political independence, Alonzo P. Holly issued an appeal to African Americans on behalf of their “brethren” in Haiti. The Haitian son of leading nineteenth-century black nationalist James Theodore Holly acknowledged that many African Americans had “come to look at your brethren of Haiti through the biased vision of the unrelenting critics of our race” and had thus “unwittingly voiced their criticisms.” But he figured that the moment had arrived for them to transcend that past myopia. Holly alerted African Americans that “we of Haiti need your fraternal sympathies and moral support just now” because “we are having our rights as a free, independent and ‘sovereign’ nation . . . entirely ignored by an American expeditionary force.” He hoped—indeed expected—that African Americans would lend that support once informed of the censorship of the Haitian press and other excesses of occupation. Echoing the words of a recent editorial written by Crisis editor W.E.B. Du Bois, Holly issued a succinct directive to his “ten million brethren in the United States.” “LET US SAVE HAITI,” he thundered. It was, after all, “the ultimate refuge of the Negro race.”[5]

At the same time that Holly issued his appeal, Ernest Chauvet was traveling to Washington, D.C. The editor of leading Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste hoped to convince Woodrow Wilson that his administration was committing grave errors in how it was carrying out the occupation. In particular, he was incensed by the recent actions of U.S. officials who shut down a different Haitian newspaper, ordered the impounding of its existing copies, and arrested and fined its editors and printer. Chauvet knew that such measures served no purpose other than to bolster the power of the Americans in Haiti. He understood that they belied the notion that the occupation was benevolent in any meaningful way.[6]

Chauvet was, of course, correct. Still, his points fell upon deaf ears. Woodrow Wilson did not give the Haitian journalist an audience. And neither did some leading African Americans. Du Bois, the intellectual who Holly pictured as a chief advocate for Haiti, informed Chauvet that there was little that African Americans could do for Haitians in that moment. In fact, his “Save Haiti” editorial quoted by Holly did not demand an immediate end to the occupation. Instead, it recommended a “Haytian Commission of white and colored men appointed by the President to co-operate with Hayti in establishing permanent peace.” Although well-intentioned, the proposal did the exact opposite of what Haitian activists wanted. It afforded Wilson and the U.S. government a continued leading role in policy-making in Haiti.[7]

African Americans including Du Bois would eventually play a key role in the powerful, transnational opposition movement envisioned by Holly. But, at the outset of the U.S. occupation, their activism was still in its nascent stages. Nobody realized that truth more than Solon Menos. As calls for justice in Haiti were met with ambivalence abroad, the Haitian ambassador in Washington, D.C. called upon his compatriots to assume sole responsibility for securing the removal of U.S. Marines from Haitian soil. “We must look only to ourselves to save the situation,” he surmised, “and can count on no one else to break the spell.”[8]

Next Month: “Our Courage Gave us Our Independence:” Grassroots Resistance to the Occupation

 

[1] Indianapolis Freeman, September 11, 1915.

[2] “Protectorate for Haiti Favored,” The Savannah Tribune, September 25, 1915.

[3] Baltimore Commonwealth, August 21, 1915.

[4] “Haiti,” The Washington Bee, August 28, 1915.

[5] Alonzo P. Holly, “An Appeal from Haiti to the Editors and Their Ten Million Brethren in the United States,” Indianapolis Freeman, October 30, 1915.

[6] Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 220.

[7] “Hayti,” The Crisis 10, no. 5 (September 1915): 232.

[8] Dubois, 220.

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.