Haitians have a long history with this continent, dating back to before the American Revolution. They fought in the Revolutionary War and returned home inspired to free their own enslaved brethren in the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola, launching a revolution that, GOALS Haiti founder Kona Shen writes, “culminated in the first independent nation in the Caribbean, the second democracy in the western hemisphere, and the first black republic in the world.” In 1804, the new nation was renamed Haiti, or Hayti, honoring the indigenous Taino name for the mountainous island.
During the war in Saint-Domingue, many slaveholders fled to New Orleans, dragging slaves and free blacks with them. Many African Americans can trace their ancestry back to people enslaved in Saint-Domingue who were sold to plantation owners in the southern U.S. Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s searchable database of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy lists enslaved individuals from Saint-Domingue with the names of their sellers, buyers, and places of origin.
I’m always surprised when I find out that few people here know the role Haitians played in our War of Independence.
In 2010, I wrote about the monument to Haitian soldiers in Savannah, Georgia, in “Haitians fought in our Revolutionary War…we turned our backs on theirs”: “The young drummer boy, who would go on to be a founder of a free Haiti, Henri Christophe, could have shed his blood and died here, but inspired by revolutionary zeal he returned home to Haiti to free his brethren.”
The history of the unit is a tale of bravery, as blogger Audiegrl posted on the site 44-Diaries.
The Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue served as a reserve unit to American and French forces fighting a British contingent. As battered American and French soldiers fell back, the Haitian troops moved in to provide a retreat. Twenty-five of their number has their names recorded as wounded or killed during the campaign. Over 60 were captured in the fall of Charleston eight months later. The British Navy captured three transports carrying Chasseurs; these soldiers were made prizes of war and sold into slavery.
The efforts of Haiti to secure its independence from colonial rule beginning in 1791 are remarkable for the fact that what began as a slave revolt was to ultimately succeed in prevailing over the resources of the French Empire and to form a government of Western Hemisphere Africans. Haiti, much smaller in population than the United States, was attacked by armies as large as those sent against America by Britain. The Haitian victory over the legions of Napoleon was achieved with much less foreign assistance than the United States enjoyed.
Many key figures in the Haitian War of independence gained military experience and political insights through their participation in Savannah — most notably Henri Christophe, a youth at the time but in his adult years a general of Haitian armies and king of his nation for fourteen years. Many of the Haitian soldiers later fought to win their country’s own war of independence, crediting their military experience in Savannah.
Often mentioned as a key figure in our history is Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the man who has come to be known as the founder of what is now Chicago. Much of what we know about du Sable is myth or shrouded in mystery, and there are conflicting stories from various historians about him. However, it is generally accepted that du Sable was born of Haitian parents, and that he was the first nonindigenous person to found a settlement there.
Black Chicagoans take great pride in his founding fatherhood.
It would be good to see that pride translate into better treatment for Haitian Americans. Many people are unaware of the number of Haitian American communities across the U.S.; there are varying numbers cited in census reports and research studies. Pew’s Stateline series reported on that variance in 2015, in “Haitian-Americans Come of Age Politically.”
It’s hard to gauge the exact number of people of Haitian descent living in the U.S. The U.S. Census Bureau places that figure at 929,074 but the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on immigration, says it is 915,000, not including the scores of Haitians living in the U.S. illegally.
They are a part of the nation’s rapidly growing black immigrant population, which has more than quadrupled since 1980. Haitians are the second largest group of black immigrants, behind Jamaicans, accounting for more than 15 percent of that population, according to the Pew Research Center. Miami has the highest ratio of foreign-born blacks in the country; a third of its black population is immigrants, most of them from Haiti. New York has the second largest ratio of black immigrants, followed by the District of Columbia.
Miami is home to the most well-known Haitian American community, dubbed “Little Haiti”; there is also a Little Haiti in New York City. I did not expect to find a political history of Miami’s Little Haiti in this story by Eater writer Carlos C. Olaechea, “Little Haiti and Beyond: A Culinary Community in Miami,” yet it covers much more than cuisine, including a detailed history of discrimination against Haitians in the United States.
Sak vid pa kanpe. Translated, it means “an empty sack cannot stand” in Kreyòl, Haiti’s lingua franca. This popular Haitian proverb not only demonstrates the importance of food to Haitians, but also symbolizes the need to stand together through adversity. In Miami, Haitians have received some of the worst treatment of any immigrant group in the United States, and a common theme within the community has been the need for invisibility in a hostile environment. At the center of the Haitian experience in Miami is food, which serves as a powerful symbol of Haitian identity and perseverance. The growth of the food community also parallels the strides it’s made in overcoming barriers to inclusion.
The first Haitians arrived by boat to Miami in 1963, followed by more a decade later. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship of the 1970s motivated more of Haiti’s working class to make the dangerous sea voyage to Miami, and by 1977, Haitians regularly arrived at Miami’s shores. Between 1977 and 1981, more than 70,000 Haitians migrated to South Florida this way.
Earlier Haitian migrants in the 1960s represented the professional and upper class fleeing Duvalier’s dictatorship, but they largely settled in cities like New York, because they were deterred by the segregationist policies in Miami at the time. The end of Jim Crow laws and presence of a significant Haitian community in the late 1970s motivated many of these earlier migrants to move south to Miami.
During the 1960s, I made friends with new neighbors who had moved into the middle-class neighborhood in Hollis, Queens, where I lived with my parents. I dated the son of the house, and learned about Haitian culture, but I always found it odd that all of their windows were heavily curtained, and that his mom never wanted to come outside. I learned later that they had barely escaped from Haiti with their lives, because they were on a hit list of the Tonton Macoutes—the paramilitary assassin thugs controlled by dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. My neighbors lived in fear that they would be killed, even in the safety of our New York suburb.
They were educated, spoke both French and Creole, and were part of the light-complexioned Haitian elite ruling class. I remember being disgusted when I learned that Duvalier’s daughter was named Denise, and that she was an integral part of the Duvalier reign of terror. I hated thinking I had such a horrid namesake.
By the 1970s, as the Baby Doc regime made conditions even worse, Haitians were washing up onto Florida’s shores as “boat people.” As The New York Times reported in 1994, their experience was far different from my neighbors’:
Until 1977, Brooklyn was the quiet heart of Haitian America. Between 1977 and 1981, 60,000 Haitian boat people landed in South Florida. And just like that, the nerve center of the Haitian Diaspora moved south, to a community of stucco cottages and mom-and-pop businesses anointed Little Haiti.
From its birth, Miami’s Haitian community was different. Haitians had melted into New York’s black neighborhoods, into the vastness of the city. But in Miami, their presence was felt immediately. Their arrival was controversial, their numbers greater relative to the total population. They were younger and poorer. And they remained so tied to their homeland that the ins and outs of Haitian politics quickly became a local story on Miami’s television newscasts.
“In New York you can forget for a few minutes that you were born in Haiti and get on with your life,” said Alwyn McCalla, 32, who runs a money-transfer office in Little Haiti. “But in Miami, forget about it. You live, breathe and eat your Haitian roots.”
Little Haiti is a space of both spirituality and protest, of both mourning and joy. So, the soul of Little Haiti is also in the street names and murals celebrating our, really, the world’s heroes. And the monuments celebrating our triumph, as well as those commemorating our pain. The soul of Little Haiti is all the protestant churches, and Notre Dame d’Haiti and other Catholic churches, and the Vodou- inspired botanicas, all coexisting within blocks of each other. The soul of Little Haiti is in the spirited processions of each faith as well as the countless marches demanding our rights.
In an era of both extreme xenophobia and extreme weather, or climate change, and when immigrants are constantly being told to go back to where they came from, and when some are actually being forced to, via deportation and ICE raids, the soul of Little Haiti is about survival. The soul of little Haiti lives in any community where people have been driven out and displaced. The soul of Little Haiti lives within all of us…
In an era of both extreme xenophobia and extreme weather, or climate change, and when immigrants are constantly being told to go back to where they came from, and when some are actually being forced to, via deportation and ICE raids, the soul of Little Haiti is about survival. The soul of little Haiti lives in any community where people have been driven out and displaced. The soul of Little Haiti lives within all of us.
It lives in you.
It lives in me.
One of the key elements of Haitian and Haitian American culture is language, the use of Haitian Creole, known as “Kreyòl ayisyen,” or “Kreyòl.” Contrary to popular belief, a majority of Haitians do not speak French.
[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]
Haitian Voices airs on South Florida PBS; it’s described as “a monthly community affairs program highlighting the major issues facing South Florida’s fast-growing Haitian population, while celebrating the community’s culture and tradition.” In a 2016 episode, the series featured a panel discussing the importance of Haitian Creole. The program’s website says, “Haitian Creole is one of two official languages of Haiti, as well as the only language that all Haitians have in common. Haitian Creole is considered one of the most historic achievements by the Haitian people and has known many challenges throughout its history—from its creation, to its use.”
One of the major criticisms Haitian Americans have about political campaigns—especially those of Democrats—is the failure to do outreach in Creole. Reaction to the June Democratic presidential debate, held in Miami, was swift.
A recent story run by radio station WLRN in Miami about Elizabeth Warren’s campaign outreach to Miami Haitians illustrates this failure.
The introduction by Jonathan Jayes-Green, national Latinx outreach director for Warren’s campaign, touched broadly on her platform and why she’s the candidate to elect.“Her vision is to make our government work for working people, for people across the board—people who have not had political power, who are people who’ve been disenfranchised, people who have been at the margins,” said Jayes-Green.
With Florida’s Democratic primary less than two months away—on March 17th—several of the Democratic candidates are ramping up their efforts to reach voters in this key battleground state.“I want to learn from communities here in South Florida and across the state, how do we as a campaign serve as better allies in their fight? And how do we speak to them directly?” Jayes-Green said. He quickly wrapped up and added that this roundtable was designed for the people in the room to talk and for him to listen. Almost immediately, Francesca Menes, co-founder of the Black Collective, raised her hand and told the campaign they had a problem.
“Don’t come into a Haitian community giving us literature that’s English and Spanish,” she said holding up one of the campaign’s fliers. “You have surrogates on your team who can help you identify people to, you know, translate this into Creole.”
When approaching current Democratic politics—especially in the Haitian American community, in states like Florida—Daily Kos community contributor SemDem’s recent story, “What Florida Democrats can learn from Virginia … and why they need to” should be required reading for party officials, members, and those people tasked with GOTV campaigns:
Rick Scott also aggressively campaigned in Caribbean communities that Democrats also take for granted. The Haitian American population in South Florida has grown to over 300,000 strong, expanding their political clout. Scott appeared at a major Haitian American religious event, the Haitian Evangelical Crusade, in Greenacres, Florida; he ran ads in Haitian Creole. Never mind that Rick Scott strongly supports a president who called Haiti a “shithole.” All any of the Florida Democratic candidates had to do was make an effort—at least show up. They didn’t, and we lost every major race by razor-thin margins.
SemDem included a tweet from the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald, Jacqueline Charles.
So many Haitian immigrants live here with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and thus, as Daily Kos staff writer Gabe Ortiz has reported, they are living under threat of deportation. It’s long been time for more politicians to step up and reach out … but they clearly need staff who speak Creole if they don’t want to be outdone by Rick Scott.
More Democrats also need to step up, show up, and speak out about the looming deportations set in motion by Donald Trump. FRANCE 24 interviewed one Haitian immigrant-turned New Yorker in December.
About 50,000 Haitian immigrants in the United States face deportation next January due to the loss of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a government designation they received in the wake of the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti. But some community members are fighting back.
A resident of the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Flatbush, also known as New York City’s ‘Little Haiti’, Gerald Michaud works seven days a week to support his family members in Haiti. He says that having Temporary Protected Status is critical for his livelihood.
“The thing about TPS, is it’s all about security,” he told FRANCE 24 outside LaGuardia Airport, where he works as a security guard. “The security to have a job. To have accommodation. To have money to send to your family, and for yourself.”
Even the reprieve until January 2021 was hard-fought, as the BK Reader reported 13 months ago:
The TPS designation for Haiti was awarded after the devastating 2010 earthquake, which left over 200,000 people dead and some 895,000 Haitians homeless. TPS allows immigrants to work and live in the United States because of natural disasters or ongoing armed conflict taking place in their home country.
In November 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced the program’s termination, which is set to take effect on July 22, 2019.
“Haiti is a textbook case for TPS on the facts, as editorial boards and political and civic leaders have recognized,” said Steven Forester, immigration policy coordinator for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “Getting to ‘no’ required DHS to ignore the reality on the ground and move the goalposts on the applicable criteria.”
The end of TPS is expected to affect 50,000 Haitians across the country, according to the New York Immigration Coalition, including approximately 5,200 individuals in New York; Brooklyn is home to the largest Haitian population outside of Florida.
Just a year ago, Gerald Michaud—interviewed by FRANCE 24 above—shared his battle cry and ended up a State of the Union guest of New York U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez.
Even as the current TPS extension winds down, the Haitian American community faces other challenges in Miami: Residents of Little Haiti are being threatened by “climate gentrification,” Curbed reported Monday:
A term popularized by a 2018 Harvard study of Miami real estate transactions that found rising property values in higher-elevation neighborhoods, climate gentrification has become a rallying cry for activists in Miami neighborhoods such as Little Haiti (which is 7 to 14 feet above sea level), Liberty City (the backdrop of the film Moonlight), and Allapattah, traditionally disinvested areas with large populations of black and Latino residents which also happen to be on higher ground. Activists nationwide have used the concept to frame conversations about how a new era of natural disasters has a disproportionate impact on the poor, including in fire-ravaged parts of California. Miami’s City Council, which has to plan for as much as 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2060 per city estimates, even passed a resolution in 2018 to examine the impacts of climate gentrification.
“People won’t say climate change is the primary reason developers are buying in Liberty City or Little Haiti,” says Meena Jagannath, cofounder of the Community Justice Project, a local nonprofit that focuses on legal aid in service of racial justice. “But it’s increasingly becoming a major factor.”
Al Jazeera was on the ground in Miami in January, noting, “The city’s famed beaches will eventually be submerged at high tide, and Little Haiti sits on a ridge far above these properties. … Its location has made it a hot spot for development, and Haitians are being forced out.”
Clearly, climate gentrification, threatened deportation, stigma, and abuse from the president of the United States will not defeat our Haitian American citizens. Give them your support.
Next Sunday, join me for a pre-Mardi Gras celebration with the Black Indians of New Orleans.
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