“The overthrow of Guillaume and its attending consequences did not constitute the cause of American intervention in Haiti, but merely furnished the awaited opportunity. Since July 28, 1915, American military forces have been in control of Haiti. These forces have been increased until there are now somewhere near three thousand Americans under arms in the republic. From the very first, the attitude of the Occupation has been that it was dealing with a conquered territory. Haitian forces were disarmed, military posts and barracks were occupied, and the National Palace was taken as headquarters for the Occupation.” (Project Gutenberg’s Self-Determining Haiti, by James Weldon Johnson)
In July 1915, following the gory assassination of the Haitian President Guillaume Sam, American Marines headed by Admiral William Banks Caperton, occupied Port-au-Prince and finally took control of the entire country. Citing anarchy (as only between 1913 and 1915, four different administrations had taken the lead of the country)[i] — but also, the possibility that American lives might be injured by the chronic instability in Haiti, Washington finally decided to take control of the situation by sending its troops. While most elements of the American press originally welcomed the occupation as an act of benevolence to the revolution-prove Caribbean island, as the years progressed and the closure of World War I brought about a new logic for “self-determinism” imbedded in Woodrow Wilson post-war world logic, many began to question Washington’s policy towards Latin America and most notably Haiti.
One of the first organizations to openly criticize U.S. Marine conduct in Haiti was the NAACP. In March of 1920, just a few months after being named field secretary of the association, James Weldon Johnson toured the island as a special envoy to conduct an investigation. While there, he meet with people of various social conditions, but most notably with Georges Sylvain,[ii] a famed Haitian poet and former diplomat whom he convinced to revitalize L’Union Patriotique, an organization formed to denounce the U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915.[iii] When Johnson came back to the United States, he recounted his findings in a series of articles for the liberal journal The Nation and for the NAACP’s own Crisis edited by WEB DuBois. As the passage quoted above illustrates, by the time of his investigation, Johnson was convinced the United States occupation of Haiti constituted both a continuation of American politics in the region but also a persistence of U.S. unequal bilateral relations with Haiti. The assassination of Guillaume Sam, as grotesque as it was,[iv] provided only an excuse to execute what “formal” diplomacy had not been able to achieve. As Johnson himself observers later in his analysis, Washington’s plans to occupy Haiti can, at the very least, be traced back to the previous year, when the Wilsonian administration was drawing plans with the Navy Department to that effect.[v]
Following the publication of Johnson’s articles, public opinion about the occupation began to evolve. While some were still convinced the gesture was imperative to bring much needed technological innovations to Haiti, others like the editors of the New York Times, which up to that point, had largely supported of Washington’s policy in Haiti, began to express some signs of doubt and confusion.[vi]
That the NAACP’s interest for Haiti should have arisen at this time is not completely surprising. For many scholars, more than coinciding with a moment in history when, for the first time, an African-American was appointed field secretary of the organization, the association’s particular attention to Haiti can also be seen as part of a changing “global sensibility” towards blackness and Black Internationalism.[vii] Whether in Harlem, Paris, London or elsewhere, Black individuals from across the globe began to view their destinies as interconnected because of a worldwide race prejudice that, unlike what many believed before, had not been eliminated by the Great War. Though this new Black Internationalism should not be romanticized to the point of obscuring the fact that linguistic, political, social and educational barriers still alienated what would now be termed the “Black” or “African” Diaspora, nor should it assist to sanitizing major disagreements between those same individuals, this period still constitute an important moment for unforeseen solidarity.
When seen through in a framework of transnational Black commonality, Johnson analysis becomes easier to appreciate in its historical incidence. While to be sure, as noted by Mark Robert Schneider, the campaign against the Marine occupation did bring the NAACP much publicity inside the United States,[viii] Brenda Gayle Plummer maintains that:
“The spirit of the times made Haiti an important issue to blacks. The timing of the occupation was especially significant. The Bloody Summers of 1918 and 1919, the agitation for a federal anti-lynching bill, and the rise of miltant nationalism put racial matters at the forefront. Black Americans perceived the Haitians as related to themselves, and increasingly admired the Haitian tradition of resistance to servitude and fierce independence. It is therefore not surprising that the Haitian issue was featured prominently by the NAACP.”[ix]
Hence, in many ways, James Weldon Johnson and other prominent Black Americans began to perceive the occupation of Haiti of a dissemination of American racism.[x] While in Haiti, U.S. Marines soon began to segregate public spaces such as clubs, hotels and restaurants.[xi] Consequently, denouncing the occupation of Haiti not only became a matter of criticizing a violent feature of U.S. foreign policy; it was also part of recognizing that the same racial intolerance plaguing the life of American Blacks in the United States was now suffocating Haitians in their country.
In the end, while the Haitian question lost predominance by late 1920s and did not bring an end to the Marine occupation of Haiti, in many ways, the organization can be credited for embarrassing Wilson’s administration with their articles and for encouraging President Harding to call an investigation in 1921-1922. Moreover, this episode represents an important moment in the history of the association and on the development of twentieth century relations between African-Americans and Haitians.
[i] Leon D. Pamphile, “The NAACP and the American Occupation of Haiti,” Phylon (1960-) 47, no. 1 (March 1, 1986): 91.
[ii] Ibid., 96
[iii] Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Haiti: The Breached Citadel (Westview Press, 1990), 101.
[iv] See Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 (Rutgers University Press, 1971) p. 64-66.
[v] Ibid., 64.
[vi] Pamphile, “The NAACP and the American Occupation of Haiti,” 94.
[vii] For a detailed analysis of Black Internationalism in this period, see Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003).
[viii] Mark Robert Schneider, “We Return Fighting”: The Civil Rights Movement in the Jazz Age (UPNE, 2002), 87.
[ix] Brenda Gayle Plummer, “The Afro – American Response to the Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934,” Phylon (1960-) 43, no. 2 (June 1, 1982): 131.
[x] Ibid., 139.
[xi] Ibid., 129.