Monday, January 18, 2010

Why we owe Haiti more than support

Working in the "history business" I am not usually surprised when some event or person from the past resonates with my life today.

In preparing for The Landmark Society’s event "Walk the Walk: Encounters with Rochester’s African-American Ancestors" it crossed my mind to take a look at Frederick Douglass’ service, late in life, as an American ambassador.
I knew it was to a Caribbean island, but had to check to see which one.
Mr. Douglass was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison as "Minister in Residence and Consulate General to Haiti." He served from 1889 to 1891, when he was in his early 70’s.

We are all thinking about Haiti these days, aren’t we?

It seems a lot of Americans were also thinking about Haiti during Douglass’ time – but not with the empathy and support most of us are feeling today. This was at a time when America was much divided about the country of Haiti, as many remembered when an "uprising" of enslaved people revolted and took their freedom at the beginning of the 19th century – and even after emancipation here, that apparently made many Americans nervous.

Douglass became an advocate for Haiti, and when the Haitian pavilion opened at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Douglass was invited to speak.
The internet is full of transcriptions of that speech, given on January 2, 1893. It’s a lecture, really - describing the country, the people, the politics, how our country might benefit from Haiti and how Haiti might benefit from the U.S.
To me, the most amazing segment of the speech is where Frederick Douglass credits the revolt in Haiti with starting the wheels of change rolling that ultimately resulted in freedom for many across the globe.

Here are a few excerpts, in the words of The Great Orator:

"We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy to-day; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons, of Haiti ninety years ago. When they struck for freedom, they built better than they knew. Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone. They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world."

"It is said of ancient nations, that each had its special mission in the world and that each taught the world some important lesson. The Jews taught the world a religion, a sublime conception of the Deity. The Greeks taught the world philosophy and beauty. The Romans taught the world jurisprudence. England is foremost among the modern nations in commerce and manufactures. Germany has taught the world to think, while the American Republic is giving the world an example of a Government by the people, of the people and for the people."

"Among these large bodies, the little community of Haiti, anchored in the Caribbean Sea, has had her mission in the world, and a mission which the world had much need to learn. She has taught the world the danger of slavery and the value of liberty. In this respect she has been the greatest of all our modern teachers."

" … Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery. It was scarcely troubled even by a dream of this crime against justice and liberty…. "

"Until she spoke no Christian nation had abolished Negro slavery. Until she spoke no Christian nation had given to the world an organized effort to abolish slavery. … Until she spoke, the slave trade was sanctioned by all the Christian nations of the world, and our land of liberty and light included."

Yes, we are all thinking about Haiti these days – offering our sympathy and our support. But history has reached out to me today, and taught me that I also owe the legacy of Haiti a debt of gratitude.


Cindy Boyer, Director of Museums and Education.

Experience "Walk the Walk: Encounters with Rochester's African-American Ancestors"
Free Performance Friday February 12th at 7 pm
Mt Olivet Baptist Church
141 Adams Street
Rochester, NY

2 comments:

Christopher Daniel said...

I really hope that once all the injured and homeless are helped that preservationists can step forward and contribute the the relief effort. The city of Port-au-Prince will need to be rebuilt and there is some very beautiful architecture there that could be lost in the storm to modernize. It is the job of preservationists to assist the Haitians recognize and protect their heritage.

Cynthia said...

Christopher, already the museum world is starting the information gathering process on buildings and cultural treasures lost or damaged.

Helping Haitians recognize their heritage is the most important step, rather than thrusting this need upon them.

And you're right, now the needs are much more basic.