booker t. washington portrait

On the American Occupation of Haiti

The New York Age
October 18, 1915

Tuskegee Educator Sounds Note of Warning Urging U. S. to be Patient with Black Republic

Haiti's Indebtedness to European Countries Who Were Demanding Payment, Impelled This Country to Take Steeps to Avoid European Interference and Occupation—The Country Teems with Natural Wealth and Great Possibilities.

Lack of Practical Education Prevents Mass of the People from Producing Their Own Wealth in their Own Country, So the Country Has Had to Send Away for Necessities Which could be Produced More Cheaply at Home—Only Big-Brained Men and Men Free from Prejudice Should Be Sent by the Administration to Haiti.

Upholding The Monroe Doctrine A Necessity

Haiti is only a few hours ride from the American shore on and island midway between Cuba and Puerto Rico. It is about the size of South Carolina and has a population of about two and one-half million people. Notwithstanding this, I venture the assertion that comparatively few people in the United States know as much about Haiti as they do about the far off Balkans.

The Northern part of the island is occupied by the Republic of Santo Domingo and the Southern portion by Haiti. The Dominicans speak the Spanish language. On the other hand, the Haitians speak the French language and cling to French customs and traditions. The Haitians, for the most part, are pure black, and are a very proud, mercurial people, with Latin characteristics.

"Humility," it is stated, "except when assumed for ulterior purposes, is no part of Haitian character. With all of his faults, which he will ordinarily admit, his pride remains unscathed and his confidence in the ultimate success of his race in all the avenues of human endeavor continues unshaken. *** He has the resistant qualities lacking in the Dominican which go to make up the obstructionist and fighter who never surrenders, and he has these qualities in a pre-eminent degree."

The Haitians won their independence over a hundred years ago from France under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, "one of the grandest characters produced by any race in the 18th century, through an ordinary Black man, a slave and the son of slaves," at the price of hard fighting and much sacrifice. From that time until the present, the Haitians through many ups and downs have maintained their independence and have preserved some semblance of a republican form of government.

The Monroe Doctrine and United States occupation

A few months ago the Government of the United States found it necessary to take a hand in the affairs of Haiti. It was absolutely necessary for the United States to do this or permit others to do so. This was unthinkable. Haiti unfortunately has suffered itself to get largely in debt to European countries. The European countries had been demanding their money.

The United States had said that "under the Monroe Doctrine we cannot permit you to come in and take control of Haiti and collect your money.

The European countries, of course, at once replied, "Then you do it if you will not permit us to do it."

This, as I understand it, is the justification asserted by the United States for landing marines on Haitian soil and assuming control of the custom houses, etc.

Haiti has been brought to its present unhappy condition not because of any great fault of the masses of people. Everyone who has visited Haiti and studies its physical resources has been surprised to learn of the vast resources of the country. It is a country teeming with natural wealth and great possibilities. Sugar cane, for example, once planted, it is said will grow for twenty years without again being replanted.

The great mass of the people are, in a very primitive way, farmers. They are an unlettered people but, in their way, are an industrious, law abiding, sober people, seeking only to be let alone to earn their living. The masses of the people are of the peasant class. They are teachable and easily led and guided.

Haitian leaders adopt French ideas

The great difficulty is that Haiti, for many years, has been exploited by (1) selfish politicians who have used the government merely to enrich themselves without seeking to help the masses of the people; and (2) by promoters from the United States and several of the European countries, chiefly Germany and France, and in lesser degree, Great Britain and Belgium. I mean White men. These adventurers, or promoters, or by whatever name called, are largely responsible for stirring up the numerous revolutions that have disgraced and upset Haiti. The masses of the people have little interest in these revolutions, know little about them and care little about them.

And yet the Haitians themselves are largely at fault for their present unhappy conditions. They have been content to merely ape French civilization, content to get the veneer of French civilization without its substance and reality. The result is that while the bulk of the people - some 95 per cent it is said - are ignorant, many of the leaders have been educated in France and other countries. Their education, however, has been unsuited for Haitian conditions. It has been an education that has fitted them to live and work anywhere except Haiti.

The bulk of the people must depend upon agriculture in some form, for their existence. Despite this, practically nothing has been done in Haiti during all the years of its independence to give the masses of the people practical education in agriculture, mechanics and the domestic arts. The leaders have devoted themselves to politics, little knowing, it seems, that political independence disappears without economic independence, that economic independence is the foundation of political independence.

Because of the neglect of practical education in Haiti, the country has been spending more than it has been earning. It has sent out of the country to get the necessities of life which might be produced at less cost in Haiti. While it is true that a large part of the revenues of the country have been stolen by White and Black intriguers, these revenue receipts, even if honestly administered, have not been large enough to finance governmental expenditures. Because of the lack of encouraging the development of the natural resources of the country, it has not produced even a small proportion of what these physical resources may be made to produce. Haiti has been compelled to borrow money from foreigners simply because the people have not been taught to produce their own wealth, in their own country.

The United States and Its Relations to Haiti

This is preliminary to my making the following observations upon the United States and its relations to Haiti.

Associated Press dispatches a few days ago stated that forty or fifty Haitians had been killed on Haitian soil in one day by American marines and a number of marines wounded. To every Black man in the United States this dispatch brought a feeling of disappointment and sorrow. While, as I have stated, the United States, under the circumstances, was compelled to take notice of conditions in Haiti and is being compelled to control matters, largely because of the fault of the Haitians, I had hoped that the United States would be patient in dealing with the Haitian Government and people. The United States has been patient with Germany. It has been patient in the Philippines. It has been exceedingly patient in dealing with Mexico. I hope this country will be equally patient and more than patient in dealing with Haiti - a weaker and more unfortunate country!

I very much wish that it might have been possible for the United States to have taken a little more time in making known to the Haitians the purposes we have in mind in taking over the control of their custom houses and their governmental affairs. While everything that we intend to do, and have in mind to do, is perfectly plain to the officials of the United States, we must remember that all this is not perfectly plain to the Haitians. It would have been worth while, in my opinion, before attempting arbitrarily to force Haiti to sign the treaty put before its officials, to have spent a little time and a little patience in informing the Haitian people of the unselfish benevolence of our intentions. They, in time, would have understood why it is necessary to intervene in their affairs.

Another reason, in my opinion, why patience may be manifested in this matter is that the treaty, even at the best, cannot be ratified by the United States Senate until it meets in regular session in December, unless the President calls it in a special session earlier.

The treaty seems harsh and precipitate

I confess that while I am unschooled in such matters, since reading the treaty the Haitians have been told they must ratify, it seems to me rather harsh and precipitate; one cannot be surprised that the Haitians have hesitated to agree to all the conditions provided for this treaty. No wonder they have hesitated when they have had so little time in which to understand it, when the masses of the Haitian people know little or nothing of what the treaty contemplates.

it is one thing to conquer a people through love, through unselfish interest in their welfare, and another thing to conquer them through the bullet, through the shotgun

The way matters are now going, there is likely to be bitterness and war. The United States, in the end, will conquer, will control, will have its way, but it is one thing to conquer a people through love, through unselfish interest in their welfare, and another thing to conquer them through the bullet, through the shotgun. Shooting civilization into the Haitians on their own soil will be an amazing spectacle. Sending marines as diplomats and Mauser bullets as messengers of destruction breed riot and anarchy, and are likely to leave a legacy of age-long hatreds and regrets. I also hope the United States will not pursue a mere negative policy in Haiti, that is a policy of controlling the customs and what not, without going further in progressive, constructive directions. In a word, the United States now has an opportunity to do a big piece of fine work for Haiti in the way of education, something the island has never had. I hope some way will be provided by which a portion of the revenues will be used in giving the people a thorough up-to-date system of common school, agricultural and industrial education. Here is an excellent opportunity for some of the young colored men and women of the United States who have been educated in the best methods of education in this country to go to Haiti and help their fellows. Here is an opportunity for some of the most promising Haitian boys and girls to be sent to schools in the United States. Here is an opportunity for us to use our influence and power in giving the Haitians something they have never had, and that is education, real education. At least 95 percent of the people, as I have said, are unlettered and ignorant so far as books are concerned.

The United States must be very patient with Haiti

In carrying all these suggestions into practice, let me repeat again and again that we will have to be patient with Haiti. We ought to be patient. We are big enough and strong enough to be patient, not arbitrary and force-compelling in our relations with her.

Also, we ought to be careful in the class of White men sent to Haiti as officials. Here is the first experience American White people have had to live and work in a Black man's country, with Black men and women. This is quite a different thing from living in what is called a "White man's country." Every Haitian would rather be swept from the face of the earth than give up his independence or his country. He does not wish the dominance of the white man. They are a proud people, albeit an ignorant people, often mistaken in their ideals and methods, but nevertheless a proud people determined to preserve the independence won by their ancestors in the face of great odds. The average American White is not fitted to work with these Haitians. The average army officer, or naval officer, is not fitted to work with these Haitians. The average White soldier or White marine is not fitted to live and work among these Haitians. The racial lines which are drawn in this and other countries will not be tolerated in Haiti and American White men who go there should understand this. They must fit themselves to be White men in a Black man's country if they want to live there and work there and have any influence there.

An American, who in an official capacity had an opportunity to observe Haitian affairs, writes: Degeneracy has been charged against the Haitian, but it is a charge error. The Haitians are by far the most virile people of the West Indies... Americans have never understood why any Latin-American country should be distrustful of the intentions of the United States when it appears in the role of the Big Brother offering assistance in the deepest sincerity yet Latin-Americans conscientiously feel that there is good and sufficient ground for their distrust and will cite you many occurrences of history which they insist are proof that the United States has maintained a continuous policy of territorial expansion under the cloak of benevolent aid."

Difficult for White men to understand Black men

It is very necessary then for us to recognize two things, First, the virility of the Haitian people, and, second, their distrust of American intentions. They should be won over and their distrust should not be accentuated by any action which may seem to suggest the dominance of an alien government as a permanent factor in their affairs. In other words, it should be made perfectly plain to the Haitians and to all others that the United States has but one object in view in going into Haiti and that is to help the Haitians govern their own country.

It is very difficult for any White man to understand, to put himself in a Black man's place, to understand Black people, to 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, simply and mainly because it is not possible for many White people to even try to understand and work with Black people.

We should remember that the United States is at a great disadvantage in dealing with Haiti as compared with Germany and France, for example, both of which countries have interests in Haiti, because the Haitians have a deep-seated prejudice against White Americans. Year after year they have read about lynchings and manifestions of prejudice against members of their race in the United States. The Haitians, in consequence, have thoroughly made up their minds that the dominant people of the United States are prejudiced against Black people and do not mean to treat them with fairness or justice.

The intervention of the United States in the affairs of Haiti should enable this country to change, if we are wise, the idea which the Haitians entertain regarding White Americans. We have the opportunity of proving to these people on the little island in the Caribbean Sea who are striving, despite their many falls from grace, to establish a republican form of government on the basis principles of liberty, fraternity and equality that in spite of the many wrongs inflicted upon their fellows in the United States that in all the real things of civilization these ten millions of Black people in the United States are further ahead of any similar number of Black people anywhere in the world.

My whole object, then, my only object, in writing this article is to urge that now is the time to exercise a little patience with Haiti; now is the time to put in a constructive, progressive policy in education and civilization for the Haitians which will gradually win them. It will make them feel that we are not their enemies, but their permanent helpers and benefactors. 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.

I feel that we should embrace the opportunity for constructive policy that will remake Haiti, that will make the Haitians a new people, and from an economic point of view and every other point of view will make Haiti of increasing value not alone to the Haitians but to our own country and civilization as well.