The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Haiti is a source of refugees today, but it was once a haven for them

Haiti, not the United States, was long the hemisphere’s beacon of freedom

A Haitian migrant prays during Mass at a refugee shelter in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on Sept. 21. (Fernando Llano/AP)

On Sept. 19 in Del Rio, Tex., U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers on horseback charged at Haitian asylum seekers near a migrant riverside camp. Despite almost immediate attempts to downplay the violent tactics used by CBP, reporters witnessed Border Patrol officers menacingly swinging their reins toward the migrants. These tactics were part of the Department of Homeland Security’s long history of “prevention through deterrence,” deployed to prevent Haitian asylum seekers from crossing back into the United States.

The United States was evading its responsibility to hear the claims of those seeking refuge, as many commentators and critics observed. For decades, the United States has rejected and excluded Haitians seeking asylum, for reasons that are grounded in anti-Black racism. U.S. perceptions of Haiti have long been shaped like the images we saw in Del Rio.

What’s missing from this image, however, is a longer history, in which Haiti was not a source of refugees but a haven for them — and in particular for Black people fleeing oppression in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas. This emancipatory history helps explain why Haiti is so demonized in the United States. Indeed, Haiti’s history of welcoming people from other lands is part of the nation’s broader historic role in global antislavery movements, which are directly linked to its rich emancipatory history — something that was long understood as a threat to U.S. power.

The images of White men on horseback menacing Black men, women and children in Del Rio strongly evoked scenes of the violence of plantation slavery across the Caribbean, where for hundreds of years slave patrols and racial violence were commonplace. Into the 19th century, colonists in slaveholding societies feared Black rebellions and used horrific violence to suppress them and maintain power. Black freedom was a direct threat to the economic and political foundations of slavery-based societies.

Then Haiti became a beacon of hope for enslaved people throughout the Americas — and a symbol of threat to its neighbors.

After a bloody revolutionary war, by Jan. 1, 1804, Haitians established the first free Black state in the history of the Americas, and Haiti became the first nation to permanently abolish slavery. But in defeating European colonialism and securing freedom for Black people, Haitians entered a new battle — a bloody and long process of exploitation by nations such as Spain, France and the nascent United States, which were determined to maintain slavery.

Moreover, Haiti threatened the very foundations of liberal states such as France and the United States, by exposing how their notions of freedom were grounded in states that maintained racial chattel slavery and held huge numbers of people in permanent bondage. Haiti represented, in a profound sense, what purportedly liberal and egalitarian France and the United States could not. Haiti’s anti-colonial revolution enshrined antislavery into law in 1805; France and the United States only did so decades later. Haiti also abolished racial differences, making all Haitian citizens Black.

As one historian of Haiti has stated, “Under [Jean-Jacques] Dessalines’ rule, blackness was to be the source of freedom and equality — not bondage.” This turned the logic of the Western world on its head. Haiti’s example of fighting for and achieving its sovereignty produced a variety of reactions across the Americas, serving as an inspiration to both abolitionist and revolutionary movements.

Like any other new nation, Haiti had its own internal divisions. Following the assassination of Dessalines in 1806, Haiti was divided in two, with Henri Christophe eventually ruling the Kingdom of Haiti in the north and Alexandre Pétion a republic in the south.

Despite their differences, both rulers provided aid to antislavery struggles in the Americas. In 1816, Haiti’s abolitionist promise became even more concrete with Pétion’s constitution, which made freedom and citizenship legally possible for those born outside Haitian territory. Article 44 explicitly stated that all “Africans and Indians, and the descendants of their blood, born in the colonies or in foreign countries, who come to reside in the Republic will be recognized as Haitians, but will enjoy the right of citizenship only after one year of residence.” According to Ada Ferrer, Pétion’s policies defined and extended “the boundaries of freedom and citizenship in an Age of Revolution that otherwise offered no firm assurances of either to black and brown men and women.” Haiti’s promise of freedom made it a haven for those fleeing racial slavery.

In the 1820s, as many as 13,000 African Americans from the United States sought refuge in Haiti. In 1826, for instance, a “colored emigrant” named Archibald Johnson wrote to a friend in Washington from Haiti: “I bid an eternal farewell to America. … I feel determined to live and die under the safeguard of her [Haiti’s] constitution, with the hope of aiding to open the door for the relief of my distressed brethren.” Haiti’s free soil continued to be a haven for Black people well into the 1860s. Black migration to Haiti from the United States meant that African Americans could witness firsthand the true promises of liberty.

Fear of Black freedom and rights pushed Washington to diplomatically shun Haiti in the decades after its independence. Haiti’s example of Black freedom and sovereignty created a general crisis of the slave system in the Western Hemisphere that, as Gerald Horne has written, “could only be resolved — thankfully — with its collapse.”

Thus, U.S. diplomatic recognition of Haiti in 1862, along with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, began to change the meaning of Haiti for African Americans. Many African Americans felt genuine faith in what could be Black progress within the United States. If Black freedom was possible in the states, Haiti’s role as a beacon of liberty would be less salient.

But for White Americans, Haiti became even more vilified, especially after the collapse of Reconstruction. White supremacists in the United States maligned not just African Americans as unfit for freedom, but at the same time intensified their rhetorical assaults against Haiti. Brandon Byrd shows us that “once synonymous with slave insurrection and abolitionism, Haiti became racist shorthand for the looming evils of social equality and ‘Negro rule.’ ”

Racialized discourses of civilizational uplift rooted in anti-Blackness and the rise of Jim Crow laws at the end of the 19th century underpinned the actions of the United States toward Haiti in the first decades of the 20th century. Frederick Douglass stated in 1893: “Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black.”

In 1915, U.S. forces invaded Haiti, conveniently seizing the opportunity to capitalize on broader long-standing economic and military ambitions in the Caribbean. The U.S. military occupation, which lasted until 1934, devastated Haiti — particularly its poor rural populace. This marked a major pivot point in the history of Haiti: a country that for over 100 years was a sanctuary for Black immigrants from across the hemisphere abruptly and violently became a place of large-scale Black exodus to Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries in the first half of the 20th century.

Later in the 1970s, Haitians fleeing the U.S.-backed Duvalier dictatorship sought haven in the United States — but Washington refused to offer them protection. The Haitian migrant experience has fundamentally shaped how the United States has treated immigrants more broadly — helping establish now-widespread practices of detention and deportation.

Fleeing untenable conditions in recent years, Haitians have again turned to the legal right of seeking asylum protection in the United States. But today’s U.S. asylum system is more punishing than Haiti’s own 1816 constitution, which offered a smoother entry into freedom and transition to citizenship. In contrast to Haiti’s 19th-century laws, if you are granted asylum in the United States, after one year you may apply for permanent resident status — a.k.a. a “green card” — and thereafter wait approximately five more years to apply for citizenship. Of course, many arriving Haitians have been denied even the chance to make asylum claims.

In light of ongoing racism and xenophobia against Haitian migrants at U.S. borders and across the hemisphere, we should remember that Haiti was a legal sanctuary of freedom for people across the Americas in the 19th century. In their search for survival and dignity, Haitians themselves are now in need of similar protections. Perhaps this legacy should inform our present conversations about asylum and immigration.