Popkin on Byrd, 'The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti'

Brandon R. Byrd
Jeremy D. Popkin

Brandon R. Byrd. The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. 312 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-5170-8.

Reviewed by Jeremy D. Popkin (University of Kentucky) Published on H-Diplo (April, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54935 

Most scholarship on relations between the United States and Haiti, the first two American nations to free themselves from European colonial rule, has focused either on the years of the Haitian struggle for independence or on the US occupation of 1915-34.[1] Brandon Byrd’s examination of African Americans’ concern with Haiti during the years from the US Civil War to the start of the occupation fills an important gap in scholarship. Using materials ranging from diplomatic archives to plays and public celebrations, Byrd shows the many ways in which black Americans imagined the Caribbean republic as their own status changed, from the hopes of the Reconstruction period to the increasingly difficult conditions of the Jim Crow era. He also convincingly demonstrates that any history of US foreign relations during this period needs to take the opinions and actions of African Americans into account.

Southern opposition prevented the establishment of diplomatic relations with Haiti from the time of its independence in 1804 until 1862.  The arrival of the first Haitian ambassador in Washington in 1863 gave a foretaste of some of the complexities that would characterize relations between African Americans and Haiti: determined to emphasize his diplomatic status, the Haitian envoy shunned contact with the city’s African Americans  For their part, African Americans expressed pride in Haiti’s heroic past and were pleased by the appointment of a black man, Don Carlos Bassett, as the first American ambassador to Port-au-Prince. However, black Americans often shared white Americans’ stereotypes of Haitians as uneducated and superstitious, in need of guidance from the outside world and of Protestant evangelization. During Reconstruction, some even advocated US annexation of Haiti and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, proposals opposed by white southerners who feared an increase in the country’s nonwhite population.

As racism intensified in the United States after the end of Reconstruction, African Americans recognized that “rhetorical attacks on and military threats to Haiti paralleled the ongoing efforts to restrict the freedoms of black populations throughout the Americas,” Byrd writes (p. 61). Appointed as American ambassador to Haiti by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, Frederick Douglass found himself forced into promoting an unsuccessful effort to bully the country into ceding the naval base of Môle Saint Nicolas to the US When the planners of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in Chicago barred African Americans from any role in their own country’s exhibit, Douglass and others promoted the Haitian display as evidence of black cultural achievements. Not all African Americans saw Haiti as a positive example, however. The country’s chronic political instability and its failure to thrive economically disappointed many observers. A black student at Yale University, William Pickens, provoked an uproar when he embraced white condemnations of Reconstruction in the United States and the consequences of the Haitian Revolution. After meeting French-educated Haitians in Paris, Booker T. Washington complained that they seemed indifferent to the importance of the kind of practical training he promoted at his Tuskegee Institute.   

The US occupation of Haiti in 1915, justified as necessary to restore order after a crowd assassinated the country’s president but motivated primarily by concern to safeguard American banks’ investments, was, Byrd argues, a traumatic experience for African Americans. At a time when almost the whole African continent was ruled by white colonial powers, the threat to what was then the only independent black nation in the Americas had profound implications. Nevertheless, Haiti’s reputation as a failed state was so pervasive that Booker T. Washington welcomed the deployment of American forces, and even his rival, W. E. B. Du Bois, initially thought the intervention might produce positive results. Du Bois quickly concluded, however, “that the U.S. occupation of Haiti was a symptom of a much larger problem: the exploitation of the working people of the global South by elites in the global North” (p. 198). After the US Marines’ brutal campaign against the caco revolt in 1919, Du Bois joined James Weldon Johnson and the members of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races in condemning American policy and demanding the restoration of Haiti’s sovereignty. As Byrd sees it, African Americans’ mobilization against the Haitian occupation was a crucial moment in turning Du Bois and many others toward “radical black internationalism” (p. 238).

The Black Republic is thoroughly researched and clearly written, and makes an important contribution not only to our understanding of American relations with one of its Caribbean neighbors but to the history of African American life and culture in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. One might wish that Byrd had said a little more about actual encounters between Haitians and African Americans during this period. Anténor Firmin appears in his capacity as a Haitian politician, for example, but were any African Americans aware of his convincing refutation of the pseudoscientific claims of racism, The Equality of the Human Races, published in 1885 and now recognized as a milestone in the development of anthropology?[2] Jean Price-Mars, later one of the founders of the négritude movement, is mentioned briefly for his visit to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, but the influence he may have had on the writers of the Harlem Renaissance is not explored. It is evidence of the importance of Brandon Byrd’s monograph that it raises questions that ought to stimulate further research.


[1]. In addition to the classic work of the African American historian Rayford Logan, The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with Haiti, 1776-1891 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941), see Tim Matthewson, A Pro-Slavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during the Early Republic (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003); Gordon S. Brown, Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005); Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti 1915-1934 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995 [1971]); and Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[2]. On Firmin’s contribution to anthropology, see Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, “Antenor Firmin: Haitian Pioneer of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 102, no. 3 (2000): 445-66.

Citation: Jeremy D. Popkin. Review of Byrd, Brandon R., The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54935

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