“Shall We Flee or Shall We Fight?” Anti-emigrationists and the Haitian Emigration Movement in the Civil War Era

Friday, January 8, 2016: 3:10 PM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta)
Ousmane K. Power-Greene, Clark University
“Shall we flee or shall we fight?” Anti-Emigrationists and the Haitian Emigration Movement during the Civil War era

In April 1861, Rev. James T. Holly stood on a dock awaiting the arrival of the Madeira, a ship commissioned by the Haitian government to transport black Americans to Haiti in order to provide much needed skilled labor for a nation that was beset by internal strife after decades of military conflict. Along with Holly were 100 or so  African Americans who had been recruited to leave the United States and begin a new life in the first black republic.

While scholars have noted the significance of Holly’s emigration movement to Haiti in the 1850s and early 1860s, few have looked closely at the anti-emigrationist arguments that dominated black communities from Bangor, Maine to Washington D.C. This paper places the anti-emigration protests of the 1850s within the context of the anti-colonization debates of that decade in order to compare and contrast black American protest of Haitian emigration and Liberian colonization. It seeks to show the contours of this anti-emigrationist, anticolonizationist protest, and place it within the broader history and parallel traditions of antebellum black protest thought and activism. This paper uses the debates within black communities in New York City, New Haven, and Boston over Haitian emigration at the end of the 1850s in order to explore the broader arguments among African Americans over how best to respond to racial exclusion, violence, and the threat of kidnapping that made life in the urban North, in the words of Langston Hughes, “No crystal stair.”

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