"To Evade the Laws the Country": The Haitian Emigration Movement, Citizenship, and US-Haitian Diplomacy

Friday, January 4, 2019: 11:10 AM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Brandon R. Byrd, Vanderbilt University
In August 1899, the brigade general in charge of the arrondissement of Gonaïves, Haiti impressed two young men into military service. He expected no trouble for his action. After all, his recruits were ostensibly Haitian and thus subject to constitutional provisions permitting their conscription into the National Guard.

A question soon arose, however: were the new soldiers actually United States citizens? The fathers of the two recruits quickly protested to the U.S. consular agent at Gonaïves. One had brought his family to Haiti from the United States during the 1820s while the other had immigrated during the early 1860s. Both claimed to be U.S. citizens whose Haiti-born sons shared their citizenship status and were therefore exempt from Haitian military service.

Their claims, which soon made their way to U.S. minister resident and consul general William F. Powell, re-shapes our understanding of the Haitian emigration movement. While scholars have shown the considerable size and scope of black emigration from the United States to Haiti during the 1820s and the early 1860s, they have argued that the two waves were distinct movements only linked by their shared failure. The impressment case suggests otherwise. The two would-be soldiers embodied the remarkable endurance and fluidity of the Haitian emigration movement in which a second generation had become so assimilated as to be assumed Haitian.

Ultimately, Powell’s mediation of the strategic denials of Haitian identity highlights an overlooked dimension of U.S.—Haitian diplomacy and African American History. At a time of political instability in Haiti and racial apartheid in the United States, Haitians of U.S. descent still made claims upon the U.S. state even as they became Haitian. They articulated an expansive idea of citizenship that was sometimes at odds with the demands of the Haitian state and the desired racial exclusiveness of the United States.

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