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Shared History Forever Links Haiti And the US

In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, many Americans were quick to offer financial support and proud to see U.S. military forces leading search and rescue missions, providing medical care and keeping peace. Yet some have been critical of U.S. aid efforts, arguing that our country has no obligation to send money, manpower and aid to this foreign country. This argument, however, denies the critical role that Haiti has played in the development and expansion of America and the deep historical connections that forever link our two nations.

The United States' history with Haiti dates back to the Civil War, before President Lincoln gave his famous Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's original plan was not to integrate freed slaves into American culture, but instead to send them out of the United States entirely. While he planned for the emancipation of southern slaves, he searched for a location. After diplomatic negotiations fell through with New Grenada, Lincoln approached the Haitian government.

Haiti agreed to allow thousands of migrants from the United States to join the only black Republic in the Western Hemisphere, and enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of 453 freed slaves in an early colonization attempt. Lincoln's plan to send former slaves to the former French Republic failed drastically after many of the former slaves died of smallpox, but Haiti remained on the minds of Americans throughout the 19th century.

As the Haitian Revolution unfolded during the early 19th century, African-Americans glorified the leader of the slave rebellion, Toussaint L'Ouverture, in political speeches and in Sunday school lessons, and Haitian refugees began arriving in Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.
These first black immigrants indelibly redefined black communities throughout the United States by bringing new languages, cultural practices and ideas of political resistance and defiance to a population of people that remained purposely cut off from the rest of the African
Diaspora.

As news of the Haitian Rebellion made its way into conversation and news reports in the South, slaveholding Southerners began to fear that word of the Haitian rebellion would encourage enslaved people in the South to rise up and rebel against them. Haiti and the threatening presence of the first black Republic rippled across the Atlantic Ocean and led Napoleon to precipitously sell his land investments very cheaply to the U.S. in what would famously become known as the Louisiana Purchase.

So much of the conversation about Haiti today reveals that most Americans remain completely unaware of these connections. Mainstream broadcast media coverage and fundraisers hosted by celebrities have heroically brought attention to the catastrophe in Haiti, but so much of
this talk treats Haiti as a nation that is sharply separate from the United States.

Recognizing the important historical connections between our two countries can help counter claims that Americans do not have an obligation to be so invested in the relief efforts. Indeed, Haiti has been part of conversations in the United States long before George Clooney made it fashionable.

Jim Downs is an assistant professor of history and American Studies at Connecticut College, specializing in African-American studies and 19th century American history. His books include, "Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change" and "Taking Back the Academy!: History of Activism, History as Activism."