"African Americans, American Women, and the Occupation" by Millery Polyné, Ph.D.

Polyné is Assistant Professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. He is the author of From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964 (2010).

When foreign military forces arrive upon the shores of an independent island republic with the intent to invade and, inevitably control the country’s political and economic affairs, how does the citizenry of the occupying forces and the occupied nation respond? For nineteen years, from 1915 to 1934, Haiti was under the rule of the United States. In spite of the intensification of U.S. empire-building efforts during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, which included military and financial interventions in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, a strong and consistent anti-imperialist movement sought to counteract the logic that Washington was the "natural" trustee of Caribbean affairs, specifically, and under-developed non-Western states more broadly. Several significant constituencies in the United States including African Americans, women, religious missionaries, and Communists protested U.S. aggression and strategic interests in Haiti and the Caribbean because it not only violated Haitian sovereignty and perpetuated an anti-black subjugation in the colonial world, but it also reflected social and economic inequalities among women and U.S. blacks on American soil.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) played a critical role in documenting the violence against Haitian people. James Weldon Johnson, Executive Secretary of the NAACP penned a series of articles for The Nation in 1920 that argued that the U.S. government’s aims in Haiti lacked "humane" intentions to address systemic problems in Haiti. Moreover, Johnson helped organize a U.S. chapter of L’Union Patriotique, an organization dedicated to the reimplementation of Haitian independence. Several other African American organizations and political conferences advocated for anti-imperialist agendas in Haiti, including Napoleon B. Marshall’s Save Haiti League, the American Negro Labor Conference, the National Colored Republican Conference and several of the Pan African Congresses. In 1927, members of the Fourth Pan African Congress in New York City pressed for U.S. military withdrawal from Haiti and an end to a rapacious U.S. financial receivership.

Women’s group such as the International Council of Women of the Darker Races and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom vocalized their protests and organized exploratory research trips to understand and document U.S. power in Haiti, which, according to activist Emily Balch’s work Occupied Haiti, had a profound affect upon Haitian lives in the realm of health, work, education and public freedoms. Many of these women, both African- and Anglo-American, as scholar Mary A. Renda asserts, appropriated a "discursive framework of paternalism" that highlighted asymmetrical relations between U.S. officials and military personnel and Haitian administrators and laypersons.

In a similar vein, members of the Worker’s Party or American Communist Party’s critiques of inequality and class hierarchies proved significant during the period of U.S. occupation of Haiti. These viewpoints demonstrated the ideological connections of free-market strategies and enterprises with the emergence of imperial ventures. Thus, the opposition to U.S. intervention in Haiti was varied and possessed a number of influences—from national discriminatory and violent policies and practices against women and U.S. blacks to global peace initiatives and anti-colonial agendas coordinated by a cadre of multi-racial activists, intellectuals, and educators.