Although we have been here so long, we have preserved our feelings as Americans. We try to keep our people together here as Americans.
—Rev. Jacob James, 1871
With the end of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) the Haitian government made it known that it would welcome all people of African descent willing to come to their nation, which then occupied the entire Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Haiti viewed the United States as a potential pool of laborers to repopulate their country. Beginning in 1818, in Philadelphia, American abolitionists saw Haiti as a convenient depository for African-Americans. Hoping to create formal diplomatic relations with the United States, in April 1824, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to pay passage for all immigrants. He also offered to support them for a four-month period after their arrival, to grant land at the rate of 36 acres for every 12 laborers, and to finance the trip of those who desired to return to the States.
In August 1824, African-Americans from Philadelphia and other U.S. coastal cities, filled with hope and encouragement, accepted the offer. Some saw Haiti as a new black homeland in the Americas, a place to construct new lives in a new nation. Most believed that Haiti was the solution to a lack of opportunities in an increasingly racist United States.
As many as 6,000 people made the trip, although fewer stayed permanency. The emigrants were situated in 10 regions across the island. Despite the seemingly honorable objectives, the scheme did not generate the expected results. Illegal transportation schemes by greedy sea captains, mismanagement of the relocation program by the Haitians, and a supercilious attitude from some Americans created many practical problems. Compounded by profound cultural, linguistic, and religious differences between the newcomers and the Haitians, both the Haitian politicians and the North American abolitionists became disillusioned rather quickly and the project ceased in June 1825. Similar problems would later emerge between African-Americans and indigenous Africans in the American Colonization Society’s colony of Liberia between 1830 and 1839.
Only one of the American colonies in Haiti survived. For several years the authors have been working with this community to investigate issues of ethnic continuity. On the Samaná peninsula, of what is now the northeastern Dominican Republic, live the descendants of African-Americans who migrated in 1825, originally assigned to cultivate fruits and vegetables, primarily coconuts. They initially settled along the south shore of the peninsula, beyond the sandy beaches, shaded by groves of coconut palms. In 1871 they numbered between 500 and 600 people. Their houses were simple, single-or double-room, thatched structures with wattle-and-daub walls. Small agricultural plots were located near homesteads, and their diet consisted of plantains, sweet potatoes, yams, maize, rice, peas, beans, cassava, pork, beef, poultry, cane, cacao, and coffee. Tropical produce was abundant, and surpluses were sold in the Turks and Caicos Islands and elsewhere in the western Caribbean.
The Samaná American community has been a relatively closed group, isolated from the rest of the country by a nonexistent road system and accessible only by boat, held together culturally by religious beliefs, a common language, and other cultural factors determined by a common origin and structurally by their church organization.
Today some 8,000 descendants of the original emigrants still speak an American English derived from the early 19th century. Most are Protestants, in contrast to the Roman Catholicism practiced by the majority Spanish-Dominican population. Several denominations are represented, including Evangelical, Pentecostal, Church of God, African Methodist Episcopal, Seventh Day Adventist, as well as some Roman Catholic. There has been considerable congregational intermarriage and visitations. Funerals and weddings have been conducted in one church and baptism from those unions at another church. Despite the dominant Spanish-Dominican culture, North American surnames, including uncommon ones such as Willmore and Vanderhorst, patterns of etiquette, music, and foodstuffs have survived. American English has always been the preferred language in the home, and is considered a source of identity and cultural insulation, though it is now threatened by “Tourist English.”
While their geographic isolation has undermined their full inclusion in the developing national economy and culture, their effort to maintain their ethnic identity has not been easy. Spanish-Dominicans refer to them as cocolos—a derisive term in which the characteristics of black, Evangelical Protestant, English accent, and Samaná all converge. There has been increasing intermarriage with Spanish-Dominicans and deviation from strict Protestant norms of earlier generations. Brutal strong-man governments have outlawed English, undermined local development, and even destroyed the historic downtown of Santa Barbara Samaná in a deliberate fire.
However, many still identify themselves as Americans with Philadelphia as their place of origin. They hope for repatriation, or at least some reunion with branches of their families still residing in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic states. The future of these “Americans” is uncertain. Yet their lives shed light on an overlooked historical alternative to racial animus in the United States and on the bravery and utopian resilience that fuels millions of people who, today, uprooted by war and poverty, relocate in pursuit of a better world.
JOHN M. WEEKS is the Librarian of the University Museum Library. VIRGINIA RAMIREZ ZABALA is a Master of Liberal Arts student at the University of Pennsylvania.
For Further Reading
Dixon, Chris. African America and Haiti: Emigration and Black Nationalism in the Nineteenth Sentry. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.