“The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution, myself, and if I do say it, I think it’s a pretty good Constitution.” So said Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reporters in 1920. As he campaigned for vice president, Roosevelt hoped to promote his talents as a state-builder. His boasting, however, would have repercussions that would threaten Roosevelt’s presidential aspirations more than a decade later and raise enduring questions about the tension between economic populism and racial justice.
Like all Americans in the throes of the Great Depression, African-American voters in 1932 were receptive to economic populism. Desperate for emergency relief and good jobs, voters hoped that the country’s leaders could jumpstart the nation’s stalled economy.
In the context of Jim Crow America, many black voters also sought a president that would support racial equality and black self-determination. Remarkably, a candidate’s position on Haiti emerged as a test of that support.
A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to move into Haiti. Haitians had ousted their seventh president in seven years, and Wilson feared that Haiti’s apparent instability would invite European powers, most notably Germany, to establish a foothold in the Americas and threaten U.S. control of the Panama Canal. Wilson was also a staunch segregationist and vocal critic of Reconstruction who exhibited little faith in black people to govern the affairs of state in the U.S. or abroad. Under the authority of the White House, America’s military brass, civilian staffers, and foreign investors effectively took control of Haiti’s financial, political, and physical infrastructure.
Roosevelt worked as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson. He spent no more than a week in Haiti during the occupation. Still, Roosevelt observed and helped enable the State Department to reinstate corveé, a form of forced labor widely practiced in the French colonies and later employed in the American South following natural disasters in Florida and the Mississippi Delta. Under corveé, Haitian citizens worked on road and other modernization projects, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Oftentimes, overseers bound workers together with rope or chains and meted out brutal physical punishments with the help of the Gendarmerie, a 3000-person Haitian police force that answered to the U.S. Secretary of State.
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