“The Same Mountaintop”: Louisiana and Haiti

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In Issue 100, Spring 2018 of Oxford American, Laine Kaplan-Levenson writes about New Orleans—“the northernmost Caribbean city”—and its ties to Haitian history. Here are excerpts of “The Same Mountaintop.”

In a hot, late-summer morning in New Orleans last year, I found Barbara Trevigne lying face down in the St. Jude Shrine at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic church on the edge of the French Quarter. The size of a large walk-in closet, the shrine was washed in a blurred glow from candles crowding floor-to-ceiling shelves along the walls. Bathed in this light, Trevigne whispered prayers into the floor, unconcerned with dirtying her spotless, all-white ensemble. I took a seat in the nave, a few rows from the shrine, and watched as she finished, rose, and walked over to join me in the pew. “I am Creole,” she said. “My culture is Creole, and I maintain all the rituals of my ancestors.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d met Trevigne. I produce a history podcast for New Orleans Public Radio called TriPod, a show created in 2015 in anticipation of the city’s tricentennial celebration this year. I had previously been reporting on Louisiana’s disappearing coastline for WWNO when my boss asked me to refocus from the uncomfortable reality of the city’s precarious future to the uncomfortable reality of its palliated past. My charge was to build a space for local experts—New Orleans natives, elders, students, academics, archaeologists, organizers, spiritual leaders—intent on challenging the dominant public narratives about the city to evoke a more honest self-representation. I’d interviewed Trevigne, a historian, author, and expert on free women of color in antebellum New Orleans, for an episode about the misunderstood “quadroon” balls of that era.

A native New Orleanian, Trevigne can trace her family back to precolonial Louisiana. Once you know her, she’s easy to spot; Trevigne is one of the few remaining people who won’t leave the house without tying her dyed red hair beneath a colonial-era head wrap called a tignon. Her Francophone heritage is part of her identity (she signs her emails “Amitiés, Madame”), and in our initial conversation she mentioned that she has Haitian roots. “Most people I spend time with in New Orleans do,” she added.

It was a connection I had already discovered in my ongoing research at The Historic New Orleans Collection. In the preface to Common Routes, a large-format book featuring essays alongside images drawn from the archive, THNOC Executive Director Priscilla Lawrence writes, “Perhaps no group contributed more to the cultural development of Louisiana in the decades following the purchase than émigrés from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue.” When I asked Trevigne if we could talk again about this part of her identity, she suggested meeting at the St. Jude shrine; it’s one of the spots in New Orleans where she feels most connected to Haiti. There, she explained, “because of the candles, because of the saints—it feels right.”

New Orleans is often referred to, especially by locals, as the northernmost Caribbean city. And Haiti is at the core of the claim. “Nowhere else in the U.S. has a longer, deeper relationship with Haiti than New Orleans,” wrote Beverly Bell, associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac in 2012. “Today, the populations share gene pools and names via the same French, Spanish, and African ancestors.” To understand this is to understand the parallel courses of two New World colonies that fatefully crossed paths, resulting in the expulsion of French rule in each territory and a new connective tissue built through diasporic migration patterns. But before that point of intersection—the Haitian Revolution and its repercussions—New Orleans was still La Nouvelle-Orléans, and Haiti was Saint-Domingue, the wealthiest colony in the Americas.

In the mid-eighteenth century, French planters enjoyed enormous profits from Saint-Domingue’s sugar and coffee industries at the expense of brutal, often fatal labor endured by enslaved Africans who were considered nothing more than human machines. The Haitian Revolution started in August of 1791 in the northern part of the island, where runaways and free blacks had organized in the mountains. The rebellion spread under the direction of revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture, as the enslaved and maroon populations—who outnumbered whites on the island ten to one—set fire to one plantation after the next, torching the colonial slave system. Napoleon’s army surrendered on November 30, 1803, and Haiti declared independence on January 1. This victory remains the largest and most successful slave uprising in history.

Thus, the former colony of Saint-Domingue became the first black nation—called Haiti, from the indigenous language of the island’s native Taíno people. It means “land of high mountains.” (Duke University historian Laurent Dubois writes that the indigenous name was chosen to signify not just the rejection of slavery, “but also the rejection of the full spectrum of brutalities carried out by Europeans in the Americas.”) The loss of Saint-Domingue was a massive blow to France’s wealth, prompting Napoleon to sell a huge tract of land to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Over the course of the revolution, thousands of Saint-Domingue émigrés—white, free black, and enslaved, fleeing from one colony to the next—arrived in Louisiana (which was under Spanish sovereignty from 1763 to 1802). As New Orleans was designated an American city, it was simultaneously flooded with Haitian refugees.

The influx continued in the years following the revolution. In 1809 alone, nearly ten thousand refugees from the former Saint- Domingue arrived in New Orleans, doubling the city’s population. “They had a profound impact upon New Orleans’s development,” notes Louisiana historian Carl A. Brasseaux. “Not only were these immigrants largely responsible for the establishment and success of the state’s sugar industry, but they also gave New Orleans many of its most notable early institutions—the French opera, newspapers, schools, and colleges—and ultimately its antebellum French flavor.” Demographers point to this second wave of refugees as having consolidated the city’s tripartite racial makeup; the 1810 census records document the city’s population as roughly one-third white and one-quarter free people of color, with enslaved Africans making up the remainder.

Barbara Trevigne believes her forebears arrived in New Orleans during this period. Part of Trevigne’s ancestry descends from the Morisseaus, a French family who owned a plantation in St. Marc, on Haiti’s western coast. Trevigne postulates that her family fled during the first uprisings in the early 1790s, first to Jamaica, and then Cuba. In 1809, the Spanish expelled all Haitian refugees from Cuba; many went to New Orleans. “They knew people who had fled here in previous years. And they had heard the climate was the same,” she said. “So they came.”

Haiti gives Trevigne a sense of identity, just like her ancestors had given one to New Orleans two centuries before. “We’re more Haitian than anything,” she said of her fellow native New Orleanians. And then, to prove her point, Barbara turned to a woman sitting a few pews behind us in the church, and asked, “You have ancestors from Haiti?” [. . .]

Read full article at https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/1424-the-same-mountaintop

[Image above: “Kochon sa yo kon danse / These Pigs know how to dance” (2017), by Didier William, from the series Swarm.]

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