Finding power in history: Haiti’s fight for Black freedom continues to inspire today

We take a look back at the historical significance of the Haitian revolution, the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. Members of Atlanta's Haitian diaspora share how they remember learning about their country's history, and what it means to them.

Credit: Illustration by Richard Watkins/AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
We take a look back at the historical significance of the Haitian revolution, the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. Members of Atlanta's Haitian diaspora share how they remember learning about their country's history, and what it means to them.

Credit: Illustration by Richard Watkins/AJC

In the history of abolition, Haiti looms large

For Judith Delus Montgomery, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, New Year’s Day celebrations in her childhood home always included a taste of her mother’s homemade soup joumou, a hearty stew with a pumpkin base.

It’s also a potent symbol of emancipation.

Delus Montgomery, now an attorney and a founding member of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of Georgia, learned the story from her family: Under French rule, colonizers forced enslaved Africans to cultivate squash for soup joumou – but forbade them from eating it. When Haitians won their independence on Jan. 1, 1804, the once forbidden dish became, as Delus Montgomery put it, “our meal of freedom.”

Centuries later, soup joumou’s enduring place on the dining table has helped generations of Haitians reflect on the legacy of the Haitian revolution, the series of conflicts between slaves and colonists that culminated in the soup-eating tradition – and in the world’s first Black-led republic.

Combined ShapeCaption
Judith Delus Montgomery, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is an attorney and a founding member and president-elect of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of Georgia.

Credit: Judith Delus Montgomery

Judith Delus Montgomery, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is an attorney and a founding member and president-elect of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of Georgia.

Credit: Judith Delus Montgomery

Combined ShapeCaption
Judith Delus Montgomery, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is an attorney and a founding member and president-elect of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of Georgia.

Credit: Judith Delus Montgomery

Credit: Judith Delus Montgomery

“My mom let us know that it was a symbol of our independence and that it was what our ancestors drank. We knew very early on about the importance of the Haitian revolution and what it means,” Delus Montgomery said. “It was instilled in us that it was a very big deal.”

In Delus Montgomery’s experience, more and more African Americans are also “understanding the role Haiti played in their freedom.”

Slave rebellion in colonial Haiti, then a wealthy territory that was among the world’s largest sugar producers, kicked off in 1791. When independence from France was gained 13 years later, the former colony made history for having staged one of world history’s largest and most successful slave uprisings.

More milestones quickly followed. On the first day of its existence as an independent nation, Haiti banned slavery. It was the first country to do so. The country’s first constitution, published one year later, stated that position unequivocally: “Slavery is forever abolished,” it read. Haiti’s abolition of slavery also extended to the slave trade (in the U.S., by contrast, there was a 57-year-gap between the abolition of slave trade and slavery).

Combined ShapeCaption
This 1839 engraving by Auguste Raffet and Hébert, depicts the taking of Crête-à-Pierrot in 1802, during the Haitian Revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

Credit: WikiMedia

This 1839 engraving by Auguste Raffet and Hébert, depicts the taking of Crête-à-Pierrot in 1802, during the Haitian Revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

Credit: WikiMedia

Combined ShapeCaption
This 1839 engraving by Auguste Raffet and Hébert, depicts the taking of Crête-à-Pierrot in 1802, during the Haitian Revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

Credit: WikiMedia

Credit: WikiMedia

“There’s a pride that we have that’s innate in is because we know the history of our ancestors,” Delus Montgomery said. “I’m able to do what I do and be who I am because of them.”

Julia Gaffield is a history professor at Georgia State University whose research focuses on Haiti. In her view, celebration of Black history must emphasize, and not erase, Haitians’ bold revolutionary acts, and the message they sent to slaveholding nations around the world.

“Haiti must be at the center of every conversation about the abolition of slavery,” she wrote. “Haitian defied all odds and fought courageously for their freedom; no one gave it to them.”

Finding inspiration in history

Combined ShapeCaption
Watson Escarment (L) and Claude-Henry Pierre pose for a photograph in Lawrenceville Sunday, February 6, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Watson Escarment (L)  and Claude-Henry Pierre pose for a photograph in Lawrenceville Sunday, February 6, 2022.    STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Watson Escarment (L) and Claude-Henry Pierre pose for a photograph in Lawrenceville Sunday, February 6, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Watson Escarment and Claude-Henry Pierre are both members of Lawrenceville’s Good Samaritan Haitian Alliance Church (GSHAC). Each learned about the Haitian revolution in different ways, and at different life stages.

Pierre grew up in Haiti and was taught the history of the revolution in school.

“For me, my childhood recollection is learning that we have made history in Haiti. We have a unique history and Haiti stands for human dignity, for self-determination,” he said.

The revolution, he explained, was framed as a “major contribution” to world history.

“It was the most radical revolution in the history of the world, to create a nation out of nothing, slaves defeating one of the most powerful armies in the world at that time.”

Haitians in metro Atlanta

Total number of U.S residents who reported Haitian ancestry: 1,040,352

Total Georgians who reported Haitian ancestry: 28,971

Total number of residents of the Atlanta metropolitan area who claim Haitian ancestry: 24,809

The five cities in Georgia with the largest numbers of residents who claim Haitian ancestry: Atlanta (1,098), Hampton (835), McDonough (830), Union City (524) and Johns Creek (506)

The five cities in Georgia with the largest percentages of residents who claim Haitian ancestry: Hampton (11%), Adel (4%), McDonough (3%) and Sharpsburg (total population 461, 3% Haitian)

Data from a 2020 report of the American Community Survey (ACS)

By contrast, Escarment grew up outside of the Caribbean country, though he was born there. He lived in South Florida before moving to the Atlanta area over 20 years ago. Learning about the milestones of the Haitian revolution as an adult helped him reevaluate his heritage, and challenge the largely negative connotations and U.S. media portrayals of his homeland.

It continues to suffer from natural disasters and political instability, including a recent presidential assassination.

Growing up, “you weren’t proud to be Haitian,” Escarment said, noting he faced harassment and stigma because of his country of origin, which many around him connected to poverty or disease. “To me, [Haiti] was not something I wanted to be necessarily associated with at the time.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Watson Escarment (L) and Claude-Henry Pierre pose for a photograph outside the Good Samaritan Haitian Alliance Church Lawrenceville Sunday, February 6, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

 Watson Escarment (L)  and Claude-Henry Pierre pose for a photograph outside the Good Samaritan Haitian Alliance Church  Lawrenceville Sunday, February 6, 2022.   STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Watson Escarment (L) and Claude-Henry Pierre pose for a photograph outside the Good Samaritan Haitian Alliance Church Lawrenceville Sunday, February 6, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

That mindset changed when he began reading about the fight for Black freedom that led to Haiti’s founding.

“I was really blown away learning about that … I came to fall in love with my ancestry, with who I am,” he said. “In terms of what the world knows about Haiti, it’s something that’s really negative for the most part … The significance of the Haitian revolution is definitely underplayed.”

In Escarment’s view, the story and accomplishments of the Haitian revolution is something that can inspire not just Haitian-Americans like himself, but also members of the U.S.’s broader African American population, especially in the context Black History Month.

“They can learn about Haitian history, they can take from that fighting spirit, but also move beyond 1804,” he said. “Take that same spirit and use it to inspire change today.”

Black History Month 2022 from AJC

The AJC’s Black History Month series in February focused on the role of health and wellness in the Black community. In addition to the traditional stories that we do on African American pioneers, these pieces appeared in our Living and A sections every day during the month. You can also go to ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on the African American people, places and organizations that have changed the world.

Health and wellness series

Unapologetically ATL – For coverage of Black Atlanta culture

AJC Black History Month full coverage

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.

AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.