In 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson travelled from Chicago to DC to participate in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation proclamation. He was among the thousands of black people who went to see the exhibit which highlighted the progress made since slavery had been abolished. The event inspired Woodson who formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) to “to promote the scientific study of black life and history.”
The following year, he established the Journal of Negro History, and encouraged black civic organizations to promote researchers’ findings. In 1924, his fraternity brothers at the Omega Psi Phi, created Negro History and Literature Week, later renamed Negro Achievement Week. Wanting to reach a wider audience, Woodson decided in 1925 that the ASNLH would take over and announced Negro History Week in February, 1926.
February was chosen for several reasons: 1. It included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, which black communities had celebrated for several decades. However, Woodson wanted to broaden the scope. He believed that the focus should be on “the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.” The response was overwhelming. Teachers solicited materials and history clubs were established, and soon mayors issued proclamations for Negro History Week.
Over the next decades, efforts to expand Negro History Week increased and in many communities Negro History Week became Negro History Month. In 1976, Negro History Week became Black History Month, and, because of the ASNLH’s efforts, since the mid-1970s, every president has issued a proclamation endorsing the annual theme.
Haiti is often left out of Black History Month. The first inhabitants of what are now Haiti and the Dominican Republic were the Taíno, who may have arrived as early as 4000 BCE. Other indigenous groups from present-day Venezuela joined them and settled across the Caribbean. The Taino name for the island was Ay-ti meaning “land of mountains.” Columbus re-named it La Isla Española (‘The Spanish Island’) when he arrived in 1492, which evolved to Hispaniola.
The Spanish brought sugar cane from the Canary Islands, causing a significant increase in West African slaves in the early sixteenth century. This led to the first major slave revolt in the Americas in 1522. The uprising occurred at the sugar plantation of Diego Colón, Christopher Columbus’s son. Many slaves escaped to the mountains and form the first communities of freed slaves. The communities grew as more imported slaves escaped. This instability led the French to establish control of parts of the island and the nearby island of La Tortue (Tortuga) in the early 1600s. In 1664, France formally claimed the western portion of Haiti, which they called Saint-Domingue. Thy too, established plantations, with coffee in addition to sugar, importing millions of Africans as slave labor. As with the Spanish, thousands escaped into the mountains and established free settlements. By 1790 there were more than 500,000 enslaved Africans, 28,000 free gens de couleur, the free, mostly mixed-race intermediate class, and about 30,000 Europeans (mostly French), who held all political and economic power.
In August 1791, enslaved Africans in the north rebelled and the revolution spread. A Haitian born man Toussaint L’Ouverture soon took control and formed alliances with the gens de couleur and the escaped slaves. By 1794, L’Ouverture’s forces had liberated the colony from French control. In response, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a contingent of French troops in 1801 to subdue the colony and reinforce slavery. L’Ouverture was captured and taken to France where he died in prison the next year.
But this was not the end. Others took up the cause and the French army defeated. On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared its independence. It became the second independent republic in the New World after the United States and was re-named Hayti (Haiti). The 1805 Constitution, which reaffirmed the abolition of slavery, made Haiti the first free black state in the Western hemisphere. Official racial distinctions were eliminated, and all Haitians were considered black.
France refused to recognize Haiti’s independence until the 1830s when Haiti agreed to pay 150 million francs (over $21 billion) to compensate French plantation owners for their losses. This plunged the Haitian government into debt, truing it from one of France’s wealthiest colonies to one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. In 1844, the eastern two-thirds of the island declared its independence and became the Republic of Santo Domingo (today, the Dominican Republic). The United States did not recognize the nation until 1862.
In 1915, during the First World War, the United States, which already controlled the Dominican Republic, invaded Haiti. The occupation ended in 1934 and was then controlled by a mixed-race minority. In 1957, Dr François Duvalier was elected by popular vote. However, his regime was soon being criticized for its harsh treatment of political adversaries. When he died in 1971, his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier took control.
On February 7, 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier, the “president for life” of Haiti, who had succeeded his father in 1971 at 19, fled to France after an uprising against the dictator. Five years later, on February 7, 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the first democratically-elected president of Haiti. However, Aristide’s time in office was also not without controversy, with rumours of human rights abuse, drug trafficking, and other crimes. He was ousted by a coup in 1991, returned to power in 1994 to finish his term, then re-elected in 2001. But he was ousted in another coup in 2004 before going into exile in South Africa, which he is forbidden to leave, until he was permitted to return to Haiti in 2011. In March 2017, Aristide survived a possible assassination attempt in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Julia Gaffield, a Canadian graduate student at Duke University, found “the first known, government-issued version of Haiti’s founding document” in the British National Archives. She found the eight page document in a leather-bound binder of Jamaican records from 1804.
On February 7, 2013, Mississippi became the last state in the United States to certify the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. The resolution was ratified in 1995 but was never sent to the U.S Archivist. The error was discovered after a Mississippi resident Ranjan Batra saw the film Lincoln, which includes the fight the pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Batra did some research and learned that the amendment was ratified after three-fourths of the states approved it in December 1865. The other states did, though Mississippi did not ratify it until 1995. But the amendment was never made official because the U.S. Archivist was not notified, though the reasons are unclear. The Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann sent a copy of the resolution to the Office of the Federal Register on January 30 and the Federal Register made the ratification official on February 7, 2013.