- The Transnational Work of Moral ElevationAfrican American Women and the Reformation of Haiti, 1874–1950
In the past several decades, the public lives of black women in the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth-century United States have garnered significant scholarly attention. Works focusing on their participation in women’s suffrage groups, religious institutions, and political organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) show how black women resisted the intertwined realities of racism and sexism.1 In addition, some scholars have begun to broaden our understanding of African American internationalism by drawing attention to the global outlooks of black women rather than prominent black men during the Jim Crow era. Compelling works demonstrate that elite and middle-class black women in the NACW, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and other organizations studied social conditions abroad and concluded that white supremacy was a universal problem.2 Still, despite their strong insights into the global outlooks and activism of black women, this body of scholarship has not yet provided a definitive answer to two essential questions: How did black female professionals think about their relationship with people, especially women, of African descent abroad, and in what ways did they envision the African diaspora as a resource in their struggle for racial progress and gender equality across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
This essay draws needed attention to these questions in black intellectual history by examining evolutions in the relationship between elite and [End Page 128] middle-class black women and Haitians from Reconstruction through the mid-twentieth century.3 African Americans possessed a longstanding interest in Haiti, a nation that became a problematic emblem of black freedom after its founding by former slaves in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution. Put simply, African Americans vacillated between celebrations of the overthrow of white supremacy in Haiti and concern about the poor international reputation of a country widely regarded as a dubious experiment in black self-government. This ambivalence about Haiti evolved after the U.S. Civil War as many African Americans expressed a heightened understanding of and concern about the imagined link between black independence in the Caribbean and black self-determination in the United States. They recognized that white Americans justified white supremacy and the denial of full citizenship to African Americans by disparaging Haiti. Accordingly, a diverse range of black leaders in the post-emancipation United States assigned Haiti great importance.
In particular, elite and middle-class black women eager to contribute to the black freedom struggle assumed the burden of ensuring that Haiti demonstrated the potential of black citizens in the United States. From Reconstruction through the period between the two world wars, a succession of black women’s organizations linked by their leadership and outlooks prioritized the reform of Haitian life and culture. During Reconstruction, female missionaries from the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church traveled to Haiti with the intention of improving the religious and domestic lives of Haitian women and children. After the National Baptist Convention (NBC) eclipsed the AME Church as the largest black religious organization in the United States, its female members built upon these efforts. More specifically, at the turn of the twentieth century, members of the Women’s Convention (WC), Auxiliary to the NBC, helped bring Haitian women to the United States to receive lessons in scripture and domestic science that they could then export back to Haiti. Some of these WC leaders were also officers of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (ICWDR). During the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915–1934, that organization continued to see foreign intervention in the form of material and moral uplift as the best means of Haitian progress. As evidenced by the writings of NACW officers, continuities in the way in which leading black women conceptualized their activism in Haiti would persist even after the end of the occupation and the removal of U.S. Marines from Haiti.
The black women who perceived themselves as agents of civilization abroad became leaders in the black freedom struggle at home by addressing the perceived travails of Haitian women and children and ostensibly...