By Dr. Ron Daniels
President, Institute of the Black World 21st Century,
Founder, Haiti Support Project
January 1, 2014 marked the 210th Anniversary of the Haitian Revolution, one of the greatest events in human history. Never before had an enslaved people rebelled against their slave masters to declare their independence and establish a nation. Inspired by the exhortations and sacrifice of the spiritual priest Boukman and ably led by Toussaint Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Petion, this is precisely what the enslaved Africans of Haiti achieved. They crushed the military forces of Napoleon Bonaparte at the pinnacle of his power and established the world’s first Black Republic!
As I have noted on numerous occasions, the Haitian Revolution was a bright beacon of hope to enslaved Africans everywhere because it shattered the myth of white supremacy at a time when the holocaust of enslavement was flourishing and fueling the economic development of Europe and the embryonic American nation. The improbable emergence of a “Black nation” and the symbol it represented for enslaved Africans posed a serious threat to a thriving enterprise in human souls, nourishing the commercial, financial and industrial development of erstwhile competing European powers. They had a collective interest in denigrating, demonizing, marginalizing and crippling this symbol of Black empowerment … and they did everything possible to achieve this objective.
But, the genie was out of the bottle. The efforts by Europe and America to demonize and suppress Haiti notwithstanding, the saga of the glorious defeat of the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte and the establishment of a Black Republic was indelibly etched into the “souls of Black folks.” If Black/African Haitians could defeat the European colonial slave masters (the Haitians also defeated the British and Spanish), there was a concrete example and thereby spark of hope that people of African descent throughout the world could defeat their white supremacist oppressors. It is for this reason that I have consistently argued that people of African descent owe a special debt of gratitude to the Haitian freedom fighters and Haiti for giving Black people back our dignity, hope, inspiration during the bitter season of enslavement and colonial domination. It is this debt that I contend must be paid by a collective/Pan African effort to resurrect the first Black Republic and return it to its rightful place as a bright beacon of hope for people of African descent and oppressed humanity. Repaying this debt is the driving, motivating force behind my relentless commitment via the Haiti Support Project (HSP) to educate, politicize, mobilize/organize Africans in America to become a powerful partner and force, respectfully contributing to the process of democracy and development in the first Black Republic!
Ten years ago, January 1, 2004, I had the honor and privilege of traveling to Haiti as a special guest, along with Danny Glover and Herb Boyd, to observe the official Bicentennial Commemoration of the Haitian Revolution. The proceedings were presided over by Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected President. What a memorable day! While there were dignitaries present from around the world, we were particularly proud of the fact that Erna Letemps, a Haitian American associate of HSP, drew the honor of singing the Haitian National Anthem on this auspicious occasion. In another unforgettable highlight of the day Leslie Voltaire, Minister of Haitians Living Abroad, arranged transportation for our party to travel to Jacmel to visit Haiti’s First Daughter, the highly acclaimed writer Edwidge Danticat. It was a wonderful afternoon. In an ominous sign of foreshadowing events to come, when our party returned from the visit with Sister Danticat, streets in downtown Port-Au-Prince were filled with bricks, bottles, debris and others signs of strife as forces opposed to President Aristide had turned out for demonstrations.
The day was also exhilarating because the Haiti Support Project was in the final stages of organizing perhaps the most ambitious and amazing tribute to the Haitian Revolution and Haiti ever attempted by African Americans – Cruising Into History, an effort to charter an entire cruise ship for a Pilgrimage to Haiti in August 2004 to coincide with Bwa Kayiman, the insurrection by enslaved Haitians, led by Boukman in 1891, which was the inspirational spark that ignited the Haitian Revolution. Cruising Into History (CIH) was envisioned as a spectacular but relevant/meaningful climax to a year of celebrating the Haitian Revolution. The goal was to mobilize hundreds of African Americans, Haitian Americans and friends of Haiti to embark on an extraordinary Pilgrimage to connect with our sisters and brothers in Haiti and build bonds of cultural, educational, economic and political solidarity; bonds that would contribute to the development of Haiti well into the 21st Century.
Consistent with HSP’s vision/mission of “building a constituency for Haiti” among African Americans and other people of African descent, CIH was conceived as a way, not only to take a cruise ship to Haiti to celebrate the Bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution but as a vehicle to provide massive public education about the history, culture and contributions of the Haitian people to the Black World and humanity. Because of the limited number of quality hotel accommodations in Haiti, particularly in the northern region of the country near Cap Haitien, the decision was to make a cruise ship the hotel. This region was selected as the focal point of the Pilgrimage because of its proximity to the Citadel, the magnificent mountaintop fortress built by King Henri Christophe to deter further French or European invasions after the Revolution.
Conceived by Black minds and built by Black hands the Citadel, which sits high atop a mountain, is one of the great monuments of freedom/self-determination in the world. As such, UNICEF has declared it one of the “wonders” of the world! The ultimate goal of CIH was to take hundreds of African-Americans, Haitian Americans and friends of Haiti to the Citadel to promote cultural-historical tourism as a socially responsible mechanism for people-based economic development. As organizers we also hoped to secure sufficient sponsorships to cover the expenses of the Pilgrimage and generate a surplus to create a financial foundation for the emerging Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW) and the Haiti Support Project.
It was an awesome undertaking. To achieve success we had to persuade Royal Caribbean International, the only cruise line that travels to Haiti, to charter a ship to a relatively small, non-profit organization. Second, we needed to persuade 3,000 people in a skeptical public in Black America to sign-up for a cruise to “the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.” Finally, we needed to persuade sponsors that investing their dollars in a venture of this kind was a worthwhile proposition, one that was “safe” to enhance their corporate brand.
Given the occasion of the Bicentennial of the Haiti Revolution and the deep reverence for this historic achievement among Black organizations and leaders in Black America, we were fortunate to secure the endorsement and commitments of engagement/participation from a number of prominent African Americans. Marc Morial, former Mayor of New Orleans, who had recently been named President/CEO of the National Urban League, agreed to serve as Chairman of CIH (Marc’s family is of Haitian descent). Danny Glover, a passionate supporter of Haiti, eagerly agreed to serve as Ambassador-at-Large. Congress Members John Conyers, Maxine Waters and Sheila Jackson-Lee; Bev Smith, Talk Show Host, American Urban Radio Networks; Kwesi Mfume, President, NAACP; George Fraser, President/CEO, FraserNet; Susan L. Taylor, Editorial Editor, Essence Magazine; Leonard Dunston, President, National Association of Black Social Workers; Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts and Rev. Dr. Major Jemison, Progressive National Baptist Convention; Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, President, Rainbow/PUSH; L. Londell McMillan, President, North Star, Inc.; Haki Madhubuti, author, poet and President, Third World Press; Sonia Sanchez, author, poet; Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice-Chairperson, New York State Board of Regents; Atty. Faya Rose Toure, Founder, National Voting Rights Museum; Drs. Karl and Faye Rodney, Editor/Publishers, New York Carib News; Joe Beasley, Southern Rainbow/Push Coalition; and, Dr. Gilbert Parks, Chairman Emeritus, National Medical Association were among the African American leaders who embraced CIH.
The Pilgrimage also had strong support within the Haitian community, including the Government of Haiti. With the blessing of President Aristide, Leslie Voltaire, Minister for Haitians Living Abroad, became an active proponent for CIH. Guy Victor, Counsel General from Miami, and Harry Fouche, Counsel General from New York, were very supportive as well. The American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti endorsed CIH as did a number of Haitian American leaders: Edwidge Danticat; Jean Jean Pierre, artist, journalist, political commentator; Jan Mapou, Proprietor Libreri Mapou; Dr. Rudy Moise, President, Radio Carnival; Serge and May Parisien, National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians; and, Ricot Dupuy, Radio Soleil to mention a few.
This impressive array of African American and Haitian leaders was helpful in moving all aspects of CIH forward. But, Royal Caribbean International Cruise Line (RCI) was initially reluctant to take on such an ambitious and, from its perspective, risk-filled project. After all, what assurances did the company have that HSP could implement such a grandiose enterprise? And, if they agreed and the project failed, would it adversely affect RCI’s brand? Fortunately, though HSP’s relationship with RCI had gotten off to a rocky start, there was a reservoir of good will that was the basis for frank and productive discussions. A few years earlier, an HSP contingent aboard an RCI ship had been denied the right to leave its private destination at Labadee (which at that time was not even listed as being in Haiti) to travel to the nearby town of Milot for a tour of the Citadel. Though RCI had been advised of our intent in advance, apparently the Port Manager at Labadee was instructed to deny us permission to leave Labadee on the grounds of potential liability to the company should anything happen to our group.
This event generated a great deal of anger because the tour of the Citadel was the primary reason for taking the cruise. At the conclusion of the cruise, I shall never forget penning a Vantage Point Article entitled: Royal Caribbean Cruise Line Maintains Neo-Colonial Enclave in Haiti. In addition to reaching more than 100 Black Newspapers across the country, I circulated the article to every major civil rights/human rights leader as well as faith, civic and fraternal organizations along with a letter of protest to Richard Fain, Chairman/CEO, RCI. Chairman Fain agreed to meet with an HSP team at RCI’s headquarters in Miami at which we articulated our embarrassment and outrage at being denied the right to leave RCI’s premises at Labadee, (also attending this crucial meeting were Maryse Kedar, former Minister of Tourism for Haiti and Director of Operations at Labadee and Michele Smith, Director of Communications, two sisters who eventually became allies of HSP in our efforts to build a constructive working relationship with RCI). While stating his reservations about our desire to venture beyond the walls of RCI’s compound, Chairman Fain listened with a sympathetic ear, expressed regrets about the incident and gave assurances that should we wish to leave the compound in the future, we would not have the same problem. True to his word, the next year an HSP contingent was welcomed ashore by Minister Leslie Voltaire and escorted to the Citadel for a guided tour by Patrick Delatour — an expert on the history of the fortress who would come to serve as Minister of Tourism, and Jean V. Geneus, who would eventually serve as Minister for Haitians Living Abroad under President Rene Preval.
The positive outcome of these events was the basis for the reservoir of goodwill with RCI. Nonetheless, the discussions were not easy. Among other things, HSP sought to overcome RCI’s reservations by pressing the case for the importance of the Pilgrimage as part of the Bicentennial Commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the value of such a venture to RCI’s brand as it sought to expand its market share among African Americans. Apparently the same message was passed on to officials of RCI by some prominent Black leaders, most notably Kwesi Mfume, President of the NAACP, who was acquainted with HSP’s work in Haiti and our standing in Black America. Whatever the influences that turned the tide, officials at RCI eventually agreed to Charter a ship to HSP for CIH!
However, the terms and conditions for contracting the charter were challenging. When I first talked to the officer from RCI assigned to work with HSP on CIH, I mentioned the possibility of chartering “two cruise ships.” I could hear the utter disbelief and “get serious” attitude in her voice as she bluntly laid out the requirements for chartering a ship. HSP would have to produce a Letter of Credit of $2.5 million to insulate RCI from losses resulting from removing one of its ships from normal cruise rotation. And, the LOC had to be in place by a time certain or the offer would have to be denied. HSP and its supporters faced the daunting task of simultaneously promoting CIH to recruit 3,000 passengers to fill the ship, embarking on an improbable search to find an individual or corporation willing to put up a $2.5 million LOC and making our case to corporations/businesses in hopes of securing sponsorships.
I can confidently say, without fear of contradiction, that the public relations/outreach/mobilization campaign launched by HSP to promote CIH did more than any effort ever to educate African Americans about the history, culture, contributions and current status of the First Black Republic! Over a two year period HSP hosted major promotional Luncheon Receptions aboard RCI ships in Miami, New Orleans and New York. Other Receptions were held in Houston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Danny Glover, Marc Morial, Susan Taylor and Congressman John Conyers were frequent celebrity guests at these events.
The American Urban Radio Networks (AURN) took the lead as our national media partner with Bev Smith constantly utilizing her show to educate her audience about Haiti and provide information about CIH. AURN also ran celebrity PSAs to promote the Pilgrimage. In New York WLIB/WBLS regularly ran PSAs and provided opportunities for on-air interviews. WWRL and WBAI were also supportive. Radio Soleil took the lead in informing the Haitian community. In Philadelphia WHAT provided a similar opportunity. From WVON in Chicago, WAOK in Atlanta to stations in Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Houston, Cleveland and beyond, the radio stations and Black newspapers that supported CIH are too numerous to mention. If you listened to Black Talk Radio and read Black Newspapers, you heard about the history and culture of Haiti and the unique Pilgrimage being planned to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Haiti Revolution – Cruising Into History. Deposits were flowing in and people were signing up for a once in a life time experience.
The quest to secure the LOC proved very difficult. Working hand and hand with Wayne Thompson, IBW Board Member and the person with the most business acumen in our circle, we mounted an exhaustive effort to identify a person and/or company that would agree to provide the LOC. What seemed to us to be a simple proposition of recruiting 3,000 plus passengers to embark on this extraordinary cruise (which was the basic requirement to guarantee RCI sufficient revenues for removing a ship from scheduled travel rotation) was viewed in strict, risk aversion terms by virtually everyone we approached — Exciting project but not with my/our money as the guarantor. But, in a stroke of good fortune, someone referred us to a relatively quiet, little known (except in certain circles) philanthropically inclined businessman from Philadelphia named Dr. Walter Lomax.
I made a cold call. To my surprise Dr. Lomax, who was a major financial supporter of the Matah Network and other Black economic/business ventures, was familiar with my work via Vantage Point articles, which appeared in Black newspapers in Philadelphia. His wife Beverly was also a fan. I outlined the historical significance and rationale for CIH and detailed the requirements for the LOC. Dr. Lomax asked me to call him back after consulting with his legal advisor. When I followed-up, Dr. Lomax indicated that he would indeed prepare a letter of intent to provide the LOC to RCI. With time running out on this amazing project, this was just what the “doctor” ordered. We had what we needed to make CIH a reality. We faxed the letter to officials at RCI.
Despite the fact that HSP had identified someone to provide the LOC, RCI remained skeptical of our capacity to fill the ship and make the project a success. From their perspective, anything less than a stellar success would reflect badly on the RCI brand, particularly in its efforts to expand market share among African Americans. It was essentially a positive, not negative concern. Therefore, they offered an alternative proposal for moving the project forward. Rather than an entire ship, they offered a half-ship charter for up to 1,500 passengers instead of 3,000, and a LOC would not be required. There was one important catch. HSP would have to select a ship with an existing itinerary that included a stop in Haiti –as opposed to Haiti being the exclusive destination. Since non-HSP/CIH passengers would occupy the other half of the ship, the goal of cruising to Haiti, docking and remaining in the First Black Republic for three or four days was not possible under this arrangement. After consultation with friends/supporters, we elected to accept RCI’s offer for this less risky arrangement.
This decision was not without consequences. For a number of folks who had put up deposits, it was the opportunity to spend extended time in Haiti as part of the Commemoration of the Revolution that was the distinctive feature of CIH. This was particularly true of some Haitian American individuals and organizations that were supportive. When we announced the decision to accept the half ship charter, scores of passengers cancelled reservations and requested their deposits. It was a set-back, but our team, with the strong support of RCI, set about the task of recasting CIH as a Caribbean Pilgrimage that would climax with a triumphant stop in Haiti, the First Black Republic, to be welcomed by thousands of our Haitian sisters and brothers, capped by a tour of the magnificent Citadel. We selected an itinerary that included stops in Nassau, Bahamas and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. In each of these ports there would be a Welcome Ceremony and special cultural-historical tours. In addition, as had always been the plan, there would be cultural-educational workshops and cultural performances on the ship, celebrating the history and heritage of Haiti and the Revolution!
Now it was full speed ahead to make up for the passengers loss and reach the goal of 1,500. An extremely dedicated voluntary administrative team, initially consisting of Mary France-Daniels, IBW Board Member, Mawiyah Duperval, Founder, Haitian American Ministries, and Myrtha Wroy, an associate of Jan Mapou in Miami, busied themselves outreaching to organizations and individuals, collecting and recording deposits and working with RCI staff on the logistics and arrangements of on-ship programs and activities. Registrations were flowing and CIH was on the move! Unfortunately, there would be more storm clouds on the horizons.
As I related earlier, January 1, 2004, opposition forces filled the streets of Port Au Prince in an effort to discredit the Bicentennial Commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and demand the resignation of President Aristide. Over the next few weeks the conflict intensified as “rebels,” with the complicity of the U.S. Government, streamed across the border from the Dominican Republic to capture towns in the northern part of the country and march on the Capital. February 28, 2004, just weeks after the Bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution, Haiti’s first democratically elected President was deposed for the second time. The nation descended into chaos and the fate of CIH was once again in doubt. RCI suspended operations at Labadee – another set-back for a project intended to celebrate the history, culture and heritage of Haiti and enhance the struggle for democracy and development by strengthening bonds between Haitians and the sons and daughters of Africa in America.
My recollection is that HSP had signed up close to 1,000 passengers by the time RCI suspended operations in Haiti. What this actually meant was the cruise would go on but not make its scheduled stop in Haiti if the political turmoil continued into the summer. Our partners on the ground in Milot (the town located below the Citadel) were disappointed and anxious. They had spent months informing the people of the impending visit of hundreds of African Americans, Haitian Americans and friends of Haiti to their town en route to the Citadel. It would be the single most important visit the town had ever experienced. The excitement and anticipation were high. On the HSP side, the ouster of Aristide and the political turmoil prompted additional cancellations (which were still possible prior to the final deadline when HSP would be responsible for cancellations). But, with the installation of an interim Government and U.N. Peacekeepers dispatched to maintain order, RCI eventually resumed operations to Haiti.
CIH still had life but HSP faced new challenges and obstacles navigating very turbulent political waters surrounding the political crises in Haiti. Having passed the point of no return in terms of deadlines for cancelling the Pilgrimage and with our partners on the ground having invested so much in preparation for CIH, I felt it was important to proceed in a manner that would offer the “true believers” that remained on board a safe and secure journey – the experience of a lifetime they had been promised. It was also important to preserve HSP’s integrity as an organization committed to the principles of democratic governance in Haiti. Balancing these objectives proved to be extremely difficult. Indeed, questions were correctly raised by critics (there were some who felt that taking a cruise ship to a poor nation like Haiti was not in good taste) and supporters of CIH whether proceeding with such a high profile Pilgrimage would tacitly or explicitly provide legitimacy and credibility to a U.S. backed Interim Government in the wake of the ouster of Aristide.
In the most traumatic development in this regard, Danny Glover, Ambassador-at-Large for CIH, took a public stance that, as a matter of principle, he could no longer participate in the Pilgrimage as currently envisioned. Sonia Sanchez joined Danny in taking a similar stance. Edwidge Danticat also expressed her discomfort with participating in CIH under the circumstances. Without question, this was the most tension-filled moment of my life. Marc Morial, Chairman of CIH, Susan Taylor, Haki Madhubuti, L. Londell McMillan, Leonard Dunston, Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts and Rev. Dr. Major Jemison, Drs. Karl and Faye Rodney, Atty. Faya Rose Sanders and several other leaders expressed continued support for the Pilgrimage, particularly given the contractual obligations with RCI. Our team entered into an intensive dialogue with Danny Glover seeking to find a way to salvage his participation in the Pilgrimage.
After hours of serious discussions, we reached a compromise. In a painfully ironic twist, CIH would continue, but its stop in Haiti would be confined to “celebrating” at RCI’s facilities at Labadee with no participation of officials from the Interim Government or the U.S. Embassy. In other words, there would be no entry into Cap Haitien and Milot for a tour of the Citadel. Danny Glover declined to come on board the ship but agreed to meet the group and participate in the Welcome Ceremonies in Nassau and St. Thomas. Many of the organizations and individuals HSP had worked with on the ground to promote and arrange for CIH activities were deeply disappointed. Some felt betrayed. But, HSP viewed the compromise as the only principled and practical option given the political and contractual business constraints. Now we faced the daunting task of persuading the more than 500 true believers who remained committed to CIH to forgo the highlight of the Pilgrimage, entering the country to meet and greet our Haitian sisters and brothers and the tour of the magnificent Citadel.
August 14, 2004 a faithful 500 plus African Americans, Haitian Americans and friends of Haiti gathered in Miami at the RCI terminal to embark on CIH, the ambitious, much publicized, misfortune plagued, long awaited Caribbean Pilgrimage to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the glorious Haitian Revolution (the cruise dates were August 14th – 21st). It was quite a delight to finally meet friends/supporters of the Pilgrimage from across the nation whom our team had only known by phone or email. Now the challenge was to thoroughly explain the status of the Pilgrimage in light of the decision not to proceed into the country to visit the Citadel. After all, the opportunity to actually go into the country (beyond RCI’s private destination at Labadee) to see the Haitian people in their neighborhoods/surroundings and the tour of the magnificent Citadel was the reason the true believers had stayed the course [HSP could have potentially been sued for breach of contract]. Perhaps because so many of the participants were politically conscious and because there were leaders on board whom they respected, the decision was universally accepted.
By any reasonable measure, CIH was a remarkable Caribbean Pilgrimage. Facilitated by Atty. L. Londell McMillan, BET sent a film crew to record this historic journey with the expectation that excerpts would be aired on BET Nightly News with Jackie Reid. Wayne Thompson also recruited his niece, Monica Houston to record the Pilgrimage. At our first stop at Nassau, the group was officially welcomed by a high level government delegation led by the Minister of Tourism. True to his word, Danny Glover met us and participated in the Welcome Ceremony where he laid out the rationale for his decision not to partake in the program/activities/celebration aboard the ship. Most of the participants were just glad to meet a brother like Danny who exemplified the willingness to use one’s celebrity status to advance the cause of social justice and human rights for the oppressed. In St. Thomas, we were welcomed by Congresswoman Donna Christian-Christiansen along with officials of government and a marching band. Danny Glover had planned to meet the group in St. Thomas but responded to a request from President Hugo Chavez to visit with him in Venezuela.
On board the ship, the program proceeded under the watchful and approving eyes of Maryse Kedar, RCI’s Manager of Labadee, and Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the RCI official assigned to guide HSP through the chartering process. She had begun as a skeptic but embraced the project as she learned firsthand about its vision/mission, and attended some of the outreach events to promote CIH. The workshops and cultural performances were absolutely stunning. The Women’s Sister’s Circle with Susan Taylor, Dr. Adelaide Sanford and Dr. Cecelia Williams Bryant, wife of AME Bishop John Bryant, was extraordinary. Under the direction of “maestro extraordinaire” Jean Jean Pierre, the cultural programming was superb with performances by Erna Letemps and the Voices of Haiti, creative dancer Essailama Diouf and a dramatic production entitled Haiti Cherie.
One of the highlights of the cultural program was a brief presentation by the one and only Katherine Dunham, then in her mid-90s, who had agreed to be part of this historic journey despite the ups and downs of her health. It was in Haiti that Ms. Dunham had innovated the genre and technique that made her one of the most acclaimed dancers and dance instructors in the world. She received a thunderous ovation as she shared words of wisdom and inspiration with the group. As the ship slipped into the harbor at Labadee for the moment for which everyone had been waiting, Ms. Dunham’s health was too fragile for her to disembark. However, she was assisted to the disembarkation deck where she gave her blessing to the group as we departed for shore. Afterwards, peering pensively at the environs of the lovely harbor at Labadee, the legendary Katherine Dunham bid farewell to her beloved Haiti for the last time!
When we arrived on shore Mtumishi St. Julian, Executive Director of the New Orleans Finance Authority, blessed the occasion by pouring Libation, after which the Haitian American participants led the group in singing the Haitian National Anthem. The Welcome Ceremony included traditional Haitian drumming and dancing and a special presentation by school children dressed in their “Sunday best.” It was a wonderful program, but a cloud of sadness permeated the air because everyone realized that the ceremony was far less than what might have been. Indeed, the disappointment of our partners on the ground, the Local Development Committee of Milot, soon became evident when a large quantity of school supplies was presented as a gift from our group (each participant was asked to bring an “Education for Liberation” package of school supplies to comprise a collective gift for the school children in Milot). In a manner characteristic of the dignity and pride of the Haitian people, representatives of the committee flatly refused to accept the school supplies, declaring that their sense of betrayal by HSP could not be mollified by the presentation of such a gift, no matter how badly it might have been needed. They basically told Dr. Ron Daniels and the organizers of CIH that they could take the school supplies and shove them!
This was a serious crisis moment. At stake was months of building a trustful relationship with a hardworking, civic minded, dedicated group of men and women committed to improving the town of Milot. Lionel Pressoir, an enlightened Haitian developer and businessman, worked tirelessly to convince the Local Committee that CIH was a worthwhile project. Working together, the build-up to the CIH visit was months in the making and the excitement and expectations among the people of Milot, Cap Haitien and the region were sky high. Nothing like CIH had ever been experienced in Haiti, let alone in a small town like Milot. In anticipation of our visit parents had spent monies, normally set aside for uniforms, supplies and fees to send their children to school, to purchase merchandise to sell to the participants of CIH. Arts and crafts vendors purchased additional inventory for the occasion. It was going to be a banner day in terms of the injection of resources into the economy of the town and the area/region. The ouster of Aristide and the political turmoil notwithstanding, the cancellation of the CIH visit would have devastating consequences for the people and the town of Milot.
The evening before the landing at Labadee, HSP made a decision to quietly send Wayne Thompson, Marc Morial, Khephra Burns and his father into Milot with Lionel Pressoir to personally express regrets for the drastic change in the itinerary/program. To their dismay, they reported that the word about the cancellation had apparently not gotten out. All along the 20 mile route to Milot hundreds of local people, our Haitian sisters and brothers, were lined up along freshly cleaned streets and avenues waiting for the arrival of CIH participants. In Milot hundreds if not thousands had gathered for an event of a lifetime, only to be told that their African American and Haitian American sisters and brothers would not be coming to meet and greet them. After months of build-up, CIH would only touch Haitian soil at Labadee. One can imagine that there were some among the assembled multitude that felt the Local Development Committee had sold them a “bill of goods.” The credibility of the Committee as a force for positive change was definitely on the line. CIH could sail back to the U.S., but they would be left holding the bag; they would suffer the consequences for the broken promises of CIH. This was the backdrop for the bitterness directed at Ron Daniels and HSP during the Ceremony at Labadee.
Faced with this understandable outrage, I took to the podium, and with every ounce of integrity in my heart/soul, apologized to the representatives of the Committee for the tremendous bind our decision imposed on them. I explained that tragic circumstances beyond our control had compelled HSP to stop short of fulfilling the original vision of CIH in terms of our visit to Milot and tour of the Citadel. I reminded them of the bonds of friendship/family that were forged as we collectively worked on the project. I assured them that HSP would never betray them and pleaded for an opportunity to repair the damage done by our decision. I promised that HSP would work to raise funds to make the families and vendors whole who had sacrificed to purchase goods for the occasion. And, on the suggestion of Alix George, an associate of Lionel Pressoir, I pledged that HSP would organize a Pilgrimage in 2006, the Anniversary of the beginning of the construction of the Citadel, to promote cultural/historical tourism as a basis for people-based economic development in the town of Milot.
The Committee listened intently and skeptically at first. But, the bonds that had been forged during months of working together were too strong to simply dismiss an earnest and heartfelt apology and explanation for the damages done. The Committee accepted my apology, began to gather up the school supplies and load them for delivery to the school children in Milot. As participants dispersed throughout the RCI complex at Labadee to enjoy the many amenities, I sat quietly with the Committee as we began the painstaking process of what would become an even stronger bond of friendship, family and partnership in the years to come. I also sent word by HSP staff that it was imperative that the group have an emergency meeting after re-boarding the ship.
The emergency meeting was very emotional. However, to a person, everyone agreed that it was essential that every effort be made to make the people of the town of Milot whole for the sacrifices they made in expectation of the visit by CIH. HSP raised thousands of dollars that evening in contributions, book sales and pledges. The faith leaders on board blessed the offering, prayed that it be multiplied and laid hands on Ron Daniels to sanctify the work of HSP moving forward. With that, there was much joy in the group as we set sail for Miami after an emotionally stressful but climatic experience on the beaches of Labadee in Haiti. Upon our return to the U.S., HSP sent resources back to Haiti to repair the damages to families and vendors, to make them whole for monies expended based on what became the false promise of CIH.
It had been an arduous journey, a Pilgrimage with a purpose like none ever experienced by African Americans, Haitian Americans and friends of Haiti. A confluence of circumstances had prevented HSP from achieving its initial goal of a full ship charter or the maximum for the half-ship charter. And, we fell far short of the goal of securing sufficient sponsorships to cover costs and realizing a substantial savings to benefit IBW and HSP. At the request of Danny Glover, Richard Parsons, CEO of Time Warner, came very close to making the company a title sponsor for CIH, but he backed away because of the turbulent political situation in Haiti. L. Londell McMillan with North Star, Inc., Ingrid-Saunders Jones of Coca-Cola and Patrick Gaston, Verizon Foundation, graciously stepped up to the plate, but the combined total of their sponsorships was $27,500 – hardly enough to provide meaningful support for an institution post CIH.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, no one could deny that the 500 plus participants, mobilized for CIH was the largest group of African Americans to journey to Haiti for the stated purpose. And, in the end, thousands, if not millions, of African Americans and people of African descent in the U.S. who knew little or nothing about Haiti and its history and culture had been educated about the world’s First Black Republic. In 2006 HSP honored its word and returned to Haiti with a high-profile delegation to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the beginning of construction of the Citadel. On that occasion, the Model City Initiative was launched to contribute to the process of making Milot a Mecca for cultural-historical tourism as the foundation economic development for the area. This Initiative remains the centerpiece of HSP’s work in Haiti to this day. CIH had proved to be a worthy and worthwhile endeavor! As we look to the future, hopefully, hundreds more African Americans, Haitian Americans and friends of Haiti will join HSP in other extraordinary Pilgrimages to Haiti to uplift the world’s first Black Republic!
Cruising Into History Videos