Haitian Heritage Month

May is Haitian Heritage Month! Peruse our resource guide to learn about and celebrate the rich culture, history, and people from Haiti.

A Brief Overview

Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with present-day Dominican Republic and is located in the western-most third of the island. Originally home to the Taino people, Spanish settlers arrived on the island and within a quarter of a century, the native people were gone. After the Treaty of Ryswick, Spain's control over Hispaniola divided. France took control of a portion of the island, creating the area then known as St. Domingue (present-day Haiti.)

A Historic Revolt

Grenier de Saint-Martin Francisque (1793-1867), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Haiti established its freedom beginning in August 1791 when a former enslaved man, Pierre Dominique Toussaint L'ouverture, led armies of enslaved people to a successful revolt against France. Following France's defeat, slavery was abolished in 1792. However, L'ouverture was deported to Château de Joux, La Cluse-et-Mijoux in France and died as a prisoner on April 7, 1803. Directed by Napoleon Bonaparte, France made another attempt to reinstate slavery in Haiti. With L'ouverture gone, Haiti's Armée indigène once again defeated the French under the leadership of General Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Haiti finally won it's independence in 1804.

Despite its victory in becoming the first country of free Black people during slavery, France imposed an indemnity of 100 million francs ($22 billion US, as of 2023) as a result of recouping wealth to slave holders and it's financial dependency on the slave economy. Haiti spent decades paying France and submitted it's final payment in 1947. Haiti was also shunned by other countries for more than forty years (The World Factbook). Since that time, Haiti has also grappled with an unsteady and dangerous political climate.

General Toussaint Louverture receiving an English general (illustration from 1821) 

Grenier de Saint-Martin Francisque (1793-1867), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Early Monarchies: 1804-1859

Haiti experienced a short period of monarchies after the revolution.

Emperor Jacques I: September 22, 1804 - October 17, 1806

General Jean-Jacques Dessalines served in Toussaint Louverture's army. His prowess as a commander was noted by the people and rewarded when he was proclaimed emperor and crowned in 1804. Before his regime could be fully realized, however, tension between the northern and southern parts of Haiti escalated as they fought for power and control. Emperor Jacques I enjoyed only two years as king. He was killed as he led his troops into battle against the opposition in 1806.


After Jacques I, there were three more attempts at establishing monarchies in Haiti.

King Henri I: March 28, 1811 - October 8, 1820

The year after the death of the first monarch, Henri Christophe was elected as president. Four years later, in 1811, he became King Henri after creating a kingdom in northern Haiti. An admirer of British rule, he modeled his reign after English monarchs King George III, establishing nobilities and titles handed out amongst the elite class. The south was still at odds with the north and an uprising formed. To escape the impending insurrection, King Henri committed suicide in 1820. His heir was assassinated soon after, ending the succession of Christophe's monarchy.


Jacques-Victor Henry: October 8, 1820 - October 18, 1820

As the youngest child of King Henri I, Prince Jacques-Victor Henry served as a general in the army when his father was president. However, after King Henri I died, Haiti was experiencing violence and turmoil over control of the country. Ten days later, before he could be crowned, the prince was killed during an attack at the San-Souci Palace.




Emperor Faustin I: September 25, 1849 - January 15, 1859

Faustin-Élie Soulouque was a general in the Haitian army before becoming President of Haiti in 1847. He served as president for two years before proclaiming himself emperor in 1849, thus forming the Second Empire of Haiti. His coronation ceremony has been historically regarded as extravagant. Emperor Faustin I commissioned his crown, ceremony attire, scepter, throne and additional accessories to model that of Napoleon Bonaparte's. His reign lasted ten years before a revolution against his absolute power began in 1858. Emperor Faustin I was exiled to Gonaives in Northern Haiti. The Republic of Haiti was reinstated and he officially abdicated his throne on January 15, 1859. He left Haiti and went to live in Kingston, Jamaica for several years. What happened to Faustin I afterwards is contested. It is believed that he either died in Jamaica or that he later returned to Haiti and died in Petit-Goave in 1867.


Kingdom of La Gonâve: 1926-1929

An island off the coast of Haiti, La Gonâve, was ruled as a co-monarchy by vodou priestess and tribal leader, Queen Ti Memenne, and Faustin Edmond Wirkus, a white American Marine stationed in Haiti. Wirkus became known as Faustin II because Ti Memenne believed that he was the reincarnation of Emperor Faustin I. The reign lasted only three years. It was not officially recognized, as monarchies were abolished by this time. 

In 1929, Wirkus was forced to abdicate his rule and returned to the United States. He wrote a memoir, "The White King of La Gonâve: The True Story of the Sergeant of Marines Who Was Crowned King on a Voodoo Island," and died in 1945.

Wirkus is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

1937 Haitian Massacre


Coupled with corrupted Western-backed puppet governments, Haiti was also dealt a blow from its neighbor to the east. Under the command of Dominican Republic's President Rafael Trujillo, Haitians who resided in and/or worked in the Dominican Republic were killed by military forces in 1937. Those who managed to flee in time survived, but were left with the traumatic effects of the massacre.

The Duvalier Dynasty: 1957-1986

The infamous President Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and later his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, imposed a dictatorship when he declared himself President for Life. Duvalier Sr. ruled with an iron fist, spearheading faux-elections, changing the Constitution, and suppressing any opposition through violence and murder. This led to decades of tyranny against the Haitian population, who were left to live in poverty and with a nearly non-existent education system. Thousands of Haitians were killed or never seen again by Duvalier's command through his personal army of devout henchmen, Tontons Macoutes. The United States, that at the time supported Duvalier because of his anti-Communist stance, later became disillusioned by his actions and pulled economic aid to the country. This further devastated an already fragile infrastructure that the people were forced to live under. 

Duvalier Sr. left office due to poor health and died in 1971. His 19-year-old son son, Jean-Claude, succeeded him as President for Life and continued a reign of terror on the country. Despite the danger, in line with their history, Haitians led many revolts against the Duvalier regime. While some fought back with arms, others used their voice and influence. From 1957 to 2003, Radio Haiti-Inter was the home for many grassroots efforts to mount a resistance and call for changes in the government. In response to the resistance, Duvalier Jr. cut funding to food sources and public services, including radio stations. Eventually, in 1986, the United States called for Duvalier to resign his presidency and leave Haiti. He finally went into exile and left Haiti for France. France never granted political asylum to Duvalier and he lived comfortably for 25 years. In 2011, he returned to Haiti under the pretense of wanting to help the country. Instead, he was arrested and summoned to answer for his crimes during his 15-year presidency. During that time, he lived in luxury in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. In 2014, he died at 63 years old before he could go to trial.

Duvalier Father and Son (1971) Agence France-Presse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading