One can hardly overstate the positive influence that Haiti and her people have had upon the United States. The fierceness of their revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1791 forced General Napoleon Bonaparte to cut a deal and run from the Americas, in the process selling off 828,000 square miles of land from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains to Thomas Jefferson for a mere $15 million.
The Louisiana Purchase transaction effectively doubled the size of the United States, bringing us the land that would subsequently become Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa; most of Colorado, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, and parts of North Dakota, Minnesota, Texas and Louisiana.
As a fan of the national parks my first response to President Trump’s recent derogatory statement about Haiti was,
“What?! America without Yellowstone? Glacier? Rocky Mountain National Park?”
Those American icons in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado respectively and a myriad other units of the National Park System became American as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.
In the context of today’s whole scale attempts to manipulate reality, to set Americans against each other and disparage entire countries, it is vitally important for us to know our history, We need to be able to swiftly draw upon our mental store of facts that rebuff the ignorant ideas being promoted. Because these ideas can inflame the mentally disturbed into violence and cause fear in the hearts of our vulnerable children, we must be able to disinfect these noxious ideas with the light of knowledge and experience.
I’m proud to be a naturalized American from Jamaica. I learned about the Louisiana Purchase some years ago when doing my research to speak at the 20th anniversary of the environmental non-profit, Operation Green Leaves – Haiti, founded by our friend Nadine Patrice, an Americanized native of Haiti who was striving to re-forest her country. Many of the attendees were surprised to learn that the Louisiana Purchase did not mean the purchase of the State of Louisiana.
Over the weekend I posted a note on Facebook about the relationship of Haiti and the Louisiana Purchase and what it means to our country. To my surprise, more than 1,000 people responded. Many of them said they were shocked that they didn’t know this connection before, or did not remember it.
As we celebrate the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today and revisit his historic writings on the subject of human rights and liberty, I am convinced that the opportunity and urgency of this moment is that we learn our history and how inter-connected we all are. I’m inspired that:
“During the less than 13 years of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the modern American Civil Rights Movement, from December, 1955 until April 4, 1968, African Americans achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years had produced. Dr. King is widely regarded as America’s pre-eminent advocate of nonviolence and one of the greatest nonviolent leaders in world history.” Progress for African Americans means progress for our entire country in living the values we espouse.
I offer the resources of the National Park System as the places where we can revisit those values and see them in action, to inspire greater commitment on our part. For starters, Dr. King’s birthplace in the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta includes such personal items as his childhood bed and his toys and the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King followed his father in ministry.
Established as a National Historical SITE in 1980, the 68-acre site was upgraded last week to a Historical PARK, defined by the Park Service as being an area “of greater physical extent and complexity” than a historic site.
The parklands we gained through the Louisiana Purchase are as beautiful and diverse as humanity. The boiling geysers, prismatic pools and mud pots of Yellowstone are as different from the glacier-carved peaks and valleys of Glacier as they are different from the subalpine and alpine regions of Rocky Mountains National Park. These different parks share the attribute of being part of one natural world, just as we may look different from each other but share the distinction of being part of one human family.
I hope you’ll agree that we must do our part today to combat the tide of disinformation and division in our country. Each one of us should become an activist, strengthening the hands of our elected officials who want to do the right thing, while calling out those who are doing wrong. We must be organizing now to win the midterm elections.
We owe it to Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian revolutionaries, to Dr. King and all those before us who have given everything in pursuit of that great ideal - the liberty, equality and brotherhood of humanity.