The Miami Herald
Sep. 29, 2003

Haitians revisit role in U.S. history

Riders on the Immigrant Workers' Freedom Bus learn of Haitian soldiers' role in America's Revolutionary War


  SAVANNAH, Ga. - Participants in the Immigrant Workers' Freedom Ride stopped in this Southern city Sunday, the future home of a statue to honor Haitian soldiers who died in the Battle of the Siege of Savannah.

  ''If only people knew what we contributed at Savannah,'' said Daniel Fils-Aimé, executive director of the Miami-based Haitian-American Historical Society. ``If it wasn't for the Haitians, America might not be America today.''

  Seeking recognition for their contribution is the goal of Haitians and migrant workers on the bus, who are demanding equality under immigration laws.

  The ''freedom bus'' left Miami Saturday and will travel across the South for eight days in transit to Washington, D.C., and New York City for rallies. Today it will be in the Carolinas.

  Sunday's stop in Savannah is of special significance to South Florida Haitians, who will be asked to help finance the $2 million statue project.

  Among those spearheading the effort is Joe Celestin, the mayor of North Miami and the nation's first Haitian-American mayor.

  Celestin and Fils-Aimé first brought the idea of a memorial to Savannah leaders about two years ago.

  Now, they're tapping Haitian-Americans for donations to pay for the monument's design and construction.

  ''Between Boston, Miami, New York and the rest of the United States, we are four million people. We won't have difficulty raising that money,'' Celestin pledged.

  The statue will honor the estimated 545 Haitian soldiers who fought alongside American troops during the second bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War, the Siege of
  Savannah, waged here almost 224 years ago.

  The Siege of Savannah was a low point in American military history. Tipped off about an imminent raid by revolutionary fighters, British forces holding Savannah killed more than a thousand French and Americans during the Oct. 9, 1779, attack.

  ''It was a tremendously violent 55 minutes,'' said Scott Smith, director of Savannah's Coastal Heritage Society. Historians now say that a contingent of Haitian
  reinforcements entered the battle at a critical moment, allowing many American and French forces to flee to safety and ultimate victory at Yorktown.

  ''It gave people the chance to run for their lives,'' said Fils-Aimé. ``If it wasn't for the Haitians, it would have been even more of a disaster.''

  Among the fighters was a teenage Henri Christophe, who would become a leader in Haiti's own revolution, and later king.

  But few details about Haitians' participation are available. Haitian military archives were lost in a fire in the 19th century.

  The monument will stand in Benjamin Franklin square across from the First African Baptist Church, the oldest of its kind in the nation. It was founded by slaves in 1773.

  Its leader, Rev. Thurmond Tillman, has rallied his congregation behind the monument's construction, saying it reflects recent changes in Savannah's racial history.

  ''We never had any monuments dedicated to African Americans or blacks. Now we have several,'' Tillman said.

  For riders of the freedom bus, Sunday's stop proved to be a history lesson, as they listened to stories of the soldiers' courage.

  Some Haitians on the bus say they don't understand why the United States has stricter immigration policies toward Haitians, even though their ancestors helped in the fight for American independence.

  ''The U.S. government has forgotten what the Haitian people did for this country,'' said Ceroul Ferdinand, 50, a Haitian riding the bus.

  ''Very little has been written about these people,'' said Todd Gross, executive director of the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, of the soldiers who fought under the French flag.

  ``I don't know if it's just a combination of the fact that they were overlooked because they were black or . . . because there were so few of them.''

  North Miami's mayor has made the statue a crusade.

  Celestin and Savannah Mayor Floyd Adams Jr. the city's first black mayor, traveled to Haiti this summer and visited the port of St. Mark, where Haitian soldiers embarked to fight in America.

  At the First African Baptist church in Savannah, a storied building that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, Deacon Raymond Lawrence draws a parallel between the Haitian soldiers' experience and that of his own ancestors.

  ``There were American blacks who fought in the Revolutionary War and, after that war, they weren't treated fairly. So I can relate to the Haitians.''