I hadn’t expected to revisit my story about Haiti so soon after last week’s column on how white French families poured into Norfolk during the slave uprising there. I had reported that 20 boatloads of refugees had landed on our doorstep in 1793 and that the state responded with emergency aid.
But then a couple of developments got me thinking.
First, a reader took me to task for ignoring the heroes of the Haitian revolution, especially Toussaint L’Ouverture, the former slave who beat Napoleon’s army, freed his people and put Haiti on the road to independence.
It wasn’t deliberate. He wasn’t part of the story I was hoping to tell, which was about the refugees that landed here and the paranoid reaction of then-president Jefferson. But he was, really, because he showed the world what Jefferson did not want to admit – that freed slaves could accomplish great things.
Then I heard a radio program that usually fascinates me, and last week held me enthralled. It’s “the Thomas Jefferson Hour” in which Jefferson scholar Clay Jenkinson takes on the third president’s persona, explaining his thoughts and actions. This time it was about his response to Haiti.
Stepping out of the persona at one point, Jenkinson said, “This is a hard program for me because it puts Mr. Jefferson in such a terrible, terrible light.”
Now back to Toussaint L’Ouverture, whose adopted name means “all souls awakening.” He had been a freed slave working for his former master as a carriage driver. After the French revolution of 1789, as the ideals of liberty and equality washed ashore in the Caribbean, the slaves who had been subjected to the most brutal conditions imaginable, revolted, and L’Ouverture took up their cause.
It’s complicated because the French initially backed the slaves against the planters, and L’Ouverture was their ally. He helped them defeat British and Spanish forces on the island. But when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and sent troops to Haiti to quash the revolution and reestablish slavery, L’Ouverture, in a series of brilliant moves, defeated them.
He was known as the liberator of his people, a sort of black George Washington. After he was captured and perished in a French prison, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, his principal lieutenant, finished the job of liberating Haiti and declared its independence in 1804.
That’s when Jefferson lost it.
Arguably the greatest idealist in American history, the man who emblazoned our basic document with the words “all men are created equal,” Jefferson could not bring himself to include men or women of color in that equation. He was convinced that word of a successful slave uprising would prompt slaves in Virginia and elsewhere to revolt and if we didn’t help stop them, we’d be “murderers of our own children.”
Even though Jefferson philosophically deplored slavery, he was at heart a racist, unable to accept the notion that blacks could govern themselves, Jenkinson feels. And he was an opportunist.
He came to realize that Napoleon’s forces had become bogged down in a Vietnam-like quagmire in Haiti, that it was costing him blood and treasure and his hopes of empire in the New World. In effect, Jefferson offered to help put down the slave uprising if Napoleon would sell him New Orleans. What he got instead was all of Louisiana – then consisting of all or most of 14 states.
Thanks to the slaves in Haiti, America was able to double in size.
Jefferson’s aid to Napoleon amounted to no more than helping resupply his warships and that didn’t really do any good. The deplorable thing, though, was that after Haiti declared its independence, he cut off trade to the vulnerable new republic. That policy helped doom the Haitian economy. As Jenkinson said, “We are not immune for what has happened there.”
Illustration: Toussaint L’Ouverture. National Maritime Museum, London
Norfolk’s history with the long-running tragedy in Haiti runs deeper than recent rescue missions. It began with the dawn of revolution in that Caribbean country and an event that sent shock waves throughout our new nation.
Toussaint L'ouverture, hero of Haiti's revolution.
Had you been out on Hampton Roads one day in July 1793 you would have seen an amazing sight: 137 square-rigged vessels packed with refugees – along with a half dozen French warships – sailing into the lower Chesapeake Bay. Most of them continued on to Baltimore and beyond, but 20 ships peeled off and journeyed up the Elizabeth River to Norfolk.
These were not Haitian blacks who jammed the vessels to the gunwales but white French families who were fleeing the specter of a bloody slave uprising. A few, ironically, brought what slaves they still had. Together, the two groups, bedraggled and starving, presented Norfolk with a refugee crisis, and the state responded by sending aid.
In his book, Norfolk Highlights, 1584-1881, George Tucker wrote, “Those who remained – and there were a great many…became the ancestors of many Norfolk families today.”
The assimilation of refugees was not the end of the Haitian matter, but rather part of the beginning.
The island of Hispaniola, an “earthly paradise” discovered by Columbus in 1492, had teetered back and forth between Spanish and French control. At the time of the uprising, Saint-Dominique, as it was called, was a colonial goldmine for France, with huge profits generated by sugar, coffee, cocoa and other crops. But the economy was totally dependent on increasingly brutal slave labor.
Taking their cue from the French revolution, slaves in Saint-Dominique aligned themselves with various liberators and eventually defeated a sizeable French army. Haiti, taking its name from the Creole Ayiti, “land of high mountains,” became in 1804 the second independent nation in the Western World. But this was not greeted with open arms by slave-owning Americans who feared a similar revolt in their backyards.
President Thomas Jefferson, who had tried to assist the French in thwarting the revolt, cut off Haiti’s lifeblood with a trade embargo. Historians trace Haiti’s long decline to that period. Two centuries of turmoil have made it an international basket case. It was not a pact with the devil but a systematic rejection by Haiti’s neighbors that has doomed it.
I have a personal story.
Seventeen years ago, while editor of Calypso Log, the magazine of the Cousteau Society, I toured Haiti to learn about environmental and economic conditions. In city after city, village after village, the answer was the same: So prevalent was the grinding poverty and the ruined landscape, a growing number of Haitians were moving toward the brink of sickness and starvation.
A boy of about 10 at Léogâne, a once-thriving fishing village west of Port-au-Prince, had been out fishing all day without a catch or a bite to eat. Photo by Paul Clancy.
I went to Cité Soleil, the infamous Port-au-Prince slum. Perched atop a landfill on the waterfront, at least 200,000 people were crammed into cardboard shacks and mud-floor lean-tos. Streets were lined with chest-high ridges of smoldering garbage. Open sewers ran through fields where children toddled. Night was falling and I was quick to leave. The place was under the thumb of army-backed thugs who set up barricades, robbed visitors and terrorized the populace.
And yet, there were pockets of hope. At Barbe Pagnole, a mountain village where I stayed, a farmer and his sons had built a rock wall and behind it the earth, mixed with straw, was spongy and black and three-day-old corn had shot up like rockets. The farmers had embraced soil conservation techniques. What trees they had left were treasured and guarded.
Elsewhere, there seemed a palpable energy about people as they walked along the roadside with fruit or water or laundry balanced on their heads. Whether selling art near hotels, bartering at markets or fixing broken-down cars beside rutted roads, there was an eagerness to scratch out a living. Given half a chance, I thought then – and I think now – they could still make it.
John Smith’s map of Hampton Roads shows how widely he traveled. Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Click to enlarge
I started writing this weekly opus three years ago, knowing that, yes, there was a lot of ground to cover, especially with the 400th anniversary of the first English settlement creeping up on us. But I figured that after not many months, certainly within a year, the well would begin to run dry. After all, how much history is really out there, waiting to be rediscovered?
Fascinatingly, the answer seems to be that the supply of stories in the old history well is infinite because every examination of the past turns up new truths. And every scratch on history’s surface reveals new layers of complexity.
One of the reasons is the width, as well as the depth, of the well.
Our region sprawls east from Jamestown and Williamsburg all the way to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and south to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Start anywhere on this huge slab of geography, then do a core sampling that goes down not just 400 years but 12,000 years to the beginning of human habitation in these parts, and you begin to get the idea.
Scratch the mystery of the lost colony at Roanoke Island and you find footprints – or at least imagined ones – at a Chesapeake Indian village on the shores of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk. Or, just as likely, at Hatteras.
Drop anchor at a place like Bennett Creek in Suffolk and you discover a name that goes back to the Puritans. Richard Bennett, one of them, was kicked out of Virginia, then rode into power in the governor’s mansion, then was driven out again as the tide of religious intolerance ebbed and flooded.
Dip your ladle into the historic stew of Princess Anne County and come up with human misery. In this case, it’s the connection of Upper Wolfsnare Plantation with Thomas Walke, the scion of a powerful family that got rich trading rum and slaves in the Caribbean island of Barbados.
Set foot on Fort Wool’s granite island and discover that two presidents, Jackson and Tyler, sought peace in its isolation and balm in its waters. Or Fort Monroe, where escaped slaves won their freedom and set off a chain reaction that led to abolition.
Walk among brick-strewn ruins of a house at NASA/Langley in Hampton and realize that the fellow who built it, Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe, was poisoned – along with a slave who may have been his son by way of a concubine – by a ne’er-do-well nephew who wanted to keep the son from inheriting Wythe’s fortune.
Reel through newspaper microfilm and discover the elegant prose of Pulitizer-Prize-winning editor Lenoir Chambers who, whether writing about closing schools and “condemning ourselves to darkness,” or describing the “gaudy temples of appetite and hovels of exhaustion” on Norfolk’s Main Street, still inspires.
Peel back the veneer of the founder of Gosport Navy Yard, one Andrew Sprowl, and find a loyalist who desperately prayed for the arrival of British warships in Norfolk Harbor while Lord Dunmore clung to power. As long as the Brits were there to protect him, he sniveled, “I am safe.”
Brush aside the tall saw grass near the Great Bridge locks and watch archaeologists unearth cannon and musket balls and a piece of flint that appears to have been struck – evidence that a small British fort once was there. It was at this place where the redcoats mustered before marching into a perfect hell of patriot gunfire.
The only conclusion about the skein of history that’s been spun and wound and woven here is that it’s never ending. I’m stuck, and they’re not letting me out, even for good behavior.
This was the headline in the New York Post in early August, 1938, when Douglas Corrigan received a ticker tape parade down Broadway. In that Depression-era climate he was celebrated for taking off from a fog-shrouded airfield in Brooklyn, supposedly heading for California, and flying the wrong way to Ireland.
Everyone knew the jaunty Texas-born aviator had disobeyed authorities who refused to let him fly across the Atlantic in his modified, patched-together wreck of a plane; that his claim of heavy clouds confusing him and low cockpit light causing him to read his compass backwards, was a fib. And everyone loved him for it.
“Wrong Way Corrigan” made its way into the lexicon as an affectionate label for people, especially athletes, who take off in the wrong direction.
What only a few in this region remember is that Corrigan had once lived in Norfolk while barnstorming – flying from place to place to offer sightseeing flights – around the country. Or that thousands turned out to greet him after he flew here on August 30th that year. The parade down Granby Street, under a blizzard of confetti from office windows, and the official greeting at the courthouse added up to what some called the largest public spectacle the city had ever seen. This newspaper called his reception “tumultuous.”
The event is related in the current issue of Sargeant’s Chronicles, the history-packed newsletter of the Norfolk Public Library. The Library’s Sargeant Memorial Room has several photos of the historic visit, including shots of the huge crowd on Granby.
Corrigan flew into Glen Rock Airport, a small airfield near the present Janaf Shopping Center, in his 1929 Curtis Robin monoplane. Thousands crowded the airfield, hoping to catch a glimpse of the arrival.
Here’s the Pilot’s account: “As he sailed in from the East, the crowd went wild. And from then on it was every man for himself. They stormed through the policemen assigned to hold back the throng. The frenzied mob made its way to the plane, scores seeking to shake his hand, secure an autograph or convey their best wishes.”
The crowd refused to budge for the official motorcade, beseeching Corrigan to pose for pictures and sign autographs – which he did, to everyone’s delight. The motorcade finally made its way to the Oceanfront, to Ocean View and then Norfolk, where the parade began at 5 p.m. Another mob scene greeted him there. As he went through the city, perched on the back of a convertible, “a paper snowstorm such as Norfolk had never seen before” descended on him from office windows.
Corrigan was given a key to the city, apparently a big one because, in brief remarks at the courthouse, he said, “From the looks of this key this must be the biggest town I’ve been in yet.”
But he was upset when he noticed that a young girl might have been hurt in the stampeding crowd. At the Monticello Hotel, he told officials he wouldn’t go further with the events in store for him until they located the girl and made sure she was OK. They did, but it shows how wild the scene was. “I feel responsible for that crowd out there,” he said.
That night he charmed an adoring audience at the classy Nansemond Hotel in Ocean View. “You know, I wonder, myself, how I made that flight,” he said. “I really was a little mistaken in my reading of the compass.” He chuckled, and so did everyone there. He added that people laughed when they saw him pass, half wondering if he was going the right way.
“I think I’ll have to go out and get lost in a couple of places, just to show ‘em that I can.”
The next morning he was off again for New York, this time quite sure of his heading.
Photo: Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan waves to an adoring throng during his visit to Norfolk. Sargeant Memorial Room, Norfolk Public Library.
The year began with a bang. Several, actually. Gunshots that reverberated through the streets of downtown Norfolk as a high-ranking police officer drew his gun and killed an old friend in broad daylight.
In this case, the year was 1900, and the occasion was the first trial in the then-new Post Office and Federal Courthouse, the same building that reopened in 2009 as the city’s downtown library.
The story, pieced together from several newspapers and family recollections, led off Our Stories as the last year of that just-departed decade dawned. It was, I guess you could call it, the top oldie of the year. There were dozens of others, but this series of columns took the prize for pure, almost soap opera, drama.
The trial of Michael Prince, the police captain who killed his best friend, Charley Cannon, was among the most sensational ever witnessed in these parts. A packed courtroom echoed with murmurs, gasps and, finally, cheers, as shocking details were unveiled and a surprising verdict rendered.
On the witness stand, Prince claimed that Cannon not only confessed to having an affair with his wife but stated he was not the only one. The newspapers, and there were several then, trumpeted headlines [TRAGEDY IN THE HEART OF THE CITY] and shocked family readers with racy testimony. “Should we run the words, ‘beat her like hell?’ ” some editor must have asked.
Did Prince shoot Cannon in cold blood, or did his friend’s remark send him over the top (they didn’t use the phrase “temporary insanity” in his defense)? Well, the jury found him not guilty. [Gasp. Shouts, Cheers.] and Prince walked away a free man, remained on the force, shot someone in a raid, stayed married, retired and started a liquor business.
My candidate for Second Place Oldie was another series, one that many of you took part in. When I asked for memories of growing up in Hampton Roads, the nostalgia that poured out of e-mails, letters and phone calls was almost overwhelming.
I loved the stories about dances at the Oceanfront and Sunday school excursions to Ocean View; about wartime separations that only made hearts grow fonder; about buses, trolleys, steamboats and ferries; about baseball stories, including the one about the Norfolk Tars game in which a homerun ball supposedly landed on a coal train car and didn’t touch ground until it reached West Virginia; and, last but not least, about the Gaiety Theater and the buzzer that sounded backstage if the vice squad was coming.
In April, when piracy dominated the news, there was the déjà vu connection to the Barbary thugs, 200 years before, off the shores of Tripoli. In September, when ODU began football for the first time in almost seven decades, there were memories of that first season in 1930 and the improbable game two years later when the “Braves” almost beat Miami.
In October, thanks to the memory of a Maury High admirer, there was the story of how Dot Keely met Louis Prima at the Oceanfront and became Keely Smith, one of America’s top vocalists.
And much, much more.
All in all, it was a very good year for vintage oldies.
Paul Clancy, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sketch of Michael Prince from the Norfolk Landmark, 1900.
Dancers at the Cavalier Hotel and Beach Club, 1940s, by Carroll Walker. The Virginian-Pilot.