By M. Skye Holly
The island of Haiti made history when it became the first black republic in the world and the first independent state in the Caribbean in 1804. When Haiti won its fight for freedom from French colonial rule, it defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s massive army and sent a message of abolition and independence across the world. January 1, 1804 stands as the proudest day in Haitian history and now, thanks to efforts by Brooklyn Council Member Mathieu Eugene, of the 40th District, a new date has been stamped to honor the Haitian Revolution and Haiti’s contributions to American and global history. On June 21, in an unanimous vote at City Hall, Resolution 687 was passed, officially naming Oct. 9 as New York City Haitian Day.
The resolution was filed in 2015 by Council Member Eugene and the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations to establish Oct. 9 annually as NYC Haitian Day “in recognition of the historic contributions of the Haitian diaspora in the City of New York.” The resolution was sponsored by Eugene and 10 other council members of diverse backgrounds and communities, including Council Members Laurie Cumbo, of the 35th District in Brooklyn; Inez E. Dickens, of District 9 in Manhattan; Peter A. Koo, of the 20th District in Queens; Stephen Levin, of the 33rd District in Brooklyn; and Vanessa Gibson, of District 16 in the Bronx. The passing of the resolution demonstrates an understanding throughout New York City that the Haitian community’s desire to be heard, acknowledged and recognized is a shared sentiment both within and without the Haitian community.
Following the New York City Council’s Stated meeting at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, Council Member Eugene held a reception celebrating the vote and passing of the Haitian Day Legislation that evening at Brooklyn Borough Hall. He was joined by supporters young and old, of various ethnic and religious affiliations. Before the reception began, Eugene addressed his supporters in the Courtroom at Brooklyn Borough Hall.
“We Haitians have many friends who help us when we need them, who love us,” he said.
Eugene’s Chief of Staff, David Suarez said “This is a tremendous day for all of us.”
The audience joined together to sing the Haitian National Anthem and the room was filled with pride and enthusiasm. Eugene spoke in Spanish to share his gratitude and affection for the Spanish-speakers in the audience, who applauded. The rest of his remarks were in English and Haitian-Creole. Eugene thanked his guests for their support and warmly thanked his staff for their work and commitment to his passion of serving youth and immigrants, New York City, and international communities.
“We have not only fought for Haiti. We have fought for human dignity and respect. [Haiti has] ignited leaders to liberate their countries. Martin Luther was inspired by the Haitian Revolution…Simon Bolivar and many other leaders and countries,” he said. He went on to say that the Louisiana Purchase, the momentous agreement which doubled the territory of the United States was made a reality because of the influence of Haiti’s revolt against France. He credits the United States’ expansion, in part to Haiti, as well as their fight for freedom. Haitian soldiers fought alongside the United States during the Battle of Savannah in 1779. The city of Chicago was founded by a Haitian man, Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable. In New York City, Pierre Toussaint was one of the first individuals to contribute financially to the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As Council Member Eugene listed accomplishment after accomplishment, Haiti’s place in American history was being taught to supporters and members of the media alike, some for the first time.
“Your country Haiti, Ayiti, has a great history, and so impactful. They took the lead and said they were not going to take oppression,” Barron said.
Referring to Eugene, she said “He keeps the issue before us…and there’s so much more that needs to be done to restore Haiti to its grandeur.” She also said that leaders who have made promises to Haiti need to be held accountable.
Council Member Eugene has worked to aid international communities, including raising funds and sending aid to Japan following the the tsunami in 2011. When contacted by the Consul General in Japan, he knew he had to respond. He strongly feels that he should extend help to international groups in any way that he can the same way he wants to aid the people of Haiti. He believes people everywhere deserve respect and dignity. Eugene fondly remarked how prior to that, Israel joined forces with his office to provide relief following Haiti’s earthquake in 2010. Eugene visited Israel in 2010 and said they were the first country to offer aid. Doctors from Israel flew to Haiti to perform medical surgeries, relief supplies were sent, along with communications devices so that Haitians affected by the devastation of the earthquake could contact their families. “All of my Jewish friends have always been there for me,” he said. Council Member Eugene is working to continue with the same humanitarian spirit, determined to affect New York along the way.
“I feel delighted and I am so proud to see that finally we have some recognition. The City of New York officially recognized the sacrifices of my ancestors in the U.S., and the contributions of Haitians in general in the great city of New York, “ Eugene, the first Haitian-born elected official in New York State said.
“We have done so much for humanity, for the world, from the abolition of slavery to helping the United States and helping countries in South America fight for their independence. Haiti used to be the dream, [a] promised land for black people,” he said. His next sights are on Washington, D.C., as he hopes to get Haitian Day recognized nationally. He says there is a lot of work to do.
“If we can follow the steps of our ancestors, applying “L’union fait la force,” we will not only be [a] powerful country, but also a respected partner for the international community,” said Eugene. Oct. 9, 2016 is a remarkable step in the right direction to pay homage to and pick up where Jan. 1, 1804 left off.