Julius Scott on John Brown Russworm and the Haitian Revolution
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Q: What was the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Americans, black and white?
A: Early in the 19th century, the Haitian Revolution gets talked about and written about by Afro North American commentators as well as by others, as the signal event of the entire history of the presence of Africans in the New World, and as an emblem for black achievement that is just the first step in what is going to be a much longer history of struggle and achievement.
I think the best example is John Brown Russworm. Russworm was born in Jamaica in 1799. Toussaint's rise to power Jefferson's statements about black crews and cargoes -- all those things were going on at the time of Russworm's birth, right up the road there in Saint Domingue. He ends up moving as a young man to Quebec, and then later ends up coming to the United States, where he attends Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. In the year 1826, he becomes the second person of African descent to graduate from a United States college.
Russworm had an abiding interest in the Haitian Revolution. And he wrote term papers while he was an undergraduate at Bowdoin, about Toussaint L'Ouverture and about the Haitian Revolution. When he graduated, it was the late summer of 1826. And of course, July 4, 1826 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, 25 years after Tobias Lear had been in Saint Domingue. And on that day, Thomas Jefferson, as well as John Adams (the two remaining patriarchs of the revolution) died.
Russworm is one of his college's graduation speakers, right in the midst of all this celebration of the Jubilee of Independence, and gives a speech about the importance of revolution, and the transforming nature of revolutionary struggle. But he's talking about the Haitian Revolution and not the American Revolution.
Julius S. Scott
Professor of History
New York University
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