We invite you to read the introduction to Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow by Gerald Horne, published by Monthly Review Press. Please consult the printed book or an e-book for full citations and sources.
The Africans were apprehensive—with good reason.
It was early in 1862 and the nation in which they resided, the United States, was embroiled in a bloody civil war. As such, the Washington authorities sought to send hundreds of them to Key West to work on fortifications, as this small town was well behind the lines of the so-called Confederate States of America—which dominated most of Florida—and had sought secession precisely on the grounds of continuation of enslavement of Africans. But the Africans asked to take on this important task balked, assuming this might be a prelude to selling them into slavery in Cuba, just across the Florida Straits. Their nervousness was understandable, since, for the longest period, there had been a robust slave trade—licit and otherwise—between the republic and the Spanish colony.
Thus by 1862 the republic, which had countenanced this odious commerce for so long, was now ironically placed in jeopardy because Africans had long memories of being shipped to one of the world’s most significant slave emporia. These were not unreasonable fears given that some Confederate rebels were then in the process of transferring or liquidating their human assets by sending them to or selling them in Cuba. Though in the long run the demise of slavery in the republic spelled doom for its counterparts in Cuba, in Barbados in 1863 sugar planters complained that the increase in slaves delivered to Havana by fleeing rebels and increased traffic from Africa (often captained by comrades of these rebels) was providing “unfair competition.”
In short, given the intense traffic between Havana and the mainland, slaveholders taking their slaves with them to Cuba were not uncommon. Africans resisting their dispatch to Florida may also have heard about the rude reception those like them had received by colonial authorities in Cuba. In 1837, George Davis, a tailor—and U.S. Negro—was traveling in Cuba where he was suspected of being a dreaded abolitionist. He was arrested and almost immediately condemned to death. As an antislavery journal put it, he was “executed by being screwed to death”—and this was not the first incident of this type. “Colored seamen” particularly from the republic were persecuted; generally they were barred from landing and if somehow they managed to evade this proscription, they were jailed, then tried, and if convicted were slated for execution or enslavement. “God only knows when we shall get out,” said a U.S. detainee in a prison in Santiago de Cuba in 1841, since “it has often happened that free colored persons put in prison here have been sold into slavery to defray the jail fees.”
In 1849 the periodical published by Frederick Douglass, the leading Negro abolitionist, excoriated Cuba as the “great Western slave mart of the world” and “the channel through which slaves are imported annually into the United States.” Like others, Douglass saw the supposed ban on slave importations into the republic as being as effective in halting this practice as bans on illicit drugs were in halting ingesting of such substances.
Unfortunately, the impressment of U.S. Negroes into slavery in Cuba continued after the Civil War’s end in 1865, suggesting that ill conditions on one side of the Straits could have contagious effects on the other side. In 1872 Margaret Ray of Owensboro, Kentucky, complained directly to President Ulysses S. Grant that “100 collored [sic] freedmen” were “decoyed to Cuba” after being offered “fabulous wages” but found themselves “forced into slavery more terrible than of which they could ever have conceived.” Adequate recourse seemed unavailing so she demanded that Grant “go and take Cuba and wipe out the stain” of “slavery,” so such a tragedy would not recur.
This is a book about U.S.-Cuban relations in the bitter context of slavery and Jim Crow. It focuses heavily on the words and deeds of U.S. Negroes—and their “white” counterparts. This book engages the question of racism with an emphasis on the United States—which should not be interpreted to excuse Spain’s depredations in this conflicted realm: on the other hand, exploring race and racism in Cuba without reference to the gravitational pull exerted by the mainland seems shortsighted. U.S. slave traders were heavily responsible for the presence of so many Africans in Cuba and U.S. nationals were a potent presence there almost from the moment of independence. The U.S. Negro abolitionist Martín Delany was among those who crusaded against slavery in Cuba, seeing the eradication of this system as a precondition for freedom in the Americas. Like the Africans in Florida in 1862, U.S. Negroes came to understand that their freedom would be imperiled as long as bondage existed ninety miles from the mainland. Delany famously argued in 1852 that “in almost every town where there is any intelligence among them, there are some colored persons of both sexes who are studying the Spanish language,” not least because of fervent interest in Cuba. This was followed in the twentieth century when U.S. Negro Communists and Reds of African descent in republican Cuba campaigned relentlessly against U.S. hegemony in Cuba—notably against the Jim Crow that predominated on both sides of the straits, which supplanted a different and, according to many commentators, milder form of racism that had prevailed in Cuba for centuries. Actually, slavery in the republic was so horrific that it tended to make Spanish slavery seem mild by comparison, according to many commentators of that era. And, as we shall see, repugnance toward the heightened racism imposed by Washington in Havana paved the way for the revolution that climaxed on 1 January 1959.
Yet even before independence, colonial Cuba often intimidated the slave South, as arming Africans had been the practice on the island since the sixteenth century and by the early eighteenth century St. Augustine in Florida had become notorious for its forays into the Carolinas featuring Spanish-speaking Negroes with guns. This was of significance when the republic and Spain jousted over control of Florida almost 200 years ago: Washington seemed to think that deploying armed Africans from Cuba to engage in combat was akin to a crime of war.
After breaking from rule by London, the republic was hampered in trading with its neighbors—including Canada and the Caribbean—which left few options beyond commerce with Spanish possessions, including Cuba; hence, as early as the 1790s, aggressive Yankee merchants were dominating the slave trade to Havana. The arrival of these merchants coincided with a quantum leap in Cuba’s African population. Surely Cuba represented a lush opportunity—but it also represented danger, which dialectically gave impetus to the republican desire to penetrate the island, for early in the nineteenth century Governor William Claiborne of Louisiana limned the consensus of the U.S. ruling elite when he claimed that Cuba was “the real mouth of the Mississippi [River],” the serpentine spine of the mainland, and until the island was controlled by the United States, the republic itself would be imperiled. “We must have the Floridas and Cuba,” echoed Thomas Jefferson.
By bringing more Africans to Cuba and seeking to control more territory there, republicans could also attain a strategic goal, even without annexation. Constantly in search for new markets, by 1806 these creative entrepreneurs had veered from the traditional hunting ground for the enslaved—West Africa—and had headed southward, rounding the Cape toward Mozambique in search of human chattel destined for Cuba. By 1838 Captain Brunswick Popham of the Royal Navy, then sailing off the coast of Africa, rued the “active and undisguised assistance given to the Slave Trade by citizens of the United States of America,” which was “as notorious as it is disgraceful”; in fact, he continued, “were it not for the active co-operation of the Americans, the Slave Trade would very materially decline,” which would have had a salutary impact on “Havana and Brazil.” By 1839 one U.S. Negro journalist was dumbfounded to find that “out of 177 slave ships which arrived at Cuba every year, five-sixths are owned and fitted out from ports in the United States,” with profits fueling robust development within the republic, as this filthy lucre was going disproportionately to Boston, New York, and Baltimore.
By 1840, a British diplomat estimated that U.S. nationals owned thousands of slaves in Cuba and often held property jointly with Spaniards: there had been a “great increase” in these categories “within the last ten or twelve [years],” it was reported. That same year Joel Poinsett, a leading U.S. emissary in the region, had reason to believe that his fellow citizens controlled a “third of all the wealth of the island.” By 1841, another Negro analyst opined that since 1808, when the slave trade was thought to be in remission, there had been “kidnapped and carried away from Africa to . . . Cuba and Porto Rico 1,020,000” unlucky souls. As early as 1841, London had concluded that Spanish complicity in the dramatically extraordinary increase in the enslaved population was a desperate roll of the dice by Madrid whereby it would free and unleash Africans in order to foil U.S. annexation or a revolt by the Creoles, the Cuban-born population of Spanish ancestry. This phenomenal increase was also a kind of planned deflation, it was said, to drive down the price of Africans to the detriment of the U.S. nationals then flooding the island.
By 1849, London concluded that “those who are most active in encouraging the slave trade are the American settlers, who have bought land and wish to bring new land into cultivation, or extend the cultivation of existing estates.” By the mid-1850s Cuba sold over 85 percent of its sugar to its northern neighbor—overwhelmingly produced by slave labor—as it slid uneasily into the role of becoming a de facto appendage of the republic.
It was also during this time that a U.S. emissary in Trinidad, Cuba, estimated “at least nineteen-twentieths of the present slave population” had been imported since 1820. Though he did not add that his compatriots played a major role in this dastardly process, he did say that since London had pressured Madrid into anti-slave-trade provisions that suggested that Africans imported after 1820 were in Cuba improperly, it could mean a massive emancipation that “would be seriously injurious”—notably to the republic—since this “would amount very nearly to a total abolition of slavery.” And since the importation “has been almost exclusively confined to males, and that at this moment at least four-fifths of the whole number of slaves on the estates of the planters [are] composed of that gender,” this could augment the already formidable Cuban military. Correspondingly, by 1850 William Hunt, formerly of Philadelphia, was billed as “the most extensive sugar planter in the island of Cuba” and, as a result, “probably the richest man of his age in the Union.”
By 1858 there were so many Africans flooding into the mainland region abutting the Gulf of Mexico—a process driven by the seemingly insatiable appetite of Cuba for slaves—that the African slave trade, thought to be on the decline, had actually surged with a vengeance, a U.S. journalist claimed: this was evidenced by the depot for arriving Africans he had espied in the Pearl River delta in southern Mississippi. It was with disgust during that same year that a British delegate in Havana denounced the “abuse of the flag of the United States in carrying on the Slave Trade.” “Indeed,” he averred mournfully, “it is only under that flag that slave-trading in this island is carried on” in what amounted to a “prostitution” of the Stars and Stripes. As late as 1876, British officials were astonished to find the continuing involvement of U.S. flagged vessels in transporting enslaved Africans.
In short, the considerable role of U.S. nationals in promoting enslavement of Africans in Cuba was a poisoned chalice because Washington’s influence in Havana brought the abolitionist gaze of London, which had demonstrated previously that its antislavery stance could attract mass support from U.S. Negroes to the detriment of the republic. As some fire-eaters in Dixie clamored for forcible annexation of Cuba, the dovish Congressman Joshua Giddings of Ohio warned pointedly in 1854 that these warmongers should be careful since a war for the island could paradoxically mean “the overthrow of slavery in Cuba,” which could easily spread to Dixie itself. When Congressman William Boyce of South Carolina spoke balefully in 1855 about “two hundred thousand Spanish Free Negroes” in Cuba who “strike me more like two hundred thousand half-lit torches, which a single flash may light up and set the whole island in a flame at any moment,” he suggested how and why the republic would find it difficult to swallow and digest Cuba. “It was the same Free Negro race,” he argued, “under the workings of Spanish and French ideas, which upturned the entire social fabric in St. Domingo [sic] and wreaked infinite slaughter on the white race.”
Nonetheless, the importance of Cuba was signaled when Washington posted as its top diplomat there, Nicholas Trist, married to a granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and maintaining varying ties of intimacy to four other U.S. presidents. Trist boasted of his tie to Jefferson as reflecting an “intimacy as close, a familiarity as unreserved,” as could be imagined. Andrew Jackson appointed him in 1833 and he served in Cuba for eight years, then resided in Cuba for over three more years and distinguished himself for his pivotal role in the slave trade. He was “most unfit,” sniffed London’s man in Havana in 1839, this after the U.S. citizen had taken on the added assignment of consul in Portugal, a declining European power renowned for its prowess in the slave trade. Trist, it was said, was an “apologist for the Slave Trade” and “an abetter of slave dealers,” eager to “partake of the blood money of the slave.”
To be sure, as suggested by the abolition of slavery in Cuba not taking effect until years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Madrid was able to teach Washington a thing or two about how best to maintain slavery, particularly in the training of fearsome dogs trained to capture—and mangle—runaways. As early as 1839, Zachary Taylor, a future U.S. president, thought it would be a grand idea to import these animals to the mainland to check an increasingly rambunctious population of Africans. When in 1836 a New Yorker spoke movingly about how in Cuba “fat” Africans were killed and converted to “sausages,” the unwary would have been excused if they took this story seriously.
Still, given an antebellum Hobson’s choice, Africans tended to favor residing in Cuba rather than the republic, perhaps because escaping to the island generally meant gaining freedom and escaping mainland enslavement. This became clear during the tortuous transition from Spanish to U.S. rule in Florida. Africans fled en masse to Cuba during this era, not least because options for free Negroes were broader there. An illustrative case was that of Antonio Proctor, who because of his service to His Catholic Majesty, not least during the “Patriot War” of 1811 when Washington sought forcibly to annex Florida, received a land grant of 185 acres near St. Augustine around 1816, but by the late 1840s, with Florida firmly under U.S. rule, his family had been sold into slavery. The case of the Proctors exemplifies a major theme of cross-straits history: the rise in influence of Washington was a catastrophe for Africans.
On the other hand, the case of the slave ship Amistad and its enslaved Africans who revolted in Cuban waters, then found themselves ensnared on the mainland, is now part of U.S. lore. Less renowned is a case a couple of decades later in 1861 when a crew of African seafarers from Cuba sailed northward but rebelled on the open seas when they found their destination was to be Baltimore where they feared they would be sold into bondage.
The determined avoidance of U.S. jurisdiction by Africans of all stripes was a reflection of the fact that when Washington replaced Madrid as the sovereign in Florida, what one scholar has described as a “mild and flexible system of race relations” was supplanted by a different system “with a severe definition of slavery” that “viewed [Africans] as degraded members of a despised race and which erected institutional and social barriers between whites and all persons of African descent. . . . The United States brought a harsh two-caste system of slavery with rigid racial dimensions to the new Florida territory.” To a degree, when Washington replaced Madrid in Cuba in 1898 there was a similar replacement in “race relations” which, I contend, contributed to the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Nonetheless, as suggested by the rough treatment accorded to U.S. Negroes who found themselves in Cuba during the era of slavery, Havana watched the activities of the slave South with a keen eye focused on Negro unrest, as if it were a contagion that could easily spread across the straits. Beyond bilateral relations, this was understandable given the deep and liquid nature of the market in enslaved Africans, and Havana was wise to ascertain if any of those imported had reputations for obstreperousness. Thus it seemed almost routine in 1823 when Havana received a report from Charleston that Africans involved in a recent significant conspiracy were designated for expulsion. Quite naturally, Havana watched carefully the unfolding 1830s war in Florida between indigenes—thought to be led by Africans—and federal troops. Colonial Cuba had become so leery of the republic that it had become nervous about the presence on the island of men of color who had roots in St. Augustine, a policy that befell Juan Romero in 1844 and Juan Bernardo Marrero during that same year. Havana may have known that as the slave trade to Cuba increased, driven by events in Texas, U.S. Negroes took an ever more determined interest in the island, leading to increased visits by them to Havana.
On the one hand, the republicans seeking to annex the island may have been enthusiastic about the unrest generated in Cuba in the 1840s, which was driven in part by the flux generated with their Stakhanovite labors in enchaining Africans for the island: Cuba was rocked by major slave revolts during this time. On the other hand, as their investments grew in Cuba, republicans had to be concerned about their holdings being destroyed by rebellious Africans. By April 1844, John C. Calhoun, the hawkish doyen of Dixie, was bemoaning the “great outrages” inflicted on “white residents, especially of our citizens” near Cardenas at the instigation of Africans and sought to dispatch “one of our ships of war” there. If Calhoun and his ilk had been paying attention to the views of U.S. Negroes about tumultuous events in Cuba, they might have been even more sobered when Martín Delany seized the opportunity provided by this commotion to pen one of the more profound novels of the entire antebellum oeuvre, which suggested that a revolt of the enslaved in Cuba would lead to the downfall of that peculiar institution in the republic. Delany imagined a U.S. Negro protagonist who became embroiled in a plot to overthrow the illicit slave trade to Cuba and assisted Africans there in routing wealthy U.S. nationals who dominated the economy of the island.
Inspired by an actual revolt of enslaved Africans in Cuba in the early 1840s, Delany named one of his children after the renowned Cuban poet of that era, Placido. His novelistic conjoining of the fates of Africans on either side of the straits was redolent of thinking among Africans in the Republic, a reflection of the tragic reality that kidnapping and illicit commerce could often transform a U.S. Negro into an African residing in Cuba. Delany, like most Africans of the era, had a sour view of the fruits of 1776 and saw the militant overthrow of slavery on both sides of the straits as a necessary corrective to the establishment of the United States itself. It was Delany, speaking in Pittsburgh in 1855, who saw the presence of armed Africans in Havana as the surest guarantor that the island would not be taken by the slaveholders’ republic.
Surely Washington played an instrumental role in the development of Cuba as a slave society. And this process was accelerated with the secession of Texas from Mexico in 1836—encouraged by Washington—and its annexation by 1845. Texas, whose independence was driven in no small part by a desire to escape an abolitionist Mexico, quickly developed a major slave trade with Cuba, and in that sense the Lone Star on the flags of both was more than coincidental, for the astonishing increase in Cuba’s African population during the decades leading up to 1865 was a function to a sizable degree of its tie to Texas. In December 1836 a U.S. abolitionist found that the price of enslaved Africans in Cuba was “considerably higher now than it was two years ago”; this “advance in price was attributed” to the “market that was found for them in Texas.” By 1840, the British emissary in Cuba, David Turnbull, found a large exportation of slaves from the island of Cuba to the new Republic of Texas, perhaps “as high as 15,000 in a single year. . . . the price of a slave at Houston or Galveston is three or four times as great as it ever is at the Havana.” By 1841 U.S. abolitionists were moaning about the “large number of slaves who had been illegally smuggled from Cuba into Texas.”
In a sense Spanish Cuba was trapped with an abolitionist London pressuring from one side and the slaveholders’ republic from another. Spanish Cuba was also facing pressure from abolitionist Haiti and a growing abolitionist movement in the United States that was centered among U.S. Negroes, a trend that led to Havana seeking to bar virtually any other foreign Negro from its territory, which complicated relations not only with Britain and Haiti (and U.S. Negroes) but with some of its more influential neighbors, including Mexico, whose election of Vicente Guerrero (who happened to be of African descent) to the highest office in the land had helped to spur Texas to secede. When the famed abolitionist writer from the United States Harriet Beecher Stowe turned up in London in 1853, Madrid’s man there seemed to be having a nervous breakdown, worrying about the implications for Cuba.
As in the republic, Haiti was a frightful reality for colonial Cuba, representing the successful revolt of the enslaved and the liquidation of the slaveholding class. As early as 1802 when the result of the turmoil in Hispaniola was still unclear, Cuba moved to bar African “insurrectionists” from neighboring—and French-controlled—Guadalupe seeking to visit the island. In 1812 an English-speaking African named Hilario Herrera visited Cuba just before the launching of one of the more profound revolts in the island’s history—apparently inspired by Haiti—and was accused of seeking to ignite an uprising of the enslaved by colonial authorities who thought they had reason to be wary of visiting Africans. The worst fears of Havana and Washington were realized when furious Africans in 1849 attacked the palace of the governor in St. Lucia and burned several homes while chanting “Viva Soulouque!,” reciting rhythmically the name of Haiti’s leader.
During this same decade, Cuba was seized with the notion of a widespread revolt of the enslaved with some thinking that London was behind it all. Some Cubans in the United States hostile to Madrid’s rule argued that the Spanish colonizers were winking at the importation of more Africans on the premise that if the United States invaded, the enslaved would be freed and unleashed, which could have far-reaching repercussions on the mainland. “It is desirable that a Negro empire should not be consolidated by hostile power within a few days’ sail by steam,” argued a group of Cubans in the United States in the late 1840s; these “ferocious hordes,” it was said, would “burn and slaughter” until exterminated: Haiti was the negative example proffered.
Havana and Washington were united in opposition to the rise of Haiti, which was thought to represent a breach in the pro-slavery wall in the hemisphere. This could have brought them together, except that Washington continued to lust after Cuba and the republic and colony were apprehensive that they both would be outflanked by the abolitionism then surging in London. Madrid’s dilemma was illustrated during the U.S. Civil War when the administration of Abraham Lincoln was frantically seeking a new homeland for the African population of the republic and contemplated, among other sites, what is now the Dominican Republic, where Haitian influence was waning and Spanish influence was rising. In July 1862 Madrid’s representative in Haiti worried anxiously that the arrival from the mainland of an even more substantial population to reside in eastern Hispaniola would bolster the Negro republic and could mean the possibility that a “Garibaldi” that was a “Negro” would disrupt altogether Spanish interests in the region. This fear was part of a preexisting anxiety in Havana that tended to conflate the interests of Africans in the republic with the interests of Haiti. The Haitian Revolution that led to a surge in British abolitionism led to the demise of U.S. slavery, which in turn undermined slavery in Cuba.
Inexorably, the end of slavery in the republic had direct repercussions in colonial Cuba. “I was happy but not surprised,” said Frederick Douglass in February 1863, “to learn that the price of slaves declined in Cuba as soon as the news of the President’s [Emancipation] Proclamation reached the island. She would be able to maintain her Slavery scarcely a year after ours had ceased,” he opined wrongly but understandably. Actually, as an outgrowth of the blockade of Southern ports during the war, a more intense relationship developed between Dixie and Cuba, as if the long-standing mainland desire for annexation was occurring indirectly. But annexation did not occur. Previously this was because of a standoff between London, Washington, and Madrid, with the former two willing to accept the status quo rather than see the other prevail. Yet even within the United States there was a standoff. Visiting the island in 1860 the republican visitor John Abbott acknowledged that taking Cuba “would strengthen slavery in the Senate and the House” and would also “be the instant destruction of every sugar plantation in Louisiana.”
Then Dixie lost: Washington’s relations with London that had been vexed and had stayed the hand of the republic to a degree in its desire to annex Cuba, was eroding: and then from 1868 to 1878 the island erupted in turmoil against both colonialism and slavery, creating an opportunity for a republic that was supposedly opposed to both. Yet U.S. economic interests were affected and not always positively, creating the possibility that a Cuba free from Spanish rule would not necessarily be a gift to the republic.
Inevitably, this turmoil on the island accelerated an ongoing trend—Cubans moving to Florida. There a number of them fit smoothly into the population of U.S. Negroes with some becoming leaders of this community, particularly in Key West, Pensacola, and Escambia County, not far from Mobile, which had long been a center of Negro unrest, a trend that was multiplied after the republic banned slavery in 1865. The rank and file of the Republican Party in Key West, for example, which sought to extend the antislavery that helped give birth to this organization, consisted heavily of U.S. Negroes and Cubans of African descent. Traveling in the opposite direction under foul means were U.S. Negroes headed to enslavement in Cuba; simultaneously, the fabled Jose Martí of Cuba was among those who objected strenuously to the plan bruited in Washington of dumping newly freed slaves on the island.
As Cuba strained under the Spanish yoke in the years following the end of the U.S. Civil War, there were those who felt that U.S. Negroes would be a natural ally of the island. Henry Turner, a militant Negro from Georgia, concurred. In 1873 he informed President Grant about “an enthusiastic mass meeting of the colored citizens held last night to express indignation at the butchery of our fellow citizens in Cuba” and that it was agreed “unanimously” that “5,000 colored citizens are ready to enlist for Cuba to teach the Spanish authorities respect.” Another group of Negroes from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, sought to “furnish” up to “one hundred men” to fight in Cuba. By the same token, Antonio Gallenga in this same year informed his London audience correctly that “there is a great stir” extant “among the Negroes in the United States, thousands of whom could be easily enlisted in any enterprise intended to liberate their African brethren” in Cuba; this weighty possibility, he added, “does not preclude the possibility of an eventual rise of the whole Negro race at some future period, if political agitators and especially colored men from the States, are sent as apostles of freedom among them.”
This was precisely the fear held by some mainlanders, one of whom informed Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in 1873 that “should the insurgents succeed in overthrowing Spanish rule” that the “162,983 whites of foreign birth, together with those among the Creoles who are loyal” could be “massacred by the now subject classes” leading to another Haiti. Since Cuba was “within five days’ sail of New York,” what would “Negro insurrection” mean for the republic? “Will it not lead to the total extinction of the power of the whites and the establishment of another black republic?” The “Black Scare” was designed to appeal to Washington’s tastes and was quickly taken up by Madrid, which informed Grant’s secretary of state that those they were fighting “consist of Negroes, Mulattoes, Chinese” and the like in a “war of races”; if this motley coalition prevailed, “power would be in their hands,” meaning “the end of all civilization.” Thus, said Fernando Calderon y Collantes, it was in “the interests of all Europe and America”—not to mention “the white race in Cuba”—to subdue these rebels. Spain’s triumph, he reassured, would mean abolition, so there was less compulsion for aid to the insurrectionists, who were like “birds of prey, pillaging and applying the torch of the incendiary.”
Congressman Josiah Walls of Florida, a prominent Negro leader in Florida, contradicted Madrid in December 1873 when he introduced a joint resolution demanding the recognition of Cuban belligerency, and then a few weeks later took to the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington to bolster his démarche with militant and impassioned words. John Willis Menard was the first Negro to be elected to the House (though he was not seated); part of the opposition to him stemmed from the allegation that he was much too close to revolutionaries in Cuba. Actually, he did attend their meetings in Key West and wrote poetry hailing them.
Unfortunately, the activism at the highest level of Negroes like Walls and Menard was soon to be evanescent and their absence was a blow to Cuban independence and to those still struggling to eradicate slavery on the island, which did not end effectively until 1886. With the termination of Reconstruction—effectively in 1876—Negroes on the mainland found they had shed blood profusely during the war in order to erect an apartheid state, which also proved to be a baneful influence on Cuba. Traveling in Charleston in 1886, Jose Martí was struck by the Jim Crow he witnessed; still, it is possible that such experiences steeled the growing revulsion toward the republic in Cuba and instilled a deeper Cuban patriotism and nationalism.
Certainly, the burgeoning Cuban population in Key West had difficulty in adjusting to Jim Crow. “Key West is the freest town in the South,” reported one Negro journal in Manhattan in 1888. “The Ku Klux Klan,” the notorious terrorist wing of the Democratic Party, “would be unceremoniously run into the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean” if they were to appear in this growing town. In contrast to even other sites in the Sunshine State, “no Negroes are murdered here in cold blood,” while “in public places colored people experience better treatment than they get in Washington.” Why the difference? “The presence of foreigners,” including the Cubans, since a “white Cuban gentleman will treat a colored Cuban gentleman or a colored American gentleman” appropriately, unlike “a white American gentleman.” Besides, Key West was not exactly on the mainland but part of an archipelago and “should the governor order out the militia” it would “take a day or two to get over here” and “the boat only makes two trips a week,” giving the city a healthy distance from the pestilence that pervaded the republic. By the pivotal year of 1898, Key West had a population of about 18,000, making it one of the largest cities in the then sparsely populated state, with Cubans comprising about a third of the total, which—said another Manhattan journal—consisted of about 4,000 of African ancestry.
Though their thrust toward democracy was aborted, U.S. Negroes, perhaps in compensation, did not stint in their support for Cuban freedom. “All hail Cuba libre!” was the cry heard in the republic. A Negro physician, Dr. L. A. Hinds of South Bend, Indiana, served on the staff of Antonio Maceo in Cuba and regularly sent home reports on this “army of colored men.” Another Negro physician, Allen A. Wesley of Chicago, was in frequent touch with Maceo and a lobbyist on behalf of his cause. After Maceo’s untimely death, it is estimated that 50,000 U.S. Negroes went to fight in Cuba. Charles Strachan, a Negro who was born in Nassau but whose family subsequently migrated to the United States, secretly transported Martí to Cuba in 1895. James Floyd of Jacksonville was acclaimed for years by his fellow U.S. Negroes for his heroic role in smuggling arms to Cuban insurgents in the 1890s. While touring the republic, Maceo met frequently with Negroes, including the writer Frank Webb. This activism was suggestive of the point that in the 1890s mass meetings among U.S. Negroes in support of a free Cuba had become commonplace. The growing list included the famed anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett: in 1896 she addressed a sizable gathering in Chicago’s Bethel Church lamenting the killing of Maceo.
This collaboration had not escaped the attention of Washington, and in 1896 the U.S. consul in Cardenas, Cuba, warned that “should Maceo the leader of the Negro element, who has done the most effective fighting” not be satisfied “he could maintain a warfare for years” and possibly threaten U.S. interests.
Continuing a long-term trend, the republic was taking an ever-increasing interest in Cuban affairs. Interrogated by Congress in 1896, the Reverend A. J. Diaz of Cuba was asked bluntly, “What proportion of Negroes and whites” are in “Maceo’s army”? “One-third Negroes,” he responded. “Are the Negroes and whites in separate companies and regiments or are they all mixed up together?” Aware of his audience’s preferred response, the witness hedged, averring, “I do not know very well,” though conceding “they mingled.” Pouncing, the U.S. senator asked querulously, “In the same organization?” which the witness then confirmed.
These legislators were concerned about the impact of the 1898 war on domestic race relations. Exposing U.S. Negroes to the differing racial climate led many to question the more severe clime in the republic; besides, many U.S. Negroes recruited by Washington questioned why they should fight in Cuba, supposedly for a liberty they themselves did not enjoy. The experience with Cuba engendered more militancy among U.S. Negroes, leading more to arm, organize, and forcefully resist racism, which led to bloody confrontations in Darien, Georgia, and Tiptonville, Tennessee, among other sites. The symbol of this era was the Negro David Fagen of Tampa, who after being sent to fight in the Philippines, wound up defecting to the side of the indigenes and confronting U.S. forces.
As the war was unfolding, U.S. Negroes began to flock to Cuba because of the perception that racism there was not as intense as on the mainland. Arguably, the more intimate relationship with Cuba lubricated the path for the rise of the music known as jazz, then developing in New Orleans, whose ties to the island stretched back decades. Similarly, ties in baseball were reflected in the number of U.S. Negro teams who took the name “Cuban.” This naming symbolized how the island had garnered a reputation for being more racially tolerant, just as the increasing number of Cubans who played on U.S. Negro teams on the mainland represented a growing tie. A number of these U.S. Negro athletes learned Spanish as an outgrowth of their lingering presence on the island, thus increasing the depth of the relationship.
Some of the Negro soldiers who went to fight in Cuba in 1898 stayed on and took Cuban brides; at times, they returned to the mainland with their new family. Others simply chose to stay on the premise since, according to one corporal, “there is no discrimination in Cuba. Everybody looks alike,” a distortion that reflected a state of mind among many U.S. Negroes. Arriving from Hispaniola (where he had resided) in Cuba was the Philadelphia Negro attorney John Durham, who wound up investing in sugarcane; he was light-skinned, which was a demerit on the mainland but afforded mobility in the Caribbean, and at his death in 1919 he left a hefty estate of $150,000. But what these Negroes did not take fully into account was the fact that also moving to the island were a number of their “white” erstwhile compatriots who strove to impose a form of Jim Crow akin to what they enjoyed in Dixie. This led to a difficult transition, notably in the hinge year of 1898 when violent fracases featured U.S. nationals from opposite sides of the color line.
To that juncture, a number of Cubans residing in Dixie had been integrated into the elite—assuming that they could easily pass the test for “whiteness”—but here too a turning point was reached in 1903 when Narciso Gonzalez, whose family had served the cause of slavery and Jim Crow faithfully, was slain in the streets by the nephew of the rising Dixie politician “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman as a result of a fierce political dispute (though the deceased was seen as not being as rigid in his racism as Tillman). Ultimately, the forcible imposition of a heightened Jim Crow helped to undermine the U.S.-backed regime in Havana, lubricating the path for its overthrow in 1959.
The untidy fit between U.S. Jim Crow and Cuba manifested most dramatically in 1912 when hundreds—perhaps thousands according to Spanish observers—of Cubans of African descent were slain in a confrontation with the U.S.-backed regime. Opinions have varied as to who—or what—was responsible, but not among the U.S. Negroes of that era. They blamed Washington and its hateful Jim Crow; one writer was appalled that “photographs of such [slain] Negroes have been made and distributed throughout the United States” for purposes of intimidation, confirming the apprehension that the taking of Cuba was yet another maneuver designed to enhance racism. Another tied the slaughter to the desire to intimidate Africans regionally—and not just in the United States—in light of the building of the Panama Canal, a strategic chokepoint deemed essential to Washington’s security: this construction was heavily dependent on black labor. Washington was responsible, said the Baltimore Afro-American, for the “recent revolt” in Cuba, adding that “if American control of Cuba is to mean to the Cuban Negro what has happened to the American Negro in the South, it is not improvement of his condition that Spanish rule is gone.”
This intimidation was manifested further by the U.S. intervention in neighboring Haiti, where by 1916 one U.S. soldier was comparing his comrades to the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, suggestive of the racist poison spreading like an oil spot regionally. This enhanced Jim Crow, which arrived with increased influence from Washington, clashed with the predilections of some Cubans. Thus Manuel Cabeza, then residing in a now different Key West, was tarred and feathered in 1921 because of objection to what was described as his “mulatto mistress.” In turn he shot and killed one of his attackers—and he, in turn, was then shot and hanged on Christmas morning at the behest of the same KKK that had been recently hailed in Haiti.
Yet during that same time, Robert Robinson—a U.S. Negro—was headed on a bus to Key West where he was forced to endure racist harassment. But like so many U.S. Negroes during that era, he sought to foil his tormentors by rising from his seat, beating his chest and saying in Spanish—“I do not want to be lynched! Because I am Cuban! I am Cuban! I am Cuban!” “Leave him alone,” was the response. “He’s not an American. He’s a Cuban; leave him alone.” He escaped pulverizing because mainland white supremacists had a unique and special animus toward those perceived as descendants of enslaved Africans from Dixie, which, as Cabeza could have attested, did not mean that Cubans escaped attention altogether. In other words, though an accelerated Jim Crow was being imposed on the island, mainland Negroes still felt they could escape the harshest persecution by masquerading as Cuban.
Thus, in the 1950s the Puerto Rican pitcher Ruben Gomez commented scornfully on “how crazy the whole question of race is in [the United States]—if you speak Spanish you’re somehow not as black.”
What befell Cabeza was not particularly unique for Dixie, though it represented a divergence for Key West. It was part of a process that followed in the wake of 1898, which saw the growth of a more muscular presence of Jim Crow generally, not only in Florida but, as ever, its cross-straits neighbor: Cuba. The island had a steeper climb to accommodate itself to this ethos than the mainland, which mandated more aggressive methods. Simultaneously, Florida was beginning to experience increased development and population, which brought with it a certain flux providing fertile soil for unrest. During the pre-1959 Jim Crow era, Florida was the per capita leader in lynching, tripling Alabama’s rate and doubling that of such mighty competitors as Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana. Some of the last lynchings on the mainland occurred in Florida even as the practice was grinding to a halt elsewhere.
The flight of U.S. Negroes from terror also meant a departure from Florida. This trail of tears was traversed by James Weldon Johnson, who became one of the leading intellectuals and activists of his era, serving for a time in the top slot of the NAACP. His ties to Cuba were long-standing, and he spoke fluent Spanish as an emblem of this tie. He was born in Florida in 1871 where his father learned Spanish, then, as was the custom, invited a Cuban family to send a son to reside with them in Jacksonville. Johnson thus picked up the language before residing in Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The rise of Johnson’s NAACP signaled a new militancy on the part of U.S. Negroes, and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 served to give rise to Communist parties on both sides of the straits auguring a fierce pushback against Jim Crow that—simultaneously—helped to erode the U.S. regime in Havana. A turning point in this process was the Scottsboro case, ignited in 1931 when nine Negro youths in Alabama were falsely accused of sexual molestation of two non-Negro women and were headed, like so many others previously, for the electric chair before the intervention of the Communist-led International Labor Defense, which converted this matter into an international concern, leading to a global crusade against Jim Crow, marking the beginning of the end of this system of bigotry. This case led to increased collaboration between and among activists of all sorts across the straits, with Cubans particularly vigorous in protesting this injustice, which allowed them to forge cross-straits bonds while protesting Jim Crow on the mainland and the island.
This protest was also an outgrowth of increasing ties between the Communist parties of the United States and Cuba, with the latter sending cadre to Manhattan to be trained and the former sending funding to the island. The National Maritime Union of the United States, whose leader for a good deal of the 1930s and most of the 1940s was a Jamaican-born Communist, had close ties to seafarers and maritime workers of a similar ideological persuasion in Havana. In 1945 Esther Cooper Jackson, a leading Negro Communist and spouse of one of the party’s highest-ranking leaders, conferred with future Cuban president Raul Castro at an important gathering of progressive forces in London.
During the 1930s and 1940s both parties, but particularly that of Cuba, were ascending to the point that by 1947 one Negro periodical in Pittsburgh was musing about the “high incidence of communism in Cuba” and observing that “a high percentage of all Cubans are colored.” George Schuyler, the leading U.S. Negro conservative, was struck that same year by the fact that the “Four Bigs” of this party were “all Negroes.” One bedazzled U.S. Negro writer asked agog in 1947, “Will Cuba be the first Communist republic in the new world?”
The “most powerful Negro labor leader in the world,” claimed the Atlanta Daily World, was a Cuban, Lázaro Peña: “Rich Cubans insist he is the real ruler of the island republic,” their Negro readership was informed in 1947. Who was—and was not—defined as a Negro was not just a function of the black press on the mainland. At the same time the Truman administration, then involved in an agonizing retreat from Jim Crow, was informed which Cuban leaders could be so categorized.
Unfortunately for Dixie, Jim Crow was not very popular in Cuba at a time when the Cold War dictated winning “hearts and minds” globally. This led to a retreat of Jim Crow, a calcified system of bigotry that was both unpopular in Cuba and undermined those on the island that had been close to those that supported this system. Thus when Truman moved against Jim Crow, the influential Cuban Pedro Portuondo Cala saluted him. He forwarded a complimentary resolution from the Federation of the Societies of the Race adopted “unanimously” in Santa Clara, Cuba, on 9 November 1947.
Naturally, it was not just Negroes and elites who were comparing notes across the straits for it was during this time that non-Communist Negro leaders began to deepen ties. This was realized when Congressman Arthur Mitchell of Chicago arrived on the island in 1937 and, as was now the custom, was subjected to Jim Crow. He took adamant exception—and was backed by a broad array of forces on the island, who were not only able to curry favor with an important mainland constituency but express disgust with what had been imposed on their nation by Washington. An indication of this relationship was the fact that by the 1950s the leading NAACP attorney in Florida was a Cuban of African descent, Francisco Rodriguez of Tampa.
As Cubans of African ancestry played a larger role in the mainstream desegregation movement, this opened new vistas for U.S. Negroes. Thus the Atlanta Daily World took note of the 1948 meeting in Jim Crow Washington where the leading civil rights attorney—Charles Hamilton Houston, the mentor of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—addressed a group that “represented Cubans with darker complexions” in fluent Spanish: “Because they were Spanish-speaking people they [had] no difficulty in [assembling] at the downtown Willard Hotel.” Just as Key West in 1862 and 1888 was an oasis of sorts in Dixie, by 1951 one visitor at the airport in Miami was surprised to observe that toilets were not “Jim-Crowed” and on buses to the airport there was no “enforcement of the sign ‘White Passengers Seat from the Front.’” Why? There was nervousness about “antagonizing” Caribbean visitors “who are also black.”
At the same time, when the U.S. Negro journalist Lucius Harper visited Cuba in 1949, the relative absence of Jim Crow, compared to the mainland, convinced him that “prejudice and discrimination can be wiped out completely,” hardening him for future battles. Conversely, the father of talented baseball pitcher Luis Tiant of Cuba, who had endured earlier difficult racist experiences on the mainland, did not want his son to pursue his craft there: “I didn’t want him to be persecuted and spit on and treated like garbage like I was,” he observed acerbically in 1975. The concentrated racism of Jim Crow was being assailed from both sides of the straits, shortening its shelf life: this was to lead to formal desegregation in Dixie and an undermining of U.S. surrogates in Havana, creating conditions for a radically different regime.
As was the pattern since 1898, a U.S. development, the onset of the Red Scare in Washington, resonated on both sides of the straits as Communists retreated. Howard Johnson, a Negro Communist from Harlem, like many of his comrades felt compelled to go underground and retreated to Cuba in the early 1950s where he found solace with Reds and other forces of the left including, he says, “many of the people who later became the power behind the Castro throne in Cuba after 1959. . . . People like Juan Martínello, Blas Roca, Lázaro Peña . . . Nicolás Guillén.” He viewed this opportunity as a “tremendous resource for the Afro-American movement in the United States.” Cuba had been in the vanguard in the international community clamoring against Jim Crow, which weakened the most retrograde forces in the United States and helped to empower more U.S. Negroes who could then ally with Cubans in a virtuous circle of liberation.
An essential part of this process was the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., one of the few Negroes in this august body and a powerful member because of his seniority. By 1958 he was in the forefront in demanding an “immediate stoppage of the flow of arms and ammunition from this country” to Cuba—“and there should be an immediate withdrawal of the mission” he added for good measure. After the triumph of the revolutionaries one high-level Washington spokesman noted confidentially—with the now casual racism for which those of his ilk were notorious—that Powell “will emerge as an important you-know-what in the woodpile” in Havana. “The question of Castro’s picking up Powell’s sizable hotel tab in Havana has not yet been satisfactorily cleared up.” As Washington saw itself in a fight to the death with the Reds, he was distraught that the “hardest nut to crack will be the business of the U.S. financial support” along with “the degree of Communist infiltration and the details of how the whole thing works.” Certainly, lessening the odoriferous Jim Crow then in place could reduce Negro support for radicalism, though it would upset Dixie, perhaps weakening its retrograde resolve to the detriment of the anticommunist cause.
This ongoing trend had been detected in Dixie early on. “So close in ties to our country” was Cuba, chortled a Jim Crow periodical in Charleston in 1957, “it has been called ‘the 49th state.’” As such, by 1958 the editorial writer was furious that “bayonets” were drawn to enforce desegregation of public schools, though, it was claimed, no such response met “arson, murder and defiance of federal authorities by Cuban rebels. Public schools in Cuba,” it was noted wondrously, “are mixed,” contradicting sacred tenets and evoking not a murmur from Washington. What had happened was that by the 1950s, Jim Crow was in a death spiral, sharpening the attention of policymakers while disorienting the powerful Dixie bloc, all creating an opening for change in Cuba. As the anti-Jim Crow movement in the United States gained traction and forced the ultra-right wing to backpedal, progressive change on the island also proceeded apace.
As Washington became anxious about being crippled in charging Moscow with human rights violations while countenancing Jim Crow, this created favorable conditions for the erosion of this system of discrimination. The price paid, however, was an intensified attack on Communists—hence Johnson’s presence in Cuba. At the same time, though Washington felt Johnson’s comrades in Havana had been suffocated, by 1959 revulsion toward U.S. rule, including the racial regime imposed in 1898, led to a new order. Surely, the fierce focus on Communists in Cuba led Washington to overdetermine the role of those men of African descent that had so captivated the Negro press—combining their worst nightmare: Black and Red, creating an opening for Fidel Castro and his movement.
By 1960, Cuban Communist leader Blas Roca was asking why it was that “20 million North American Negroes are in a situation that is in many respects worse than that suffered by millions in Latin America.” He had a point—then. But just as the relatively late abolition of slavery in Cuba and then the attempted implantation of Jim Crow served to induce a radical counterreaction in 1959, the horrific conditions to which Roca alluded—combined with immense global pressure, propelled by Washington’s emerging role as a superpower—created conditions for significant advance by U.S. Negroes by the dawn of the twenty-first century. Still, Roca’s larger point remains worthy of interrogation. How did conceptions of racism differ on either side of the straits?
Of course, though slavery had existed in Dixie and Cuba, conceptions of race and racism varied. U.S. nationals tended to think that Spaniards were “not quite white,” given the lengthy occupation of the Iberian peninsula by Arabs and Africans and, inter alia, this disqualified them from holding the prize that was Cuba. In 1815 presidential hopeful William Crawford was reminded that their Iberian competition had a “tinge of the political institutions as well as of the manners & complexion of the Saracens and Moors with whom they were so long connected–traces of the sloth” and the “intolerance in religion and of the despotism & loyalty of the East still follow them in all their migrations & into all their establishments.” U.S. nationals, many of whom were anti-Vatican, took umbrage at the Catholicism that prevailed in Cuba. Tellingly denoted as the “Black Legend,” there was an angry rejection of the Spanish role in the hemisphere, which had the added advantage of providing momentum in the republic for the ouster of Madrid and its replacement by Washington. Arriving in Cuba in 1834, it was with disgust that Nicholas Trist was distraught to “think that such a paradise should be in the hands of such animals.” Earlier, a visiting republican found the “morals of the people” to be “very depraved, the natural consequence, I am informed, of a warm climate.”
An unnamed visitor in 1849 to the island from Massachusetts summed up the racial fears of many mainlanders, observing with irritation that “after residing here five or six weeks, I became a greasy bronze color, like the natives, and probably it will take me as much more after leaving to scour it off again, besides being subject to the constant remarks of my friends.” He was prepared for the defining insult—“Why, how black you look!”
By 1856 one republican scribe observed archly that Spaniards tend to “indulge in the belief” that “Creoles are mulattoes,” unlike themselves who were “white” [emphasis in original]—though, he said, the “complexion of the greater part” of the Spaniards was “nearer that of Negroes than of white people,” since “much African blood flows in their veins” given the Moorish “armies that invaded Spain in the eighth century,” which included “four thousand Negroes from Ethiopia, who never were known to have left the country,” as suggested by the “features” and the “quality of their hair,” the “origin of many Spaniards can be confidently traced to the African race”—rendering them wholly undeserving of Cuba. That these Spaniards had a “hatred” of his homeland increased his ire in return. By 1856, Alexander Humboldt had agreed that “the Spanish character has been . . . Orientalized by the seven hundred years of Moorish domination in Spain.”
By 1859, a U.S. visitor to Cuba, Joseph J. Dimock, was quick to adopt the characterization of Spaniards as “dirty whites” (sucios blancos), as if their purported melanin content made them suspect. As for the Creoles, island-born Spaniards, he admitted that before his arrival, he thought this descriptor (as was the case in certain parts of Louisiana) was meant to “imply Negro or mixed blood,” disqualifying them from the sweetest fruits of exploitation. By 1861, the visiting republican Mary G. Davis was taken by the coloration of “tawny Spaniards” and “Creole women as yellow as bar soap,” not to mention the “greasy young men,” a term signifying a dearth of endearment usually reserved for Mexicans. Near the same time, the leading Negro abolitionist Martín Delany, in his roman à clef about Cuba, inserted monologues for his villainous characters intended to indict the offensive racial discourse that pockmarked the mainland.
Though Havana was no slouch when it came to bedeviling Africans, even pro-U.S. analysts conceded—as did Maturin M. Ballou in 1888—that Cuba’s laws in this realm were “far more favorable and humane towards the victims of enforced labor than were those established in our Southern States.” It was in 1933 that the visiting U.S. journalist Carleton Beals noticed that in Cuba one could be “classified white” if there was a “drop of white blood” whereas in the United States a “man is colored if he has a drop of black blood,” making the island then—according to U.S. calculations—“70 percent black.” The renowned Negro sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox asserted in 1941 that “a white man in Cuba who is called a Negro when he comes to the United States, is white in Cuba and black in the United States.” Fernando Ortiz, the leading Cuban scholar, speaking to a U.S. audience in 1943, argued that his homeland was more advanced in the realm of antiracism than the United States—though it too had difficulties in this realm—which was “more retarded than Cuba in the field of inter-racial relations.”
Yet Bernardo Ruiz Suarez, a Cuban analyst of partial African ancestry, argued paradoxically in 1922 that since U.S. Negroes were treated worse than any other group of Africans in the hemisphere, this dialectically provided an advantage in providing them with cohesiveness, skepticism of their homeland, and group militancy. This helped to convert U.S. Negroes into a battering ram against their sworn foes, and against the staunchest anticommunists, which were often the same thing, and in turn created space for maneuver for Cuban radicals who then triumphed in 1959 as Jim Crow was on the ropes. Moreover, because of the exceedingly skeptical attitude taken by the United States to the “white” bona fides of Cubans as a whole, it was difficult to forge a stable and enduring base for Washington’s rule, of which Jim Crow was a constituent element. Ultimately, these interlinked processes caused both—Jim Crow and U.S. hegemony in Cuba—to come crashing down. The following pages trace the long road leading to this result.