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The Charmed Life of the Haitian Elite or a Pictorial History of the Haitian Bourgeoisie Part 1

Throughout Haiti’s history, the country has always had a sector made up of movers and shakers (as with any other country).

During slavery days, the wealthy planters were at the top of this social class, but after Haiti’s slave revolution and subsequent independence, Haiti’s military class, and the mulattoes (term applied to a Haitian with at least one French or white parent or grandparent) and free blacks (term applied in post-colonial Haiti to one whose parents were descended from Africa) made up Haiti’s upper class.

Vincent Ogé was such an example—as in he was born in 1755 of a black mother and a white father, and was educated in France. He returned to Haiti in 1789 with the intention of claiming rights for mulattoes like himself, and recruited a few hundreds of people for his cause. Ogé and his cohorts were executed gruesomely by the French.

In the 1840s and 1850s Haiti, Emperor Faustin Soulouque, ahem, Faustin I, had a nobility class, that included himself as emperor and his lovely wife Adélina as Empress. Soulouque’s reign created an entire society of nobles from Pétionville to Marmelade (near Cap Haitian).

Not since the days of Queen Marie Louise of Haiti had Haiti seen such royal splendor. Soulouque himself was not born a member of the elite, but was hand-picked by Haiti’s elite to rule Haiti, based on his seemingly being a knucklehead of sort!

But the emperor broke the chains of puppetdom (or was he ever chained in the first place?) and created his own upper class, made up of well mostly black Haitians.

Historians have indicated that he hated Haiti’s mulatto elite, and had them massacred, and those who he did not undergo carnage fled to Jamaica and France. Soulouque himself was an exile in Jamaica afterwards, and was succeeded by Nicolas-Fabre Geffrard, a former official.

A photograph of The Union Club social club in Cap Haitien in 1907, frequented by the most prominent citizens of that city.

In 1915, U.S. Marines landed in Haiti and stayed for nearly 30 20 years. In spite of being occupied by the U.S. Marines, in the 1920s, the Haitian elite did not lose its flair for partying. John Dryden Kuser, visiting Haiti from the United States, discussed the popular clubs that flourished among Haiti’s well-to-do, in 1921.

There are two chief Haitian clubs the Cercle Bellevue and the Port-au-Prince. The latter is a young men’s club and is located on the Champ de Mars next to Brigade Headquarters. The Cercle Bellevue is the more representative and has a beautiful building in the upper part of town. Its members number as well as the Haitians, certain Americans who have been invited to join. Frequent dances are given by the Cercle Bellevue and they are, like all Latin American parties, far gayer and more elaborate than the American ones. Rarely does a party break up before 5 a.m.

(Side note: Notice the phrase “certain Americans who have been invited to join”. At this point, some Haitians were extremely resentful of U.S. presence in Haiti. According to Hans Schmidt, an expert on this period of Haitian history, the U.S. Marines had clubs in Haiti that they excluded Haitians from, so Haitians did the same with theirs). Ahem, back to the subject at hand.

Dryden, writing in his book Haiti: Its Dawn of Progress afters Years and a Night of the Revolutions wrote of countless parties that he was invited to, including this one:

Nowhere in the world could more elaborate and yet correct entertainments be given than the Haitians have. During my visit the Argentine warship “Nuevo de Julio” came into Port-au-Prince and was the occasion for many entertainments, among them a luncheon to the American officers which was held on board and to which I was invited. It was one of the most delightful luncheons to which I have ever been. That night a state dinner was given by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mister Barau, to the Argentine Officers, and to which the American Commanding Officer and the Officer of the Gendarmerie were also asked. Madame Barau is French while her husband is of course a Haitian. No dinner anywhere, I was told, could have been given which would have been more appropriate or more delightful.

Georges Sylvain, a noted intellectual and writer of the 1920s and 1930s, poses with his family for a portrait in 1921. Haiti’s literary and intellectual elite started to catch momentum in the early 1820s. They published fiction works refuting naysayers (as did Anténor Firmin), and when necessary they published tomes to defend their homeland, when they felt that Haiti was being “tried” in the international media unfairly.

Literature critic Léon Hoffman-François and Michael Dash have all noted how Haitian literature got transformed after the U.S. Occupation. The writing obviously became more realistic. Haiti’s literary heritage had always been rather rich.

Here are some of the members of Haiti Literaire, a group of Haitian poets, novelists, and intellectuals and thinkers: Réginald Crosley, Denis Villard, Anthony Phelps, René Philoctète, Marie Vieux Chauvet, Roland Morisseau and Serge Legagneur.


The interior of the home of Pierre Liautaud and family. The home was conceptualized by Robert Baussan and Albert Mangones, two noted architects of that period, highly-sought after by their compatriots for the minimalistic designs.

As Haiti grew as a country, certain neighborhoods started to gain reputations as being particularly desirable among Haiti’s privileged people. In the 1920s, Bois Verna, Canapé Vert and Turgeau were considered to be the “It” cities. Musical great Ludovic Lamothe made his home there, and Annie Desroy, one of the most noted early Haitian female writers of the 1920s, and author of Le Joug, took up residence in Bois Verna. In the late 1960s and 1970s, and throughout the 1980s, Pétionville and Delmas were considered prime suburbs. In the 1990s, Haiti’s bourgeoisie favored places like Fermathe, Santo, the high elevations like Montagne Noir. And because Jean-Bertrand Aristide made his home in Tabarre, having a home or building a home in that area was considered the thing to do—that’s in addition to buying overseas—notably Miami and New York.

Much, much earlier though, in the 1850s, Jamaica was a favorite spot among Haiti’s elite to have as a backup plan. As noted in the Haiti History 101 segment on Emperor Faustin Soulouque, hundreds of mulatto elite families fled to Kingston where they stayed to wait out presidencies of presidents. Nord Alexis and Fabre-Nicolas Géffrard apparently had bank accounts and homes in Jamaica, in case exile was in their future (it was).

After the U.S. Occupation, Haiti had a new social class: a military hierarchy (New? Well, not really! Haiti always had a military class, but this new military was trained by the U.S. Marines). It’s 1941 and Elie Lescot (the one with the hat thrown over his left shoulder) is standing in front of the Palais Legislatif (Congressional Palace, in other words) with members of his cabinet, and some gentlemen from the army. To the left of the president is Charles Carrie, his Chief of Protocol. Vely Thebaud, his Minister of the Interior, is the fellow to his left.

In 1951, Haiti’s exiled president Paul Eugène Magloire purchased a home in New York, from, of all people, a New York publishing tycoon. Most Haitians who fled in Haiti at this point had the financial means to continue their upper class existence in the United States. A 1957 article about Magloire noted that his home in New York was lavishly decorated and “completely furnished by one of New York’s most expensive interior decorating firms” and Samuel Ross Jr, the owner of the elite equestrian school Green Chimneys in New York recalled in his memoirs having one of Magloire’s daughters as an enrolled student.

Here is Magloire with his family of six, including wife Yolande, celebrating his 51st birthday while living in New York in a 1958 news clipping from Jet magazine’s society column.

In the 1950s, there seems to have been a resurgence in cultural things among the young elites. Lina Fussman Mathon Blanchet recruited a street urchin guitarist Lumane Casimir to be part of a National Theatre Troupe. In the late 1960s, and in the 1980s, music brought teenagers of different social classes in konpa music bands.


[Photo via Culture 509]
John Doane, Patrick Handal and Patrick Brun formed the 1980s group Skandal. If a member of Haiti’s young middle class or upper class had a lot of time on their hands, starting a band was the thing to do, provided that they fulfilled their educational obligations to their Haitian parents first (i.e university graduate).

The young members of the Haitian elite always had the best of everything…education included, complete with private tutors and semesters abroad, and post-secondary education abroad (France and other countries in Europe were a popular spot, but after the U.S. Occupation of Haiti, the USA became the most popular education destination).


Presenting the Union School in Canapé Vert, Class of 1982. Yay! Founded in 1919, Union School is one of Haiti’s oldest all-English language curriculum schools, attended by the children of Haiti’s top elites and diplomats.


[Image via Le Coin de Pierre]

The year is 1948, and diplomas are being handed to students at the Ecole Polytechnique d’Haiti. If a Haitian wasn’t born into an elite family, education was viewed as a sure-way to social climbing. With education, one could hope to bolster one’s connections, and with connections one could aspire public office, and with public office…well, um, all the elite women—no, with public office one could aspire to marriage with someone from the upper classes. Dumarsais Estimé and François Duvalier, for example, came from humble beginnings, and went on to become head of states.

In the 1980s, Haiti’s people continued on with the pattern of societal distinction by class and color according to Lyonel Paquin and David Nicholls in their respective chronicles of Haiti’s color issues. The holy sacrament of marriage was seen as sure-way to improve one’s social standing. Dark-skinned Haitian men sought out light-skinned women, while dark-skinned women considered it a must to seek out “mulatres”, or even foreign nationals.

Even in later years, the class and color factor continued to be an issue. Noted Haitian intellectual Patrick Bellegarde-Smith (grandson of 20th Century Haitian intellectual and diplomat Dantès Bellegarde) once recounted in an interview that as a kid in Haiti, he once brought a friend home, and because the Bellegardes didn’t know the family of the playmate, the playmate, was not, well welcomed again to the Bellegarde home.

Sophia St. Remy Martelly told reporter Elise Ackerman of The Miami New Times, that her upper class Haitian family once opposed her 1987 marriage to musician Joseph Michel Martelly (later president of Haiti) because—although he was as fair-skinned as she, and they were both from the same social sphere.

But both mothers objected to the union on the ground of skin color: Sophia and Martelly have light, golden-hued skin and vaguely Negroid features. In their mothers’ eyes, the marriage would not improve the race, achieved by blending light and dark). “It’s stupid, but that’s Haiti,” Sophia sighs.

Images: Corbis, Cornell University Library, Brown University, Haiti Literaire Photo: Carrie-Phelps/via Lehman CUNY

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9 Comments to “The Charmed Life of the Haitian Elite or a Pictorial History of the Haitian Bourgeoisie Part 1”

  1. gendra says:

    That house interior is just beautiful!

  2. Beyanka says:

    Haitians overthrew the French and started fighting among themselves <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

  3. fiyedsoul says:

    Reading this and your Haiti History 101 posts have me feeling that maybe Haiti’s best days are behind it but I will try to be optimistic.

  4. thatgurlKylie says:

    “Sophia St. Remy Martelly told reporter Elise Ackerman of The Miami New Times, that her upper class Haitian family once opposed her 1987 marriage to musician Joseph Michel Martelly (later president of Haiti) because—although he was as fair-skinned as she, and they were both from the same social sphere.

    But both mothers objected to the union on the ground of skin color: Sophia and Martelly have light, golden-hued skin and vaguely Negroid features. In their mothers’ eyes, the marriage would not improve the race, achieved by blending light and dark). “It’s stupid, but that’s Haiti,” Sophia sighs”{ I wonder what they have to say NOW!}

  5. Gro Jo says:

    “In 1915, U.S. Marines landed in Haiti and stayed for nearly 30 years”. 1915 to 1934 is closer to 20 years than 30 years. “During slavery days, the wealthy planters were at the top of this social class, but after Haiti’s slave revolution and subsequent independence, Haiti’s military class, and the mulattoes (term applied to a Haitian with at least one French or white parent or grandparent) and free blacks (term applied in post-colonial Haiti to one whose parents were descended from Africa) made up Haiti’s upper class.” This sentence gives me a headache, I’m not sure I understand what you are trying to say here. How does Haiti’s military class differ from mulattoes and free blacks? Don’t all the groups you sited above also make up Haiti’s middle and lower classes as well? I’ve known poor soldiers, mulattoes and blacks in Haiti. You omitted the small number of whites who managed to survive the Haitian revolution such as Mr. Clerie’s father. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~htiwgw/familles/fiches/008068.htm. If this website is accurate most of Haiti’s white or near white citizens are his descendents. A history of this family might reveal much about Haiti’s racial peculiarities. Is the lady standing in front of Mr. Dryden Claudinette Fouchard?

    • Kat says:

      Mr. Dryden came to Haiti in the 1920s. The photo and subsequent description of Claudinette Fouchard does not pertain to Mr. Dryden.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I left Haiti since I was 7, so reading this really helped fill in a lot of gaps in my mind as it relates to Haiti’s history.

    Thanks for taking the time to create this

  7. […] Haiti there is a massive divide between rich and poor.  But there are also racial factors influencing both this economic reality and the political […]

  8. […] Haiti there is a massive divide between rich and poor.  But there are also racial factors influencing both this economic reality and the political […]

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