Fresh off the boat


THE SPECTACLE of desperate Haitians trying to enter the U.S. in the wake of the recent military coup is a reminder of another exodus from that impoverished land almost 200 years ago.

In July of 1793, in the aftermath of the slave revolt led by the brilliant black leader Toussaint L'Ouverture, 13 boatloads of white, French-speaking planters and townspeople arrivedin Baltimore harbor. There were no Coast Guard cutters nor immigration laws to turn them away, and they came ashore without interference.

Many of the exiles settled along South Charles Street, which for some years had been known as Frenchtown because a group of French Acadians, expelled by the British from Nova Scotia during the French and Indian Wars, already resided there.

The refugees, like most immigrants, had to struggle to earn a living and establish themselves. They became hairdressers, dancing masters, dressmakers, teachers and merchants. The newcomers added a decided cosmopolitan flavor and sparkle to the bustling Baltimore scene. Betsy Patterson, who was later to marry Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, attended a school that catered to the children of Baltimore's gentry operated by a cultivated French woman who belonged to the emigre colony.

The current Haitian exiles seeking refuge in the U.S., however, have been met with a cold reception. Like the white emigres of 1793, they fled Haiti to escape chaos and violence. But they are being told they don't qualify for asylum because they fled for economic, not political, reasons.

Whatever happened to our compassion for the "huddled masses yearning to be free"?

The writer, now retired, was formerly head of the history department at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

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