Commentary: It's worth knowing historical ties between Haiti and U.S.

People throughout the United States and the world have given generously to Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake left more than 600,000 people homeless, more than 150,000 dead and many more injured.

The outpouring of resources and volunteers has been incredible. It is important for Black History Month and President's Day for people to know more about the island nation of 9 million people. About 95 percent of the population is black.

Haiti's historical ties to the U.S. could spur more aid.

Noted historian Howard Zinn, who died last month at the age of 87, included Haiti in his book "A People's History of the United States." Zinn wrote that Haiti's revolution against France in 1803 led "to the first nation run by blacks in the New World."

Before the revolt, Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the world. Now it is one of the poorest nations.

The spark of freedom that ignited in France with the 1789 French Revolution also burned in Haiti. Historians say that the island had 30,000 whites, 24,000 free blacks and mulattoes and 452,000 slaves.

Zinn noted that the U.S. "had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the 19th century." The U.S. had slavery. Its economy was based on southern whites owning blacks imported from Africa. The U.S. hated Haitian blacks for the freedom they achieved. However, this country benefited from the Haitian slaves' victory over the French army. It forced Napoleon to sell land to President Thomas Jefferson, which became known as the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the U.S.

The Haitian revolt, however, was seen as a threat to U.S. slave owners. Their greatest fear was it could occur in the U.S., John Hope Franklin wrote in his book, "From Slavery to Freedom."

"Despite the fact that southern states wanted more slaves, they were afraid to import them," Franklin wrote. "It would not be too much to say that the revolution in the West Indies did as much as anything else to discourage the importation of slaves into the U.S."

Although Haiti won its independence, it remained a diplomatic outcast. U.S. warships stayed in Haitian waters.

Zinn wrote that, although the United States promoted an image "as a defender of helpless countries," its record with Haiti told another story.

Franklin wrote, "Within a year after the beginning of World War I the United States and Haiti negotiated and ratified a treaty that permitted the United States to have control over Haiti’s finances and police for a period of 10 years."

The U.S. placed the second oldest republic in the New World "under complete military rule," Franklin wrote. "Almost from the beginning the Haitians resented American occupation of their country, and it was necessary for the Marines to shoot more than 2,000 inhabitants in order to restore peace and order."

But what peace and whose order? After 19 years of occupation, U.S. troops evacuated Haiti. "Haiti had already become, for all practical purposes, a part of America's empire of darker peoples," Franklin stated.

But U.S. actions in Haiti did not go unchallenged. Blacks in 1915 protested to President Woodrow Wilson that his violation of Haiti's sovereignty and the killings were "particularly repulsive to them."

U.S. interference in Haiti continued into the 20th century. Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier surfaced in the 1950s and organized a society of terror that received U.S. military help. After he died, his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier dominated.

By 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency in Haiti. The National Catholic Reporter said Aristide's "social democracy offended right-wing Americans who feared a new Castro."

Under President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. enacted a trade embargo against Haiti. Then-President Bill Clinton strengthened the blockade against refugees. Later, however, Clinton helped Aristide return to office. But Aristide was eventually forced out during George W. Bush's presidency.

It is odd now that Bush and Clinton are leading U.S. relief efforts in Haiti. But perhaps each now will help right years of U.S. wrongs and put Haiti on a better footing for the future.