In 1787, the same year the Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia, an enslaved immigrant from Haiti named Pierre Toussaint arrived in New York. He was the sort of person you dream of meeting: empty of resentments, boundlessly resourceful, endlessly generous and kind.
Toussaint eventually secured his freedom and became one of New York’s first celebrated hairstylists. With the proceeds from his successful business, the entrepreneur became an admired philanthropist. Toussaint fed orphans, sheltered refugees, tended the sick and helped to build New York’s first cathedral. In 1996, Pope John Paul II advanced him along the path to sainthood.
While he was an apprentice hairdresser, in 1803 another Haitian immigrant arrived in the United States, where the author of the Declaration of Independence lived in the White House. The idea that “all men are created equal” did not capture the unique brilliance of John James Audubon, who brimmed with the unclassifiable genius that has always found rich soil and warm light in America.
More than one of President Trump’s golf courses — including his beloved Trump National at Bedminster, N.J., where he spends so many restorative hours — boast of their partnerships with the Audubon Society.
Getting back to history: Audubon’s worldwide fame overlapped the spectacular rise of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a piano prodigy from Louisiana whose debut in Paris was praised by both Chopin and Berlioz. The son of a Haitian immigrant, Gottschalk became one of the greatest American composers of his time, infusing European ideas with ingredients from the West Indies, Cuba and New Orleans. The story of jazz, one of America’s great art forms — one of the world’s great art forms — can’t be told without his pioneering contributions.
At the height of Gottschalk’s fame, in 1868, a baby was born in Great Barrington, Mass., named William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, whose father was an immigrant from Haiti. This young man grew up to be a seminal figure of the 20th century. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a researcher who documented the realities of black life, and an author whose works influenced liberation movements from the American South to the colonies of Africa. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. honored him in 1968 on the 100th anniversary of his birth: “Dr. Du Bois recognized that the keystone in the arch of oppression was the myth of inferiority, and he dedicated his brilliant talents to demolish it.”
The highest honor of the American Sociological Association — a field he pioneered — is named for W.E.B. Du Bois.
As Du Bois was dying, a movie studio in Hollywood was preparing to release the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field,” an important milestone in American culture. For his starring role, Sidney Poitier become the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Though he was born in Miami and grew up in the Bahamas, Poitier’s French surname marked him as the descendant of Haitian slaves.
And because the most important color in Hollywood is green, Poitier’s accomplishment in 1967 was even more significant than his Oscar. He starred in three films that year — “To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — and all were hits, making him the top-grossing star in the industry.
Poitier had as much to do with changing attitudes about civil rights as any figure on the evening news. As Norman Jewison, who directed “In the Heat of the Night,” a Best Picture honoree in 1968, observed in Vanity Fair: “It’s a remarkable year for Sidney. All three films are carried by his presence, and they’re all battering against discrimination in some way, in some form.”
While Poitier was working his magic on screen, in the Bronx a boy named Reginald Fils-Aimé was growing up, the son of Haitian immigrants. If you’ve noticed the economy chugging along lately, he is one of the people you can thank. As president of Nintendo of America, “the Regginator” (as he is known in gaming circles) delivered “Super Mario Odyssey” to a waiting world in October. Within three days, the game sold more than 2 million copies.
I could go on, and on, and on. The Johnson brothers, James Weldon and John Rosamond, pillars of the Harlem Renaissance. Susan Fales-Hill, lead writer and producer of the groundbreaking TV series “A Different World.” Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Jason Derulo — if you don’t know, ask a teen.
The president asked the other day, “Why are we having all these people from,” well, places like Haiti “come to America?” The answer is simple: From the founding to the present day, they and their descendants have made us a better country.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.