Rev. Thomas Smith, of Monumental Baptist Church in the Hill District, says the Pilgrimage to Haiti program he is helping to organize is still going on as planned, despite the recent ouster of Haiti's leader and the continuing turmoil -- just in time for the country's bicentennial.
The national Haiti Support Project set their "Cruise into History/Haiti 2004 Initiative" for Aug. 14-21, reserving half a cruise-liner for an expected 1,750 passengers. They hope to raise awareness of the country where an ex-slave with no formal military training named Touissant L'Overture led a rebellion that whooped French commander Napoleon Bonaparte's ass so bad he had to sell his Louisiana territories to the United States to re-coup funds for a cash-strapped France.
Monumental Baptist is offering two scholarships for high school and college students to make the trip with the goal of having these young people make a contribution to their communities based on what they learn from the trip. Longtime local radio personality Bev Smith will broadcast live from the ship by way of the national American Urban Radio Network.
As a local board member of the international, interreligious Pastors for Peace, Timothy Smith has participated in trips to Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and various African countries to deliver food, clothing, medical supplies and other needs. Smith says the Pilgrimage to Haiti is less a vacation than an opportunity for blacks to investigate the nation's history so they can have a hand in its future.
Shipboard educational and cultural programming includes a play about L'Overture starring Danny Glover, a women's issues forum facilitated by Bev Smith and Essence magazine editor Susan Taylor, and the annual State of the Black World Symposium featuring Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Congressmen John Conyers and Maxine Waters, national Urban League President Marc Morial and literary giants Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti.
Ron Daniels, executive director of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and organizer-at-large for the trip, as well as local organizer Richard Adams, a dean of the Community College of Allegheny County's Homewood-Brushton Center, had assumed bicentennial celebrations would be happening when they arrived in Haiti this year to see the Sans Souci Palace and the Citadel, a mountainous fortress built to deter French invaders. The cruise itinerary had also included the Museum of Heroes exhibits on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If Haiti has not calmed by August, the American visitors will instead visit islands along Haiti's coasts.
"[Black Americans] have the technology and resources in our communities that can be used to aid the development of Haiti," says Bev Smith. "I hope we find some creative ways to support Haiti like Jews support their land in Israel or any other nation supports their native land. It's part of our reparations."