Haitian flag raised, history recalled

Photos by Javon Ross
Locally elected officials and West Orange residents stand by a Haitian flag at a ceremonial flag-raising ceremony in the township.

WEST ORANGE, NJ – The West Orange Flag Raising Committee and Human Relations Commission hosted the third annual Haitian Flag Raising on Tuesday, May 16 on the 220th anniversary of Haitian Flag Day.

“As the mayor and as an educator, we are fortunate to live in a town that honors and recognizes our people and our cultures,” Mayor Susan McCartney said at the event. “This event honors a history that is fraught with resiliency and victories for the people of Haiti. Not once, but twice under French rule, to become the first black republic united in strength.”

Irvington Councilwoman Charnette Frederic and East Orange Councilman Bergson Leneus, along with McCartney and Councilmembers Tammy Williams, Asmeret Ghebremicael and Bill Rutherford and Susan Scarpa were in attendance for the event.

Haiti declared its independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804, inspiring other people to revolt against slavery. Since that time, Haiti has experienced turmoil in the form of natural disasters, political leaders being assassinated and economic downturn as a result of outside intervention from foreign nations and corporations.
“Generally, when we speak about social responsibility, we talk about what we can do for each other,” Rutherford said at the event. “In this particular regard, we need to discuss some history before we talk about individual responsibilities. Haiti has been punished for having the audacity to reject slavery and kick out their white enslavers. They have been punished by the entire world for what they did over 200 years ago.”

Due to the overwhelming strife and hardship occurring within Haiti, many citizens migrated from the country, seeking asylum and opportunity in a new country. However, the conditions they have faced and the treatment that they have experienced has not been equal to others in similar situations, according to Rutherford.

“It is not just the country, but Haitian people, wherever they may be found, will find challenges and obstacles to full participation in society,” Rutherford said. “Members of the Haitian community do not always receive fair treatment at the hands of those that seek to serve them. To address that effectively, we cannot just look at the big issues; we have to look at how we deal with each other.”

In speaking to address certain issues, Rutherford discussed the history of West Orange, particularly those who have not served in positions of power within the Township.

“I do not believe that we have had a single representative on the town council of Haitian descent,” Rutherford said. “I do not believe that we have had a single department head of Haitian descent. We have to open up those opportunities to everyone. When we empower and encourage the Haitian community to participate in leadership, making decisions that affect everyone. They have the opportunity to better address and take advantage of the next opportunity, which starts locally.”

A 2017 demographic study of West Orange found that 28% of residents were foreign born and 16% of those foreign born were from Haiti, the largest immigrant group in the township.
Pastor Jean Maurice was the keynote speaker for the evening, emphasizing certain points that Rutherford made in his speech about how Haitians have paid a price for liberation.

“I reflect on the state of our country and the migrants that are coming here, the fact that only 30,000 migrants can come to this country every month,” Maurice said during his speech. “Haiti is being punished for who they represent, the first black country to be free in any hemisphere. The first black country to help liberate other countries, we have been paying the price for 220 years.”

Maurice offered solutions through social responsibility and discussed bridging the gap for Haitian migrants and citizens of the United States.

“As our people migrate from Haiti, we here in the United States must help them transition into mainstream culture,” Maurice said. “We have a social responsibility to help them educationally, financially and legally to become stable citizens. If you are from Ukraine, you will receive the same treatment as Haitian migrants, that is fairness and bridging the gap.”