Stories from the Black Atlantic World

By Samantha Payne, Harvard University, Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Fellow at the MHS 

In the past year, the MHS highlighted collections that shed light on the history of the Black freedom struggle in the United States. The MHS holds an extraordinary range of documents relating to African American history, including the letters of former slaves like Julia Jarrett, the writings of abolitionists like Maria Weston Chapman, and the diaries of Union soldiers like Dwight Emerson Armstrong.

The MHS also holds collections that can help us explore the history of the Black Atlantic.[1] My dissertation examines the expansion of white supremacist politics across the post-emancipation Atlantic World. At the MHS, the Edwin Atkins Papers proved critical to my study. Atkins was a Boston merchant who owned sugarcane plantations along the southern coast of Cuba. From the 1870s to the 1920s, he wrote continuously to his plantation managers in Cuba. Their correspondence let me glimpse the drama of slave emancipation and anticolonial revolution on the island.

Enslaved people labored on Cuban sugar plantations until 1886. After abolition, plantation owners like Atkins continued to rely on Black labor. In 1911, Atkins observed that “field work in Cuba is done mostly by negroes.”[2] This work was often brutal. Black laborers typically cut sugar cane for eighteen hours a day for a wage of 36 cents.[3]

Worker cutting sugar cane
Worker cutting sugar cane at Soledad, Cuba. 1900.
From The Atkins Family in Cuba: A Photograph Exhibit

Unlike in the U.S. South, however, Black workers in Cuba had the right to vote. In 1908, a small group of Black men in Havana organized the first all-Black political party in the hemisphere—the Partido Independiente de Color (PIC).[4] They hoped to use the party to change working conditions for Black people on the island. Their demands included an eight-hour workday, integrated public schooling, and land redistribution.

Edwin Atkins feared the PIC. On 3 October 1908, he wrote to a plantation manager to ask his “opinion about the negro movement” in Cuba. He worried that “there will be some trouble from this source…sometime in the future.” He was right. The PIC quickly secured a broad base of support. In 1910, the Cuban Congress banned the PIC to stop them from winning national elections. Atkins was pleased. “The negroes [in Cuba] have been given too many privileges,” he declared.[5]

Still, the PIC endured. In 1912, party leaders began organizing Black workers to burn sugarcane fields. On 22 May, Edwin Atkins wrote to the U.S. War Department to ask for help managing an “uprising of negroes” that had begun in eastern Cuba.[6] For the next few weeks, Atkins lobbied for a U.S. military intervention to crush the uprising. He believed that “if a few [PIC] leaders are killed” the movement would “die out.”[7]

Atkins got his wish. Just days after his first request, “marines were despatched” to Cuba.[8] For the next two months, U.S. soldiers guarded plantations while Cuban soldiers massacred Black workers. By the end of July, the official death toll was 2,000.[9]

The story of the PIC is virtually unknown in the United States, but it is an important part of American history. As white mobs lynched African American workers at home, the U.S. military backed the massacre of Afro-Cuban laborers overseas. Through the MHS collections, their stories can be told.

[1] The term “Black Atlantic” refers to the world constituted by the Atlantic slave trade. Between 1600 and 1850, slave traders forcibly transported twelve million Africans to the Americas. The “Atlantic” framework enables scholars to study the experiences of these individuals and their descendants across national boundaries.

[2] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to Osgood Welsh, April 10, 1911.

[3] Louis Pérez, Cuba under the Platt Amendment, 1902-1934 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 81.

[4] Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carlina Pess, 2001), 4-5.

[5] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to J. T. Witherspoon, June 8, 1912.

[6] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to Major General Leonard Wood, May 22, 1912.

[7] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to J. T. Witherspoon, June 8, 1912.

[8] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to R. B. Hawley, May 24, 1912.

[9] Helg, Our Rightful Share, 225.