September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document


Article Order:6

Title:Wounds reopened between Haitians and African-Americans

Author:Macollvie Jean-Francois

Publication:Haitian Times

Original Language:English



Blurb:Long-standing tensions between Haitians and African-Americans in Ashbury Park flared at a high school fight in April. Several students were charged, and school administrators and community leaders are again trying to build trust between the two sides.


Body:Brothers Restaurant offers Haitian rice and beans and tassot, white rice and beef in okra sauce, chicken gizzards, and American treats like french fries, and macaroni and cheese on the same menu. While their foods go well together, it is a stark contrast to the reality of the relationship between Haitian-American and African-American children at the local high school and their parents.

In March, a fight broke out between about a dozen African-American and Haitian students, a few days after a handful of African-American teenagers told some Haitian students who wanted to attend an off-campus party that they were not welcome. The Ashbury Park Press reported that four boys, ages 16 and 17, were charged with simple assault, disorderly conduct and rioting. A 16-year-old filed a complaint against a fifth boy, a 15-year-old, for a chair that was thrown at him. The 16-year-old had to get 10 stitches over an eye.

Theres always been this tension between the African-American students and the Haitian population, said Antonio Lewis, school superintendent in Ashbury Park. It is based primarily on ignorance.

A Panamanian man who has worked in Ashbury Parks school system for 10 years, Lewis said adults have a lot to do with the ignorance that has persisted through the generations. The superintendent said African-Americans viewed Haitians as non-blacks. Haitians, he said, tried to embrace African-Americans at first, but the younger generation has decided to treat the African-Americans the same way African-Americans treat them. In the towns one middle school and one high school, students would bring disputes from the streets to the classrooms.

Herman Larose, vice president of the Coalition for Haitian-American Empowerment, arrived in Ashbury Park 17 years ago. He said African-Americans were jealous of the work, business, houses, cars and progress that Haitians were making and accused them of trying to take over the town.

This week, as Haitiansboth those born here and those from Haitiproudly display their music, food, dress, dance and religion from across the United States, with flags wrapped around some parts of their bodies, so will Ashbury Park Haitians.

The Coalition will present a cultural show and Flag Day parade May 18. The celebration will feature two youth contests; one for the best flag costume and another for best writing about Haiti. Jean Villa Saraison, president of the Coalition for Haitian-American Empowerment, said the contest is open to all because the coalition works with youth of all backgrounds to education them about each other.

We try to tell them that were the same, Saraison said. If there is any advancement taking place in the town, its not only Haitians who will benefit.

A Haitian doesnt go anywhere for nothing, Larose said. They go for work and to make money.

George Wilson, a sociologist at the University of Miami, said it is common for Haitian immigrants to conflict with other groups as they settle in the New York metropolitan area.

What might be going on is that the working class is coming into direct conflict and competition, Wilson said.

The U.S. Census reports that there are 16,799 residents in Ashbury Park. Larose said about 6,000 of them are Haitian. He said counting those living in nearby towns Neptune and Ocean, there is a total of 10,000 Haitians in the area. A semi-industrial hamlet 50 miles south of New York City, housing construction, Caribbean and Mexican-owned businesses, and factories mingle along its main streets.

The seashore town has changed since the mid-1990s when people visited the town for entertainment. Its famous boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean and historical buildings are now decrepit, isolated or being renovated.

In Bruce Springsteens Greetings from Ashbury Park, the musician sings about the fate of this once jewel of the Jersey Shore that started its trip downhill in the early 1980s, about the same time Haitians began settling here.

Mark Moran, a former resident who grew up there during its heyday, wrote in Weird New Jersey, Whatever could go wrong in Ashbury Park, did. The economy crashed. The working class ran out of work and became the welfare class. The mental patients and druggies moved in. So did the prostitutes.

Saraison said, This is an area that was run down that is now being rebuilt. Its mostly foreigners doing that.

Saraison said one of the goals of the coalition is to organize the Haitian population in Ashbury Park into a strong economic and political force.

Felix Estivaine, chef at Brothers Restaurant, said area Haitians could do more. Maybe they are afraid to go forward, said Estivaine. Theyre living, but there are Haitians in other places who are living better.

Up until about a decade ago, many Haitian-Americans born in the United States kept their Haitian parentage a secret for fear of being targeted. Those who grew up here over the past 30 years tell stories of being chased, beaten and insulted with words.

Rudolph Pierre, chairman of the citys Housing Authority, told the Ashbury Park Press that he and his brother got into fights with African-American students when they came from Haiti in 1965.

We had to fight our way to acceptance because we spoke a different language, he said. Our culture was different.

According to the Ashbury Park Press, community leaders have asked school administrators to help resolve the conflict between the students and that the school district responded by conducting two forums on Haitian and African-American relations during the months before the March fight.

Students, teachers and parents demanded that those involved in the March brawl be expelled from the high school, Lewis said. Lewis put the eleven students involved, both Haitian and African-American, into an after-school and Saturday program that is held in one room.
It has been a tremendous success, Lewis said. These youngsters are interfacing with one another. We have not had a problem since.

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