(City Journal) -- In New York City, street co-namings—in which a thoroughfare takes on an additional, ceremonial name in honor of a distinguished figure—rarely generate much fuss, and their approval is typically pro forma. But yesterday, a city council committee voted to co-name a street in Brooklyn after Jean-Jacques Dessalines, emperor of Haiti after the island won its independence from France in 1804.
The council’s designation of a two-mile stretch of Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn as Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard sparked some controversy because Dessalines was an enthusiastic advocate of racial murder. Following the defeat of Napoleon’s forces and their retreat from Hispaniola, Dessalines named himself Governor-General-for-Life and decided to wipe the slate clean. Heeding the words of his personal secretary Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre, framer of the Haitian Act of Independence, who declaimed, “we should use the skin of a white man as a parchment, his skull as an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen,” Dessalines ordered the murder of virtually every white man, followed soon afterward by all white women and children, in the new nation. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people were butchered in a few months.
This barbarism came as a coda to a vicious revolutionary war, one attended by savage acts against a slave population fighting for its liberty. So it is perhaps not for us to condemn the early Haitian leaders. But do we need to celebrate them?
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