Lionel Jean-Baptiste credits his groundbreaking success in the United States with the qualities of “selflessness” and a “can-do attitude” that he learned during his childhood in Haiti. He made his remarks in a Zoom conversation sponsored by the Evanston chapter of the League of Women Voters on Jan. 18.
Among Judge Jean-Baptiste’s many accomplishments are serving as the first Haitian American member of the City Council, where he represented the Second Ward from 2001 to 2011. He left that position to become a judge in the Cook County Circuit Court. On Jan. 1, 2021, he swore in Mayor Daniel Biss at City Hall. On Dec. 13, 2021, the City Council approved designating the segment of McDaniel Avenue between Crain and Dempster streets as “Honorable Lionel Jean-Baptiste Way.”
Community leader Helen Gagel, who moderated the presentation, introduced Jean-Baptiste as “a tireless advocate for the people of his home country” and listed just a few of the many causes and organizations that he has served: founder and past chairman of the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, founding member of the Haitian Relief Fund of Illinois and founder and past president of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of Illinois.
Jean-Baptiste recalled the strong family values that guided him during his childhood in Haiti. The oldest of six and the only son, he served as a protector and role model for his younger sisters both in Haiti and the United States, after the family moved to this country when he was 14. “The values that we were imbued with were ones of selflessness … and a can-do attitude,” he said. “We were not defined by material wealth. … I might have lacked certain material things, but I never perceived myself as a poor person.”
Discovered in 1492 by Spanish colonists who named it Hispaniola, Haiti is a large island in the West Indies. Spain ceded the western portion of Hispaniola to France in 1697. Eventually the island was divided into two countries: the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic on the east and the French/Haitian Creole-speaking nation of Haiti to the west.
Jean-Baptiste was brought up to be extremely proud of his Haitian heritage. “It is a glorious history where a small nation was able to be formed from the struggles of Africans who were enslaved, were able to pull themselves together after some 300 years of enslavement,” he reflected.
Haiti has suffered natural disasters, political corruption
After colonization, slavery was commonplace. The French were brutal and cruel masters, said Jean-Baptiste. “It was the richest colony in the whole Western Hemisphere. France depended on it significantly. Almost one out of every four French persons made a living from commodities imported from Haiti, from the placement of the people there. But in 1791, the people of Haiti had enough of that and they pulled themselves together and waged an organized resistance. … This level of resistance was organized from 1791 to 1804. There was a protracted struggle … and Haiti became independent on Jan. 1, 1804.”
This achievement established Haiti as a free and democratic republic and remains a source of pride among Haitians, Jean-Baptiste said. “Our material wealth might have been lacking, but we didn’t suffer from a psychosis of feeling ourselves to be inferior to anyone. We were human beings able and capable as anybody else. So those things shaped me with family values to be who I am today.”
It was not an easy path. “In 1915 the United States invaded and occupied Haiti until 1934. So during this occupation, the United States replaced whoever was in power at that time, organized a military that was beholden to the United States and also rewrote the Haitian constitution.” The United States also forced Haiti to pay reparations to France for “lost property,” by which they meant slaves.
The impoverishment of Haiti has led to the influx of people trying to immigrate to the United States, said Jean-Baptiste. Haiti has suffered through years of political dictators, natural disasters like earthquakes, outbreaks of disease like cholera and AIDS and rampant poverty. Those who are healthy enough to leave do so by any means. Most of the educated class has left.
There is also rampant political corruption. The recent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse was “a product of the fight between those who would continue to keep the nation in an impoverished position and those who are trying to free the nation and bring about development. The specific struggle going on inside of Haiti is that many of those who are the elite controlled significant contracts in heating, oil contracts, energy contracts, food [and] the ports at a very high … price for low delivery of service and goods. [Moïse] stood up against that policy and he made a lot of enemies. A lot of people disagreed with him, and he didn’t give [the country] a chance to really pursue resolution of its internal problems through debate. … It’s almost like Jan. 6 that we just saw. I don’t know where things are going, but without a process determined to resolve conflicts, people go to arms.”
A call for support
In spite of the upheaval, Jean-Baptiste remains an involved optimist. He’s proud of the 150 Haitian Americans elected to various offices around the country. He referenced the Coalition of Haitian American Organizations in the Chicagoland Area, which is generating political action for Haiti and also relief and fundraising for victims of the earthquake and other disasters. He urged those with legal experience to volunteer assistance to people within the Haitian community who are facing evictions. He is deeply concerned about immigration reforms and securing temporary protective status designations for those displaced by the most recent earthquake. He encouraged everyone to contact federal elected officials and urged them to support Haiti’s relief efforts.
Haitians want to be independent and self-sustaining, he said. Yet, “the migration is not going to stop until there is qualitative change inside of Haiti.”