As a diplomat for Haiti, Mauclair Zephirin traveled the world, gathering Haitian political documents and literature. But with the rise of the Duvalier family, Zephirin was imprisoned when he returned to his country in 1959.
A few months after his release in 1960, he died, and his brother-in-law moved the collection to a Catholic secondary school in Port-au-Prince for safekeeping. Now the country's political and economic outlook are so bleak, the school not only had to pass when the family offered to sell the collection; school officials could no longer guarantee its safety.
Today the books and documents - more than 200 in all - are back with Zephirin's family, sitting in their Boca Raton garage, a treasury of Haitian history, heritage and culture that has been locked away for decades. "We believe it would be more useful in a public place where the materials can be used by many people," said Gerard Latortue, the son-in-law who, along with the former ambassador's daughter and widow, is a guardian and owner of the collection.
Soon that public place may exist. Broward County library officials and Haitian-American leaders are working on a project to promote and preserve Haitian works of art, literature and artifacts at the new African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale. The Zephirin collection is one of the first being considered for the project, called "Pon Lakay" in Haitian Creole, or "Bridges to Our Home."
Latortue, Haiti's former minister of foreign affairs, said South Florida would be an ideal location for such a collection. The West Indian population is booming, having grown by 173 percent in Broward County, 142 percent in Palm Beach County and 45 percent in Miami-Dade County between 1990 and 2000. Recent census figures peg the number of Haitians at 185,000, but community leaders estimate as many as 300,000 Haitians live in South Florida.
Latortue said people are becoming intrigued with the history and culture of the islands, and Haiti will draw a lot of attention as the country celebrates its bicentennial in 2004.
One of the books in Zephirin's collection contains the correspondence of Haitian Revolutionary Toussaint L'Overture, who led the revolt of freed slaves that ended in Haitian independence from France in 1804. Another book contains all of the parliamentary acts and laws enacted in the country from 1840 to 1843.
"Today people doing research on Haiti go to Gainesville, where there's a specialized library on the Caribbean and Latin America at the University of Florida," Latortue said. If South Florida develops a first-rate research collection of Caribbean materials, "the region will be the capital of the Caribbean, not only as far as business, but as far as research."
Marvin DeJean, of Minority Development and Empowerment Inc., has been spearheading the Pon Lakay project. He said the collection could be a source of pride for Haitian children growing up in South Florida. "They have no real connection to their homeland," he said. "It's important to have a piece of our culture and heritage for them in Broward County."
Julie Hunter, the African-American Research Library's executive director, said Haitian materials would be an expansion of the library's special collections section, which already has 12,000 rare books and 15 named collections, which include: The Alex Haley Collection, which has eight unfinished manuscripts by the author and scripts that he wrote describing scenes of the West African village where Kunte Kinte was born; the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection, which includes art, women's studies and reference related to Africans in the United States, Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean; and the Kitty Oliver Oral Histories Collection of manuscripts and recordings on race relations in Hollywood, southern Broward County and the Lake Okeechobee region in Florida.
Hunter said the Pon Lakay project fits into the library's role as a bridge between the people of the African Diaspora and their heritage and culture.
"You can't ever proceed to the future unless you understand your past and have a knowledge of what your present is all about" she said.
Alva James-Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4523.
Copyright 2003, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida. Reprinted from The Sun-Sentinel of June 23, 2003
African-American library may get collection of Haitian works
James-Johnson, Staff Writer, Posted June 23 2003
The Broward library hopes to acquire two private collections in South Florida—one belonging to Gerard Latortue of Boca Raton, son-in-law of Haitian diplomat Mauclair Zephirin
Zephirin collected literature and political documents as he traveled around the world. His son-in-law, widow and daughter are the guardians of the collection, which includes hard-to-find books and accounts of Haiti’s revolution.
The books and documents have been in Latortue’s garage, but he has recently began moving them onto the shelves in his office.
They include a theater piece dated 1850 about Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution.
This is a book that’s quite difficult to find, Latortue said.
Revolution de St. Domingue, published in 1819, has yellowed pages bound into a rugged, rich brown cover. It is the memoir of a lieutenant general during the revolution.
There are books about the first days of the revolution and the Republic of Haiti, Latortue said. The revolution’s objective was to gain freedom for blacks all over the world.
The 1791 revolution against the French erupted after a Vodou ceremony at Bois-Caíman. The 13-year struggle ended in 1804 with Haiti’s independence.
Latortue said some of the books depict Haiti as a place that invited slaves from all over the world, especially Florida, to come and be free.
In 2004, the country will celebrate its bicentennial, an event that some Haitians hope will be a catalyst of change for the struggling country.
This will be a time when people will rediscover the greatness Haiti used to be and what is now, Latortue said.
Latortue spent part of his career with the United Nations, living in Togo and the Ivory Coast. He now works as an international business consultant. Latortue said he is open to having his collection at the African-American Research Library.
This could have a better social use in a public library, he said.
The other collection sought by the library contains Christophe’s life story among 3,000 books accumulated over 34 years. Christophe, who served as commander under Louverture during the war, became the ruler of northern Haiti, while the south had a republic ruled by Alexander Pétion.
During his reign, he established Catholic churches throughout, brought English schoolteachers to Haiti and in his constitution obliged people living together to get married.
He killed himself in 1820 after suffering a stroke and losing his army, his source of power.
Manigat was a professor of history and one of the first professors of Creole at the university level. He collected some of his books on his travels, including his five-year stay in the Congo, and ordered some from Haiti. Living in New York in the 1970s, Manigat ran a mail-order bookstore called the Haitian Book Centre.
I collected these books because I am an avid reader, he said.
He hasn’t decided whether he would sell his collection to the library.
Dejean said the committee working on the project—called Pon Lakay, Creole for bridges to our home—is working on making offers to Latortue and Manigat. An expert from the Schomburg Center will help assess the value of the two collections.
The library is home to numerous Haitian items, such as paintings, masks and sculptures, most of which were donated by individuals, said Pearl Woolridge, the library’s head of special collections.
Library officials, Dejean and the collection owners agree that having these books in the library would attract researchers to South Florida.
Otherwise, Latortue said, most researchers would have to go to cities like Gainesville to find such a collection.
It’s important to have these books where people can have access, Latortue said.