Historians: Border Patrol agent's treatment of Haitian migrants recalls slavery-era whippings

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Millions of people this week saw images of a uniformed U.S. Border Patrol agent charging his horse at a group of Haitian migrants clustered along the Rio Grande River. The agent appeared to be twirling his horse's reins like a lasso as Black men, women and children lugging food and water scrambled to get out of harm's way.

The scene drew outrage from Congress and the White House, culminating in the Department of Homeland Security temporarily suspending horse patrols on Thursday pending an investigation into border control practices.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was "horrified" by the images he saw. But the specter of the agent brandishing his reins like a whip was a malevolent reminder for many Black Americans of the cruelty and callousness their enslaved ancestors endured.

A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop Haitian migrants from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuna Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas on September 19, 2021. The United States said Saturday it would ramp up deportation flights for thousands of migrants who flooded into the Texas border city of Del Rio, as authorities scramble to alleviate a burgeoning crisis for President Joe Biden's administration.
A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop Haitian migrants from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuna Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas on September 19, 2021. The United States said Saturday it would ramp up deportation flights for thousands of migrants who flooded into the Texas border city of Del Rio, as authorities scramble to alleviate a burgeoning crisis for President Joe Biden's administration.

Historians noted an eerie resemblance between the mounted officers chasing the asylum-seekers this week to slave catchers corralling and punishing fugitive slaves in the antebellum South.

For centuries, in both the Caribbean and the United States, the whip has terrorized Black bodies.

"It symbolizes domination, oppression, powerlessness, and white supremacy," said Will Guzman, a history professor at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. "For Blacks, it reinforces the idea that we are subhuman victims who are not worthy of dignity, but only mistreatment."

No one understood the power of the whip more than enslaved people. The whip both punished and controlled them. The thought of the lash ensured slaves feared the repercussions of running away, disobeying a white superior or violating a plantation rule. Whipping was a form of punishment meant to send a message not only to the person on the receiving end but also to everyone who witnessed the whipping.

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"The use of the whip has always been public, it has always been meant to be seen as part of a spectacle," said Jason Young, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan. "So the use of the whip and the violence that happens on the bodies of enslaved people and on the bodies of asylum-seekers is a violence that's meant to be seen by everyone else."

Decades after slavery ended, former slaves still remembered the whip's brutality.

In Portraits of a Georgia Slave and in other narratives of the Federal Writers' Project, W. B. Allen detailed how enslaved people were whipped on the Alabama cotton plantation where he lived. Slaves were beaten for leaving the plantation without a pass, lying to a white person, and many other reasons. For their whippings, slaves sometimes were forced to squat with their hands and knees tied to a stick placed on the calves. Other times, masters and overseers flogged slaves while they were stretched across a log on their stomachs.

"The rawhide cut the flesh and brought streams of blood," Allen recalled in 1937.

W.L. Bost, a former slave in North Carolina, recounted in the slave narratives the time he saw a slave whipped to death for not doing as much work as his master demanded.

The man was carried to a whipping post and stripped of his clothes.

"His back was cut all to pieces," Bost said in his slave narrative. "The cuts about half-inch apart." After his whipping, salt was poured into his wounds, and he was whipped again.

"When they finish with him, he was dead," Bost said.

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Weaponizing a tool that originally was used to control and train animals makes the images surfacing from the U.S.-Mexico border even more dehumanizing, historians said.

"Whips were invented to discipline livestock," said John D. Marquez, an African American and Latino studies professor at Northwestern University. "And the fact that human beings were once considered livestock and the same apparatus used to discipline cattle or goats was used against human beings sheds light on the persistent dilemma of race that we have in this country."

When the images surfaced of the conflict between border patrol agents and Haitian migrants, Young said he was struck by the images of the patrol officers mounted on horses.

"When it comes to Black people, there's been a long history of the horse-mounted enforcer," Young said. "I think the image of a horse-mounted officer is particularly evocative for African Americans because our movements have been forced and curtailed for a long time through the figure of a horse-mounted enforcer."

Slave patrollers who tracked down runaways were horse-mounted officers. Likewise, when slaves were sold and transported in America, they were marched across the country by slave traders mounted on horses.

Former slaves often recounted frightening encounters with slave patrollers, who they called "paddy rollers."

"They jes' like policemen, only worser," Bost recalled.

"If you wasn't in your proper place when the paddy rollers come, they lash you til' you was black and blue. The women got 15 lashes and the men 30."

Allen, a former slave, witnessed the pain slave traders on horseback inflicted on slaves during the domestic slave trade.

"The slaves were driven by men on horses who, at times, drove them on the run until exhaustion," he said. Slave drivers carried whips made from plaited rawhide that "could split a (slave's) hide" from 15 to 20 feet away. As they traveled, slaves that lagged behind or failed to keep up with the horsemen were "literally slashed to ribbons," Allen recalled.

Perhaps, the most harrowing photo depicting the carnage of whipping is that of Gordon, also known as “Whipped Peter.”

Peter escaped his Louisiana plantation in 1863 and reached a Union encampment where photos were taken of his scarred back, entirely covered with keloid welts from a whipping that nearly killed him. Harpers Weekly ran the shocking photo, which heightened national awareness of the cruelty of slavery.

This week's images from the border are particularly galling because Haiti is the only nation in the world founded by formerly enslaved people who gained freedom through revolution.

The lash was all too familiar on the coffee and sugar plantations in the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola, where slaves vastly outnumbered free white people. Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, Toussaint L'Ouverture in 1791 led a slave revolt, which culminated in freedom and the creation of Haiti in 1804.

"A lot of people would say Haiti has never been forgiven for that," Marquez said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Whip imagery in Border Patrol clash with Haitians recalls slavery era

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