A large portion of Samaná’s residents are descendants of African-American freemen and women who emigrated here during Haitian rule in 1824–25. At the time, a movement in the United States worked to repatriate thousands of freed slaves – seeking to escape the pervasive racism in the States – to West Africa, but stories of malaria epidemics made Haiti, the world’s only black republic, a more attractive option for many. Six thousand emigrants were temporarily housed in Santo Domingo’s Iglesia Las Mercedes before travelling on to various points across the country. About half ended up in Samaná, which the Haitians wanted to develop into a naval base. Despite sustained persecution by the Trujillo dictatorship in the 1940s and a general lack of interest by today’s younger generation, the settlers have managed to maintain their culture to some degree.
Some of Samaná’s older African-American population – many of them clustered within the sprawling Barrio Wilmore that borders the C-5 from the town’s west entrance – preserve an antiquated form of English, an oral history of the community’s struggles and an array of folk tales and legends. One ongoing custom is the series of yearly harvest festivals, community feasts with African-American church music held every Friday from late August to the end of October, a tradition that harks back to the yam celebrations and rice festivals of West Africa; check the bulletin board at the back of La Churcha for dates and locations, if you’re interested in attending.