Claire Antone Payton

As a Caribbean historian with expertise in Haiti, I use geography, material culture, and urban planning to analyze the twentieth-century history of cities in the Global South. I will receive my Ph.D. in History from Duke University in May 2018.

My dissertation, “The City and the State: Construction and the Politics of Dictatorship in Haiti (1957-1986),” charts a new political history of urbanization and state-building in the Caribbean. By intertwining these themes, my research demonstrates that the Port-au-Prince’s built environment operated as an interface between material and political forms that transformed the dynamics of both. I investigate the social underpinnings of the city’s legal existence, the origins of highly segregated residential neighborhoods, and the politics of its transportation infrastructure, and the relationship between urbanization and Duvalierist kleptocracy.

I’ve also used oral history to document the lived experience of urban transformation, recording more than 100 interviews about the lived experience of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. One of the most intimate collections of documentation on the disaster and its aftermath, the Haiti Memory Project has been cited in numerous accounts of the earthquake and has been used widely as a pedagogical resource in classrooms. I have written about the Haiti Memory Project in the Oral History Review and in a book chapter in the recently published volume Remembrance: Loss, Hope, Recovery after the Earthquake in Haiti


Like cities across the global south, the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince experienced a dramatic acceleration of urban growth beginning in the mid-twentieth century. In this same period, Haiti endured thirty years of the authoritarian Duvalier dictatorship, one of the longer and more brutal examples of such regimes in Latin American and Caribbean history. As one of the first studies to rely on archives to analyze either the Duvalier regime or its capital, my dissertation, “The City and the State,” reveals that urbanization and dictatorship intersected in complicated ways that transformed the dynamics of both. In an era of unprecedented environmental crisis, Port-au-Prince’s material history provides a valuable case study of the political production of urban vulnerability.

This study examines how the construction boom generated by urbanization in Port-au-Prince became fundamental to the rise and fall of the Duvalier regime. Urban planning projects such as slum clearance and the construction of an international airport helped secure the complacency of foreign investors and the Haitian commercial elite at a time when the regime terrorized the population with paramilitary violence. Officials also garnered support by neglecting enforcement of building codes and environmental regulations as wealthy Haitians constructed new elite enclaves, deforesting hills above the town and covering slopes with impermeable concrete. Uncontrolled development came at the expense of the city’s poor majority, whose neighborhoods along the waterfront were routinely damaged by increased flooding and erosion. As the construction boom transformed the economy, officials shifted the dictatorship’s illicit revenue streams away from agricultural commodities and towards consumer products essential to urbanization, such as cement. Kleptocratic elites oversaw the formation of a precarious landscape of inequality. As climate change, natural disaster, and dramatic urbanization create unprecedented challenges globally, Port-au-Prince is a harbinger of a possible future confronting cities around the world.

This project draws on seven years of research in archives in Haiti, France, Canada, and the United States, funded in part by a Fulbright Hays fellowship. It relies on interviews with urban planners and former officials directly involved in planning politics, along with maps, newspapers, legal codes, international development studies, and documents and diplomatic correspondence from three different governments. By tracking how the intertwining politics of development and authoritarianism underpinned the construction of one of the Caribbean’s largest cities, my research provides a much-needed historical perspective on the material and political factors that made the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince one of the deadliest disasters in history.


Refereed Journal Articles

“Vodou and Protestantism, Faith and Survival: The Contest over the Spiritual Meaning of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti.” Oral History Review 40, no. 2 (September 2013): 231–50.

Book Chapters
“‘After They Beat Us They Are Like Dogs at Our Feet’: An Oral History of Vulnerability and Violence in Post-Earthquake Haiti.” In Remembrance: Loss, Hope, Recovery after the Earthquake in Haiti, edited by Nadège T. Clitandre, Claudine Michel, Marlène Racine-Toussaint, and Florence Bellande Robertson. Santa Barbara: Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016.

Book Reviews

“Mark Schuller, Humanitarian aftershocks in Haiti” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Revue Canadienne Des études Latino-Américaines et Caraïbes 42, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 115–16.

Web-Based Publications


“Case Study: The Haiti Memory Project”
Oral History in the Digital Age

Other Publications


“On Moral Debt in Haiti,” NACLA Report on the Americas 49 no. 01 (April 2017) 64-70.


Georges Anglade. “Atlas Critique of Haïti;” Jean Price Mars, “La vocation de l’élite;” Victor Schoelcher. “Colonies étrangères et Haiti: Résultats de L’emancipation Anglaise;” “French Royal Ordinance of 1825.” In The Haiti Reader, edited by Laurent Dubois, Kaiama L. Glover, Nadève Ménard, Millery Polyne, and Chantal Verna, translated by Claire Antone Payton. Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming.

The Haiti Memory Project

The Haiti Memory Project is an online archival collection of first-person testimonies of survivors of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

I created this collection while living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti between June and December 2010.

I’ve written widely about the HMP, including an article in Oral History Review and a book chapter in the 2016 volume Remembrance: Loss, Hope, Recovery after the Earthquake in Haiti, edited by Nadège T. Clitandre, Claudine Michel, Marlène Racine-Toussaint, and Florence Bellande Robertson.