Commemorating the First African American Diplomats

Panel: The First African American Diplomats

Panel: The First African American Diplomats 150 150

In commemoration of African American History Month, the Center hosted a program highlighting the little known diplomatic careers of Ebenezer Bassett and Frederick Douglass.  The program was held on February 14th in honor of the bicentennial of Douglass’s birth.  Both of these men served as U.S. Ministers — an early title equivalent to Ambassador — to Haiti in the late 19th century.  Bassett, appointed by President Grant, was the United States’s first African American diplomat, serving from 1869 to 1877.  Douglass, a well-known abolitionist, writer, activist and civil servant, was appointed by President Harrison and served from 1889 to 1891.

Dr. Alison Mann, the Center’s public historian, was joined by Bassett biographer and Foreign Service Officer Christopher Teal, and by the curator of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Dr. Ka’mal McLaurin.  Mr. Teal related how Bassett arrived in Haiti in the midst of a civil war and demonstrated extraordinary leadership and diplomatic skills as hundredsof refugees took shelter on his compound.  Screening portions of his upcoming documentary, Mr. Teal showed how Bassett negotiated the refugees’s safe passage to their homes, establishing himself as an early advocate for international human rights.  Dr. Mann then spoke about Douglass’s efforts to negotiate with the Haitian government for a lease of a coaling station for U.S. ships.  Dr. McLaurin then showcased several artifacts associated with Douglass during his time in the Caribbean: a Panama hat, a Bible given to him upon his departure for Haiti by the congregation of the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan AME Church, his diplomatic commission, and his passport.

One of our more popular events, the program attracted students, educators, Smithsonian Institution staff, area residents, retired ambassadors, and Department of State staff.  In addition, Bassett scholars from Connecticut and a descendant of Bassett’s attended.

See more photos of the event.