By Christopher Teal
When President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Ebenezer D. Bassett as Minister Resident (Ambassador) to Haiti in 1869, Bassett made history. As the first African-American diplomat, Bassett paved the way for others with his courage, integrity and leadership, and he opened up the American diplomatic corps to greater diversity.
Bassett’s family was from Connecticut. His grandparents were slaves, and his grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War to win his freedom. By the time Ebenezer Bassett was born in 1833, the Bassetts were leading members of their small farming community in Derby, Conn. Bassett’s parents provided him and his two siblings with an excellent education, and he became the first black student in Connecticut history to integrate into the state’s teachers college, graduating in 1853. His alma mater, now Central Connecticut State University, proudly honors Bassett’s groundbreaking role with a scholarship and a humanitarian award in his name.
Soon after graduation, Bassett left Connecticut to become principal of a Philadelphia high school, the Institute of Colored Youth. Bassett pushed students into greater political awareness and invited abolitionist leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, to give lectures. In the years before the Civil War, he was teaching students more than simply reading, writing and arithmetic; he was introducing them to the greatest minds of the time and exposing them to the radical idea that they were equal to their white peers.With the start of the Civil War, Bassett worked closely with activists, such as Douglass, to recruit black soldiers for the Union Army. His efforts gained him notice after the war when General Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency in 1868. The new president looked to fill government positions that had previously excluded African-Americans, opening opportunities at the Department of State for the first time. Soon, Grant nominated Bassett to serve as minister resident to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with the Senate confirming him by a vote of 48-5.
Upon arrival in Port-au-Prince in June 1869, Bassett found his new home torn apart by civil war. The 36-year-old diplomat tried to negotiate between the collapsing Haitian government and rebel forces, while trying to save civilians who were trapped in the fighting. The Department scrutinized Bassett’s actions since it had issued orders stating that civilians seeking safety during the war could not seek refugee status. As the war continued, however, thousands of civilians fled to Bassett’s residential compound.
Bassett wanted to protect the women and children escaping the war and went to negotiate directly with the rebels. Haitian rebels refused to provide protections and instead demanded a list of refugees to determine who might be enemies. “You will pardon me for reminding that the holding of women and children as hostages is repugnant to modern civilization and especially to the government of the United States,” Bassett said to rebel leader General Jean-Nicolas Nissage Saget.
With a response from Washington, D.C., weeks away by boat, Bassett stood alone as a voice for human rights and eventually succeeded in the negotiations. Bassett personally escorted the refugees to the center of the capital to return them to their homes, saving thousands from execution.
During his eight years in Port-au-Prince, Bassett faced several similar incidents. With courage and leadership, he resolved many crises and prevented further conflicts, helping to pave the way for future diplomatic appointments of other minorities.
Today, diversity in foreign affairs and Bassett’s legacy are more vital than ever. Though the diplomatic corps better reflects the demographics of America today, statistics show there is still more work to be done. According to the Department, as of December 2018, 71 percent of Civil and Foreign Service employees racially identify as white, compared to 14 percent African-American, 6 percent Asian, 0.04 percent Native American, 0.01 percent Native Hawaiian and 4.8 percent multi-race. Employees are also given the option to self-identify an ethnicity of Hispanic or not Hispanic, and 7 percent of the Department identify as Hispanic. The Department has developed several programs with the intention of creating a more diverse diplomat corps.
Diplomats in Residence (DIRs) are career Foreign Service Officers and Specialists located throughout the U.S. who provide guidance and advice on careers, internships and fellowships to students and professionals in the communities they serve. DIRs explain the work of foreign policy, as well as recruit candidates with varied backgrounds. To learn more, visit the DIR website.
Two programs help to increase diversity at the Department. The Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program and the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program welcome the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the Department, women and those with financial need. The programs value varied backgrounds, including ethnic, racial, social and geographic diversity.
“A diverse opinion enriches the whole foreign policy experience because you’ve got people thinking about it from different angles,” said retired Career Ambassador and former Director General Ruth A. Davis. “Bassett was really important because not only was he the first African-American diplomat, he really was somebody that we can revere in terms of leadership.”
Bassett not only demonstrated outstanding bravery and leadership throughout his service, but he was also the face of a new United States. The U.S. had emerged from the Civil War to defend the rights of minorities and took a radical step by sending diverse people abroad to represent the country. As a minority, Bassett’s perspectives were crucial in his success as a diplomat.
Bassett’s concern for human rights, his heroism and his courage in the face of violence place him in the annals of great American diplomats. This year is the 150th anniversary of Bassett’s appointment, and his life and legacy of diversity are still critically important. Great strides have been taken to increase the diversity of the diplomatic corps, and this progress needs to continue, to the benefit of diplomacy, Americans and the world.
A documentary about Bassett’s life, “A Diplomat of Consequence,” has been released and more information about Bassett can be found on the Ebenezer D. Bassett Facebook page.
Christopher Teal is a member of the Senior Foreign Service and currently teaches at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C.