By Patricia H. Kushlis
The February 2009 Foreign Service Journal published an article by Christopher Teal on Ebeneezer Bassett, America’s first black diplomat. The article summarizes Teal’s biography of the same man – a remarkable story that Teal came upon accidentally when he was assigned to the Caribbean as a Foreign Service Officer – and one he researched and turned into a book thereafter.
Bassett, like all other US diplomats until 1924 owed his appointment to political benefactors. In his case, the appointment was a reward for having recruited blacks to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. His post: Ambassador to Haiti (then spelled Hayti), whose population consisted primarily of former black slaves. He and his family lived there for six years.
A tough assignment then as now
Haiti was a tough assignment for this former educator. It would have been difficult for anyone. The tropical climate took its toll on the health of his Connecticut born family and the Haitian political instability and ensuing violence –characteristics of that country that persist today – were trying. Unlike today with instant communications, however, Bassett was on his own – trying to represent American interests as best he could and communicating with his bosses by written reports transmitted to Washington and dependent for delivery upon the irregular mail. These reports served as a foundation for Teal’s book.
That Bassett possessed innate diplomatic skills helped save his and others lives - many times over. That his appeals for help or guidance were often ignored or passed over lightly by the then Secretary of State made Bassett’s life even more difficult.
In all too many ways, the parsimony and lack of support from the State Department sounds all too familiar. At one point when Bassett requested a naval ship off shore to be ready to assist in the event of evacuation of American citizens from the war torn island, the US refused to send one even though the British and the French had theirs at the ready.
What makes the US administration’s refusal to send even one vessel to protect American interests there even stranger is the fact that not only had the US proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine years before but also - as Teal tells us - that Haiti was seen as a strategically located coaling stop between the US mainland and the Panama Canal.
From US Ambassador to Haiti to Haitian representative in NYC
When Bassett’s tour of duty finally ended, he and his large family returned to the U.S. and he became the Haitian representative in New York City. This is not as peculiar as it now sounds: Bassett was not rich. He needed a job to make ends meet, his appointment as a US diplomat had ended and the Haitians needed a representative who knew their country and could represent its interests well
Why Bassett’s story remained untold until a junior State Department Officer stumbled upon it more than a century after the fact remains an unanswered question – perhaps as Teal suggests it was because despite Bassett’s large family, none of his eight children had children of their own so the family line died out with them. Regardless of what didn’t happen, Teal should be commended for not only coming across this remarkable and dedicated man but recognizing his historical importance, conducting the research and making the time to write his biography.
Christopher Teal, Hero of Hispaniola: America’s First Black Diplomat, Ebenezer D. Bassett, Praeger Publishers, 2008.