In commemoration of African American History Month, the United States Diplomacy Center presented a program on the bicentennial of Frederick Douglass’s birth highlighting the diplomatic careers of Ebenezer Bassett and Douglass. Both men were appointed as Ministers to Haiti in the late 19th century. Bassett, appointed by President Grant, was the United States’ first African American diplomat, serving from 1869-1877. Douglass, a well-known abolitionist, writer, activist, and civil servant, was appointed by President Harrison, and served from 1889-1891.
During this special event, I had the honor of having a discussion with Bassett biographer and career Foreign Service Officer Christopher Teal, and Curator at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service, Dr. Ka’mal McClarin. Teal related how Bassett arrived in Haiti in the midst of a civil war, demonstrating extraordinary leadership and diplomatic skills as hundreds of refugees took shelter in his compound.
Showing portions of his upcoming documentary, Teal showed how Bassett negotiated the refugees’ safe passage to their homes in Port au Prince, establishing him as an early advocate for international human rights. I presented on Douglass’s diplomatic efforts to secure a lease for a coaling station from the Haitian government, and Dr. McClarin presented several artifacts belonging to Douglass and his time in the Caribbean: a Panama hat, a farewell Bible given to him by the congregation of DC’s Metropolitan AME Church, his commission, and passport.
My fellow panelists and I addressed an audience of retired ambassadors, students, educators, Smithsonian staff, Department of State staff, and DC area residents. Bassett scholars from Connecticut and a descendant of Bassett’s were also in attendance.
About the Author: Dr. Alison Mann serves as Public Historian at the U.S. Diplomacy Center at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.