Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett was America’s first Black Diplomat, who served in Haiti and the Dominican Republic as an ambassador.
Despite breaking the color barrier set in the way of blacks, Bassett was nearly lost to history for good till a curious diplomat upon seeing his portrait hanging in the US consul in Haiti sought to find out more.
Thanks to Christopher Teal – a Foreign Service officer since 1999 – and his book ‘Hero of Hispaniola: America’s First Black Diplomat (Praeger, 2008)’, the story of Mr. Bassett has been archived. The United States only began using the ‘ambassador’ title in 1893.
Bassett was born in Connecticut on October 16, 1833, hailing from an activist family. He became the first black student at the Connecticut Teachers College (now Central Connecticut State University) graduating in 1853. He is of African, mulatto and Native American heritage. His grandfather and father were both elected “Negro Governors” in 1815 and 1840.
In 1855, while in New Haven, Bassett married Eliza Park. He later became a teacher and principal at the Institute for Colored Youth, a Philadelphia high school.
Bassett was appointed by U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869 in a move to reward leaders in the black community, who had helped preserve the Union by helping recruit Black soldiers for the war.
Working with the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, in a relationship which lasted for nearly 40 years, Bassett sometimes addressed audiences before Douglass took the podium. He made a mark on the dais.
“Men of color, to arms! Now or never! This is our golden moment. The government of the United States calls for every able-bodied colored man to enter the army for three years of service, and join in fighting the battles of liberty and the Union. A new era is open to us. For generations we have suffered under the horrors of slavery, outrage and wrong; our manhood has been denied, our citizenship blotted out, our souls seared and burned, our spirits cowed and crushed, and the hopes of the future of our race involved in doubts and darkness. But how the whole aspect of our relations to the white race is changed! Now, therefore, is the most precious moment. Let us rush to arms! Fail now, and our race is doomed on this soul of our birth,” Bassett said in one of his fineness speeches rallying Blacks to volunteer to fight the American civil war to preserve the union.
Bassett was more than an orator, proving himself also as a human rights campaigner in the U.S. and Haiti his new home. When the 36-year-old Bassett arrived in Port-au-Prince in June 1869, the country was in the midst of civil war and hundreds of civilian refugees including one who helped topple the old regime had poured unto his residential compound in a bid to get protection from the violence. However, the State Department blocked the move in a bid not to irk its allies.
With his hands tied since he couldn’t defy an official order without consequence, Bassett shrewdly negotiated safe passage for the refugees even personally escorting them to safety since he couldn’t bear to see the vulnerable women and children killed.
In the eight years he served as ambassador, Bassett came to the aid of citizens affected by hurricanes, fires and tropical diseases eventually becoming the dean of the diplomatic corps. At the end of the Grant administration in 1877, Bassett submitted his resignation, as was the custom with a change of hands in government.
“I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without expressing to you the appreciation of the department for the very satisfactory manner in which you have discharged your duties of the mission at Port-au-Prince during your term of office. This commendation of your services is the more especially merited because at various times your duties have been of such a delicate nature as to have required the exercise of much tact and discretion,” acting Secretary of State F.W. Seward wrote to Bassett, thanking him for his years of service.
Upon his return to the United States he became consul general for Haiti in New York City for 10 years representing the interests of both states.
It must be noted that despite his professionalism and prudent decisions to avert disasters, Bassett’s longing for another appointment with the State Department was never realised.
It had to take Douglass to bring Bassett back into the fold of ambassador when President Benjamin Harrison upon securing the White House in 1888 assigned him to Haiti again.
Bassett returned to Port-au-Prince as Douglass’ assistant from 1889 to 1891. He died on November 13, 1908 at 75. He left behind eight children.
After the 2008 biography, his home state of Connecticut began recognising the contributions of this distinguished native son. Both Central Connecticut State University and Yale University have established scholarships and awards in Bassett’s name, including the Bassett Award for Human Rights.
A documentary on his life is being worked on.