Ebenezer Bassett was appointed as new leaders emerged among free African Americans after the American Civil War. An educator, abolitionist, and civil rights activist, Bassett was the U.S. diplomatic envoy in 1869 to Haiti, the “Black Republic” of the Western Hemisphere. Through eight years of bloody civil war and coups d'état there, Bassett served in one of the most crucial, but difficult postings of his time. Haiti was of strategic importance in the Caribbean basin for its shipping lanes and as a naval coaling station.
Born in Derby, Connecticut on October 16, 1833, Ebenezer D. Bassett was the second child of Eben Tobias and Susan Gregory, who were both free blacks. Though slavery was still legal in the state, people of the free black community had a strong tradition of owning their own property, running their own businesses, and playing important leadership roles. Among this community, the Bassetts stood out as leaders. Bassett's father Eben Tobias, as well as his grandfather Tobiah, had the distinction of being elected “Black Governor” in Connecticut, an unofficial honorific among the black community.
Both Bassett's parents ensured that their son would receive the best education possible. In a step rare for any students of the mid-19th century, Bassett attended college in his home state. In 1853 he was the first black student to attend the Connecticut Normal School (now Central Connecticut State University), almost a century before Brown v Board of Education ruled that segregation in public schools was illegal. After graduation Bassett taught school in New Haven, where he met and became friends with the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Educator and activist
Soon Bassett was offered the chance to teach at a progressive new all-black high school in Philadelphia. At the time, he was teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY). It later became Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the earliest college dedicated to educating black youth in the country. There he focused on Latin, Greek, mathematics and science, becoming principal after one year. But Pennsylvania, like the rest of the country, was soon dragged into the American Civil War.
Bassett became one of Philadelphia's leading voices for abolition of slavery and emancipation of the nearly four million black slaves. Ebenezer Bassett used ICY as a base to recruit blacks to serve in the Union Army. He hastened to invite many of the national civil rights leaders who had become colleagues. Just days after the Battle of Gettysburg, Bassett and other black leaders organized a recruiting drive for black soldiers. Bassett had the honor of being the second speaker of the night, making his speech immediately preceding Frederick Douglass.
|“||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 the three years' 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 our most precious moment. Let us rush to arms! Fail now, and our race is doomed on this soil of our birth.||”|
His remaining years as an educator and activist would cement his position in the abolitionist community. When Ulysses S Grant was elected to the presidency, he looked for black leaders such as Bassett to fill important political positions. Douglass recommended Bassett to political allies in the White House.
In nominating Bassett to become Minister Resident to Haiti (the title Ambassador would not be used by the U.S. until 1893), Grant appointed him as one of the highest-ranking blacks in the U.S. government. Bassett's accreditation to the “Black Republic” was no accident either. Though Haiti had gained its independence from France in 1804, it was not officially recognized by the United States until 1862. Southern resistance to a former colony governed by ex-slaves becoming a “nation” had prevented the United States from recognizing the country. With the Union victory in the Civil War, the US government wanted to improve bilateral relations, and believed the appointment of Bassett was a significant step, not only for his skills but for the symbolism of his appointment.
Upon arrival in Port-au-Prince, however, Bassett found that Haiti was torn by civil war. Although with no international experience, as a representative of the US, the Minister Resident was one of the most powerful figures in the country. Bassett soon realized that much of diplomacy involved intangibles. Soon after his arrival, he wrote to Frederick Douglass that his duties were “not so onerous as delicate. Common sense and some little knowledge of law…will carry me through.”
The case that posed the greatest challenge to him, however, was political refugee General Pierre Boisrond Canal. The general was among the band of young leaders who in 1869 successfully ousted the former President Sylvain Salnave from power. By the time of the subsequent regime of Michel Domingue in the mid-1870s, Canal had retired to his home outside the capital. The new Haitian President, however, suspicious of rivals, hunted down perceived threats, including Canal.
Canal and two young relatives arrived at Bassett's home, seeking protection and refuge. The diplomat agreed to protect them under his diplomatic immunity. “It may be that the instinct for humanity got the better of me,” he later wrote to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. “The men before me were not my personal friends. They had never visited my house before, nor I theirs. I had no merely personal interest in them."
The crisis dragged on for several days before Bassett could write to Washington. Reflecting on the issue, Bassett wrote a 21-page dispatch to the Secretary of State. He was optimistic that the government's persecution would ease. He had dealt with numerous cases of refugees in the past, and although some took weeks to resolve, the diplomat had always been successful. He was worried about the government threat. "I must confess that the presence of a thousand armed men around my country residence…with discontent stamped on their faces and Henry rifles in their hands does not quite give the best possible ground to my hope," he wrote to Fish.
Fish criticized his Minister for taking in refugees. He responded to Bassett by noting that the Haitian Ambassador to Washington, Stephen Preston, had complained about the refugees.
Fish wanted to resolve the problem quickly. He did not force his envoy to hand over the refugees, however. Despite incurring the wrath of his superiors in Washington, Bassett put all of his credibility on the line:
|“||I am not unaware that the ground taken in my several despatches…may not be in accord with the requirements of public law… but circumstances seemed to crowd in upon me without warning, and in such a way as to leave me almost no choice. Men maddened by passion, inflamed, as I am credibly informed, by rum, and elated by consciousness of armed power, were pursuing their fellow countrymen with red-handed violence. To have closed my door upon the men pursued would have been for me to deny them their last chance of escape from being brutally put to death before my eyes.||”|
As a result of the standoff, Bassett’s home remained surrounded by over 1,000 soldiers. The nightly rhythm of loud taunts and screams, beating of metal objects, and general nuisance kept the family huddled inside trying to gain a few hours of restless sleep. Bassett first raised the idea of sending a U.S. warship to Haiti in his May 8 despatch first reporting the incident. He argued at the time that such a show of force would exert “a wholesome influence” and strengthen “our own moral force” in resolving the matter. As the conflict dragged on for weeks, with both Bassett and Domingue digging in their heels, Washington seemed paralyzed. The diplomat continued to plea for a warship through the summer. But Fish’s pique at his Minister and his continued discussions with Preston, who lobbied hard against sending a ship, left the situation unresolved.
In spite of the displeasure he caused in both capitals, Bassett was seen as a hero by supporters among the Haitian people. The affair energized popular opinion in favor of the United States and raised Canal as a folk hero. “The prevailing sentiment is unmistakably in favor of [Canal], and in our favor, because we have firmly protected him against violence,” Bassett wrote. No doubt part of that support for both Canal and Bassett was because of the brutality with which the regime continued to act against any and all presumed opponents. Political arrests and killings continued, and Bassett concluded, “the awful fact stares me in the face that we are all under a reign of terror.”
By summer’s end, it looked as if Secretary Fish had finally had enough. Perhaps a more visible threat, he concluded, would cause the Domingue regime of crack. “It has been determined to apply to the Navy Department to order a man of war to Port au Prince with a view to your protection from insult,” Fish wrote to Bassett. “That the embarrassing question adverted to may be satisfactorily adjusted before she arrives, is much to be desired.”
As the ship was preparing to leave, Haitian Ambassador Preston rushed to tell Fish that Domingue was ready to capitulate. Bassett could escort Canal safely out if the warship would turn back and not enter Haitian waters. Fish agreed and instructed Bassett that a deal had been set. He was relieved to receive the news. Finally, just after midnight on October 5, 1875, Canal embraced Bassett and boarded an American-flagged ship, to sail to Jamaica and safety.
As a refugee, Canal had been essentially held captive by the government threat for more than five months. After his departure, Bassett telegrammed the Department of State informing them that the crisis had finally passed: “Refugees amicable embarked and soldiers withdrawn from around my premises yesterday.”
Though he undoubtedly paid a price by having irritated the powers that ran the State Department, he nonetheless stood up to both the Secretary of State and the brutal Domingue dictatorship. By demanding humane treatment for an honorable Haitian citizen, Ebenezer Bassett served not only the best interests of the United States, but also of the people of Haiti.
Upon the end of the Grant Administration in 1877, Bassett submitted his resignation as was customary with a change of hands in government. In spite of any lingering resentment that may have existed in Washington because of his defiant stance, it was impossible for the Department not to recognize Bassett’s work.
Acting Secretary of State F.W. Seward wrote to Bassett, thanking him for his years of service: “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.”
When he returned to the United States, he spent an additional ten years as the Consul General for Haiti in New York City. Prior to this death in 1908, he returned to live in Philadelphia, where his daughter Charlotte taught at the ICY. Unfortunately, unlike his peers who broke the color barrier in other professional fields, Ebenezer Bassett was soon forgotten with the passing of time.
Ebenezer D. Bassett was a role model not simply for his symbolic importance as the first African American diplomat. His concern for human rights, his heroism, and courage in the face of threats from Haitians as well as his own capital place him in the annals of great American diplomats. Most importantly, Bassett’s work as a politically appointed diplomat forever altered U.S. foreign policy. For the first time, a nation founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” would have as its representative abroad someone who had previously been less than equal under the law. This movement toward equality and democratization of foreign policy would neither be quick, nor perfect. However it proved to be a force impossible to turn back, and carried implications for both domestic and international relations in the years ahead, including the wider acceptance of blacks in U.S. foreign policy.
- Teal, Christopher. Hero of Hispaniola - America's First Black Diplomat, Ebenezer D. Bassett, Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers, 2008
- School Records for Ebenezer D. Bassett, Central Connecticut State University Library, Special Collections.
- “Addresses of the Hon. W. D. Kelley, Miss Anna E. Dickinson, and Mr. Frederick Douglass, at a mass meeting, held at National Hall, Philadelphia, July 6, 1863, for the promotion of colored enlistments.” Philadelphia, PA, 1863, African American Pamphlet Collection (Library of Congress).
- Bassett to Douglass, July 3, 1869, Series: General Correspondence 1869, The Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.
- Hayti, Bassett to Fish, May 8, 1875, M 82, roll 7, Department of State Despatches, National Archives.
- Hayti, Bassett to Fish, May 19, 1875, M 82, roll 8, Department of State Despatches, National Archives.
- Hayti, Bassett to Fish, May 8, 1875, M 82, roll 8, Department of State Despatches, National Archives.
- Hayti, Bassett to Fish, June 8, 1875, M 82, roll 8, Department of State Despatches, National Archives.
- Hayti and Santo Domingo, Fish to Bassett, September 7, 1875, File 77, roll 96, Diplomatic Instruction of the Department of State, National Archives.
- Hayti, Bassett to Fish, October 12, 1875, M 82, roll 8, Department of State Despatches, National Archives.
- Hayti, Bassett to Fish, October 5, 1875, M 82, roll 8, Department of State Despatches, National Archives.
- Hayti, Evarts to Bassett, October 5, 1877, File 77, roll 96, Diplomatic Instruction of the Department of State, National Archives.
- Jackson-Coppin, Fanny. Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching, Philadelphia, Pa., L. J. Coppin, 1913, Page 172.
- Teal, Christopher. Hero of Hispaniola – America's First Black Diplomat, Ebenezer D. Bassett, Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers, 2008