October 16: The United States’ First African-American Diplomat


Today in 1833, Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett was born near Litchfield, Connecticut to free black parents who held prominent roles in Connecticut’s free black community. Bassett’s father was a businessman who had served as one of Connecticut’s Black Governors — an honorary leadership role in the state’s black community — and his grandfather was a former slave who earned his freedom by serving as a soldier in the Continental Army.

As a teenager in the late 1840s, Ebenezer attended the Birmingham Academy in Derby, where he first realized his lifelong affinity for academics. At the time, many other Connecticut towns were barring young black children from attending prestigious schools; later in life, Bassett remarked: “My success in life I owe greatly to that American sense of fairness which was tendered me in old Derby, and which exacts that every man whether white or black, shall have a fair chance to run his race in life and make the most of himself.”

While attending school, young Bassett worked odd jobs for influential Derby citizens, whose recommendations helped him further his education by attending the Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts and then enrolling at the Connecticut State Normal School — now Central Connecticut State University — in New Britain as the first African-American student to attend classes and graduate from that institution. After graduating in 1853, Bassett moved to New Haven where he worked as a high-school principal, became active in the local community and enrolled in classes at Yale College to further his education. There, he met two of the most important people in his life: his wife, Eliza, and the famous author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, with whom Bassett maintained a close friendship for the rest of his life.

This Philadelphia Civil War-era broadside encouraged “Men of Color” to join the Union Army. Ebenezer Bassett’s name is listed first among many other prominent signatories, including Frederick Douglass.

In the 1850s, the Bassetts moved to Philadelphia, where Ebenezer became principal of the Institute for Colored Youth (since renamed Cheyney University and recognized as the oldest historically black institute of higher education in the United States). An active member of Philadelphia’s black community, Bassett helped recruit African-American soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War and helped sponsor local events featuring Republican politicians and abolitionist speakers like Douglass.

In 1869, Bassett broke down another notable color barrier by becoming the first African-American diplomat in United States history after President Ulysses S. Grant nominated him to be the American minister to Haiti. Bassett certainly had his work cut out for him; although he was incredibly well-educated, he had received no formal diplomatic training, and the nation of Haiti (which had only been politically recognized by the United States in 1862) was constantly rocked by civil wars, corruption scandals, and violence throughout the eight years of his diplomatic tenure. Nevertheless, Bassett performed his duties with remarkable patience and decorum, gaining a reputation as a consummate professional and excellent diplomat.

As was the custom with diplomatic posts, Bassett’s tenure ended when President Grant was replaced by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Bassett and his family alternately lived in Philadelphia, New Haven, and New York City, where he served as consul general for Haiti for many years before passing away in 1908 and being buried in a family plot in New Haven’s Grove Street cemetery, after a remarkable life of public service to both the African-American community and the United States as a whole.

Further Reading

Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett,” Oxford African American Studies Center

Carol Ivanoff, Mary Mycek, and Marian O’Keefe, “Ebenezer Bassett’s Historic Journey,Connecticut Explored

Ebenezer D. Basset, Class of 1853: Biography and Timeline,” Central Connecticut State University