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By Carolyn
B. Ivanoff with Mary J. Mycek and Marian K. O’Keefe
On June 5, 1869, on a hot day in New York City, 36-year-old
Connecticut native Ebenezer D. Bassett (1833-1908) and his
family boarded the steamship The City of Port-au-Prince. Bassett
was surrounded by a crowd of dignitaries and on-lookers who
wished him well as he embarked on a historic journey to the
world’s only independent black republic, Haiti. (Or, as it was
spelled in the 19th century, Hayti.) He had been appointed by
the Grant administration as minister resident, our nation’s first
black ambassador.
The United States was in the midst of Reconstruction after a
devastating Civil War. As Bassett boarded the ship, he was aware
Map of Haiti (then “Hayti”), 1871. Courtesy of Marian K. O’Keefe
that he was breaking historic ground as the first black American
appointed to a top diplomatic post. He acknowledged the risk of
failure and the difficult diplomatic challenges that lay ahead.
A few days earlier he had addressed a large audience in New
York City pledging to President Ulysses S. Grant and the nation
that he would bring to his work “An honest heart, a generous
purpose, and unflagging industry, and an elevated patriotism.”
Bassett’s great-grandfather Pero had endured the middle
passage to the New World. Pero had married Hagar, another
enslaved African, who was owned by Reverend Richard
Mansfield of Derby, Connecticut. One of Pero and Hagar’s sons,
(c) 2011 CONNECTICUT EXPLORED. Vol.10 No. 1, Winter 2011/2012. www.ctexplored.org
Copying and distribution of this article is not permitted without permission of the publisher.
left: Ebenezer D. Bassett, Philadelphia, c. 1880. Elihu Burrit Library,
Special Collections, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain
Tobiah (Bassett’s grandfather), was sold to John Wooster of
Oxford, Connecticut; Tobiah won his freedom through his
service in the American Revolution. Tobiah had a reputation for
honor and intelligence in both the white and black communities
and was elected a black governor, an honorary leadership
position, by the black community in Derby in 1815. Tobiah’s son,
Eben Tobias, was Bassett’s father. Eben Tobias was elected and
served as a black governor from 1840 to 1845. He married Susan
Gregory Bassett, and used the Bassett surname. Bassetts
populated the lower Naugatuck Valley, and the family may
have chosen the Bassett name for reasons of kinship.
Around 1830 or 1831 the couple moved to the
Litchfield area, presumably for economic opportunity. They had three children: Charlotte in 1832,
Ebenezer Don Carlos on October 16, 1833, and
Napoleon in 1836. Sometime before the 1850s the
family returned to the lower Naugatuck Valley and
farmed land on Great Hill along the banks of the
Housatonic River belonging to Dr. Martin Bull
Bassett of Derby.
In the late 1840s Ebenezer’s formal education
began at the Birmingham Academy established in
1838 and located near the Derby green. Though
Connecticut had passed a gradual emancipation law
in 1784, slavery was not abolished until 1848.
Unlike other towns in the state, Derby did not
exclude Bassett from an education because of his
race. Reflecting on this period, Bassett later said, “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 at the Birmingham
Academy, Bassett was working in the office and running errands
for the most prominent citizen in town, Dr. Ambrose Beardsley,
who recognized Bassett’s academic talent. It was probably
through Beardsley’s recommendation that Bassett attended the
Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts (now the
Carolyn Ivanoff is a housemaster at Shelton Intermediate
School who frequently writes and lectures on American history.
She thanks Mary J. Mycek and Marian K. O’Keefe for their
assistance with this article. Ivanoff, Mycek, and O’Keefe are
authors of the 2008 publication Ebenezer D. Bassett (18331908) and a companion educational resource booklet for
teachers and students.
Wilbraham and Monson Academy). Wesleyan Academy was a
stop on the Underground Railroad, and undoubtedly it was here
that Bassett came into contact with the injustices of antebellum
America that would culminate in Civil War. Bassett next
attended the State Normal School in New Britain, now Central
Connecticut State University. He graduated in 1853, the first and
only black in his class. Bassett had quietly, diplomatically, astonishingly broken the color barrier in education in Connecticut.
“Distinguished Colored Men,” A. Muller & Co., c. 1883. Frederick Douglass is featured in
the center; below him is Ebenezer Bassett. Library of Congress
Birmingham Academy in Derby, Connecticut,
where Ebenezer Bassett went to school in the 1840s.
Derby Historical Society
After graduation, Bassett began his career as a teacher at the
Whiting School, which was for children of color, in New Haven
at a salary of $300 a year. After his first year the school board’s
report noted that Bassett had “transformed 40 or 50 thoughtless,
reckless, tardy and reluctant youngsters into intelligent
ambitious, well-disciplined and well-behaved students.” Hungry
to continue his education, he attended classes at Yale in
mathematics and classics. In 1855 he married Eliza Park in New
Haven. While in New Haven he also met Frederick
Douglass. Their lives would intersect many times in
subsequent years, and their friendship would last
until Douglass’s death.
In 1855 Bassett also became principal of the
Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia (now
Cheyney University). This prestigious appointment
doubled his salary. ICY was then the nation’s flagship
institution of black education, and the Bassetts
became members of the black elite in Philadelphia.
Bassett became active in abolitionist efforts and was
in constant touch with Douglass.
During the Civil War, Bassett actively recruited
black soldiers, often standing beside Douglass on the
podium. During and after the war, Bassett, who did
not serve in the military, was involved in civil rights,
was nationally recognized as a pioneer black
educator, and was active in Republican politics.
His experience made him a perfect fit for the post
of minister resident (the term “ambassador”
didn’t come into use until 1893) to the newly
recognized black republic of Haiti, which the Grant
administration was determined to fill with a
“worthy” black man.
Haiti was a Caribbean nation on the western side of the
island of Hispaniola (the eastern two-thirds of which were occupied by the Dominican Republic) that had been claimed by
Columbus on behalf of Spain in 1492 and by the French in the
1660s. By 1790 Haiti had overshadowed the eastern part of the
island to become the “Pearl of the Antilles,” the richest French
colony in the New World, producing sugar, coffee, and indigo
under the intense brutality of the French plantation system.
Under the French system, it was cheaper to work a slave to death
and purchase a new one than to care for existing workers.
French plantation owners imported 30,000 to 100,000 slaves
annually during more than a century of domination from 1697
to 1804.
Haiti’s enslaved people struggled with revolt, civil war, and
foreign invasion. Inspired by the American and French
revolutions and led by Toussaint L’Overture, a formerly enslaved
coachman and genius of guerrilla warfare, Haiti was brought
under black control. Napoleon invaded in 1802 in hopes of using
Haiti as a platform to create a French empire in the new world.
The superior Haitian army fought under L’Overture until
L’Overture’s betrayal by his chief lieutenant, General Dessalines,
and his death in a French dungeon in 1802. Despite that loss, the
French invaders were decimated and finally driven out by the
slave armies, yellow fever, and the jungle. Nearly 80,000
Haitians perished in the conflict, but the Haitian forces had
defeated one of Europe’s finest armies in the first successful slave
revolt in world history. On January 1, 1804, Haiti proclaimed
independence, becoming the second independent republic in the
western hemisphere and the first free black republic in
the world.
As a free republic, Haiti provided the U.S. with a valuable
trade. But for racial reasons the U.S. refused to recognize the
country diplomatically until 1862, under the Lincoln
administration. When President Grant sought a U.S. ambassador
to Haiti in 1869, Bassett was endorsed by prominent Republicans
for the post and submitted his name for consideration. His
American
embassy at Haiti
and residence of
Minister Bassett,
Frank Leslie’s
Illustrated
Newspaper, April
15, 1871.
Courtesy of Carolyn
Ivanoff
credentials as an educator, linguist, and activist made him
a perfect fit for the post, and the Senate confirmed his
appointment unanimously.
By the time Bassett accepted his diplomatic post in 1869,
Haiti, the former Pearl of the Antilles, had fallen into a pattern
of disaster after disaster, facing revolution, revolt, and civil war
followed by famine, disease, earthquake, and hurricanes. When
Bassett landed on the island after a tempestuous sea voyage,
Haiti was in the midst of yet another one of its violent civil wars.
He found himself the most powerful American on the island,
yet his proper French did not equip him to communicate in the
Creole that was the language of the island, and he lacked
diplomatic experience. One of the first things he did was to lease
a fireproof building for his records to protect them from the
violence of the on-going civil war.
Bassett served as minister resident for almost nine years of
Haitian turmoil and trial. His diplomatic efforts were made
extremely delicate due to the desire of the U.S. to annex the
Dominican Republic. Bassett had to repeatedly allay Haitian
suspicions of an American takeover to protect American
merchants and interests on the island. In the midst of all this, he
carried on with his personal life; three of his eight children were
born on the island, and two died there. Haiti, despite its travails,
could be a deceptively lovely, tropical paradise, and Bassett came
to love the island’s beauty.
During his tenure, Bassett proved a pioneer in providing
political asylum and protecting human rights, often angering his
superior, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, and creating tension
with Washington. Bassett regularly granted asylum to refugees
under the auspices of the American compound at a time when
political asylum and human rights were not of widespread
concern; nor was this practice common among other diplomats.
Fish believed that Bassett had no legal basis for accepting
refugees into the American compound. Bassett often risked his
own safety and that of his family in doing so. But Bassett saved
many lives through this controversial practice, including that of
General Boisrond Canal, who later became president of Haiti,
twice. One of the elements that played in
Bassett’s favor was the
slowness of commu“First African-American Ambassador: Ebenezer D.
nications. Dispatches
Bassett" is on view through March 15, Seymour
had to be sent by ship
Historical Society, 59 West Street, Seymour.
and took weeks.
The historical society is open to the public on a
Bassett often found it
limited basis; call 203-888-7474 or write
expedient to do what
[email protected]
he felt was right and
for information.
ask for forgiveness
Explore!
after the fact. Canal and other future leaders Bassett saved
would later hold him, and the U.S., in high esteem.
As was customary, at the end of the Grant administration
Bassett turned in his resignation, though he hoped the new
administration would reinstate him. The Hayes administration
appointed another black man, John M. Langston, who had been
born a slave in Virginia, earned his freedom, and was serving as
dean of Howard Law School. Langston was rewarded with the
diplomatic post for his work on behalf of the Republican Party
and the new president and fellow Ohioan, Hayes.
Bassett, at 44, found himself unemployed. On December 1,
1877, he and his family boarded the steamship Atlas for the twoweek trip from Haiti to New York City. Back in New Haven,
Bassett became reengaged in public speaking and in political
and civil rights issues. He would never receive another U.S.
diplomatic appointment, but he was not forgotten in Haiti.
In 1879, Haitian President Lysius Solomon, who brought some
stability to Haiti, appointed Bassett Haitian consul in New York
City. Bassett held that position until 1889, when he resigned in
protest because American merchant ships were illegally running
arms to Haitian rebels.
In 1888, with Benjamin Harrison’s election as president,
Bassett felt the time was ripe to again seek his former post.
But Frederick Douglass was offered the job. Bassett heartily
supported the appointment and signed on as Douglass’s secretary.
Douglass was elderly, he had no diplomatic experience, and he
could not speak French. His tenure was not entirely successful,
and he resigned in 1891, leaving Bassett again unemployed.
Returning to Connecticut, he went back to his old avocation of
speaking about civil rights and Republican politics. Benjamin
Harrison lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1892; the nation
fell further into the grip of Jim Crow, and Bassett fell ever
deeper in debt. Eliza, Bassett’s beloved wife of 40 years, died in
August 1895. Douglass also died in 1895, ending an era for the
nation and a life-long friendship for Bassett.
In 1898, with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War,
Haiti again feared annexation by the U.S. Bassett was
appointed vice consul general by the Haitian government and
held the position until his death.
Bassett passed quietly from life and the public eye in 1908
at his home in Brooklyn, New York. He and Eliza and all of his
children, several of whom had followed him into the field of
education, lie together in the family plot in Grove Street
Cemetery in New Haven. Largely forgotten today, Ebenezer D.
Bassett triumphed over the obstacles of race and inequality in
the 19th century to live an exemplary life devoted to educating
and serving others as a pioneer black educator, the first black
diplomat of the United States, and a quiet American hero. 2

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