Worth Noting, by Bill Wanlund: African Americans in the Foreign ServiceEbenezer Bassett, the subject both of a documentary by FSO Chris Teal and PDCA’s Feb. 6 First Monday Forum, was America’s first African-American diplomat, named by Ulysses S. Grant to be Minister to Haiti in 1869. (We didn’t call them “ambassadors” until 1893; the first to hold that title was Edward Dudley, in 1946, when President Harry S Truman appointed him Ambassador to Liberia.)
In an America where White Americans held almost all of the nation’s wealth, power, and non-menial jobs, Bassett was a standout: He blazed a trail to diplomatic service for Blacks to follow.
And some did. John Mercer Langston, born into slavery, followed Bassett as Minister in Port-au-Prince. (What had been Lee Highway in Arlington, VA is now Langston Boulevard.)
In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison named prominent intellectual and abolitionist Frederick Douglass to be Minister to Haiti; Douglass had no diplomatic experience, so he recruited Bassett, a long-time associate, to come back to Haiti as his secretary. (Rewind for one last note about Bassett: In one of the more interesting switcheroos in diplomatic history, Haitian President Lysius Solomon, who had admired Bassett’s work in Port-au-Prince, in 1879 appointed him as Haiti’s Consul in New York, a position he kept for ten years before taking the job with Douglass.)
In the late 19th century, senior-level jobs for African-Americans at first were in Haiti and Liberia; the Dominican Republic and Madagascar opened up a little later. Still, Black representation in the American diplomatic force remained meager.
And it still does, though there has been a little progress over the last generations or so. In 1987, five percent of all FSOs – generalists and specialists -- were Black. By 2020 the percentage stood at eight. These figures appear in a Foreign Service Journal article of July-August, 2021. In the feisty article, “Diversity and Inclusion in the U.S. Foreign Service,” retired FSO Harry Kopp recaps the history of racial, ethnic and gender diversity and its “long and uneven battle for progress.”
Kopp points out that racial and ethnic minorities comprise “about the same percentage of the Foreign Service as of all Americans classified by the Census Bureau as ‘professional workers’ or ‘officials and managers’.” Kopp takes no comfort from that, seeing it as more evidence that, “In its social attitudes and behavior, the Foreign Service has always been a follower, not a leader.”
Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC area. His column, “Worth Noting,” appears in the PDCA Weekly Update and addresses topics hopefully of interest to PDCA members.