African American Trailblazers In Diplomacy

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Following is the transcript of a panel on “Afrgeican American Trailblazers in Diplomacy” which was presented on February 28, 2019, at the U.S. Diplomacy Museum.   Panel Presentations were:

Ebenezer Bassett – Christopher Teal, US Foreign Service Officer and author of “Hero of Hispaniola: America’s First Black Diplomat: Ebenezer Bassett

Ambassador Ralph J. Bunche –  James T.L. Dandridge II, Board of Directors of the Diplomacy Museum

Ambassador Edward Dudley  – Dr. Michael Krenn, Professor of History, Appalachian State University

Ambassadors Patricia Roberts Harris and Mabel Murphy-Smythe,  Ambassador Ruth A. Davis, Vice President. Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA)

MODERATOR (Michael Krenn): Before we begin today’s panel, allow me to give out a few well-earned thank-yous: To Dr. Jane Carpenter-Rock, Deputy Director of the United States Diplomacy Center, and her staff for hosting this event in such an appropriate and beautiful venue and supporting our work every step of the way. To our panelists, who did NOT engage in a shutdown and worked studiously to produce such fascinating presentations. And, although he was not able to join us today because of previously scheduled teaching engagements, a special thank you to Ambassador Harry Thomas who provided encouragement and assistance in making today’s program a reality. And, finally, to Mr. James Dandridge, whose interest, energy, commitment, and inexplicable ability to get people all moving in the same direction was the spark that started this project and the engine who kept it steaming ahead. And, as always, a very special thanks for including me in the proceedings.

In recent years, the subject of African American diplomats attracted an increasing amount of attention from scholars. The Department of State, too, made efforts to recognize the contributions of African Americans to U.S. diplomacy, including the 2008 piece by Ambassador Ruth Davis on “Distinguished African Americans at the Department of State.” Today, the Department’s Office of the Historian devotes a page on its website to “African Americans in the Foreign Service,” and highlights some “notable firsts”—including three of the individuals we will be discussing at today’s program. The focus on notable firsts is not surprising, since such appointments of African Americans are often discussed more in terms of their importance to the domestic civil rights issue rather than their contributions as U.S. diplomats. This is not to argue that these “firsts” are insignificant; indeed, each of the individuals discussed today were pioneers in gradually breaking down the walls of a Department often disparagingly (albeit accurately) referred to as a home for the “pale, male, from Yale.”

In the presentations you will hear today, these trailblazing efforts will not be ignored. However, we want to put the spotlight on the contributions made by these African Americans to the success and progress of their nation’s diplomacy. The men and women we will put front and center today were undoubtedly pioneers; their contributions to the painfully slow progress of the civil rights movement in this nation can hardly be denied. To view them merely in terms of African American history does them, unconsciously or not, something of a disservice. Today, we are here to recognize and celebrate their immensely important contributions to the history of American diplomacy.

Our first presenter today is Mr. Christopher Teal. He is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and is currently on a faculty assignment at the Inter-American Defense College at Ft. McNair. His foreign postings include Mexico, Sri Lanka, and the Dominican Republic and work at the Foreign Press Center and the European Bureau in Washington, D.C. He is the author of two books: Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, with Juan Williams; and his 2008 work, Hero of Hispaniola: America’s First Black Diplomat, Ebenezer D. Bassett. He is currently working on a documentary of Bassett’s life entitled “A Diplomat of Consequence.” In his presentation today, “Ebenezer Bassett, African American Pioneer for International Human Rights,” Chris focuses on an individual who epitomizes the ways in which an African American diplomat could be a trailblazer in so many different ways.

Ebenezer Bassett – Christopher Teal

CHRISTOPHER TEAL: This year in April of 2019, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Ebenezer Bassett’s appointment as a diplomat to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Bassett’s story impressed me when I “rediscovered” him during my first tour in the Santo Domingo in the 1990s.   I was stunned that the United States sent African American envoys abroad so soon after our Civil War, but even more shocked that the pioneering first black diplomat had been forgotten to history. That is what led me to write the biography of Bassett, Hero of Hispaniola and am now finishing a documentary that I am releasing this year – A Diplomat of Consequence. But let me begin to tell you a little more about Bassett’s story.

In the 1800s in Haiti the first U.S. diplomats were white men, so the idea of sending a black man as the face of America was a radical one.   But after the U.S. Civil War, President Ulysses Grant boldly pushed by nominating many black leaders into senior government positions, including for the first time at the U.S. State Department.

Bassett would be arriving to a war zone.

The new diplomat knew all too well the horrors of war.   Though living in Philadelphia during the U.S. Civil War, he was not removed from the harsh reality.   Bassett and his close friend, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass even helped set up large rallies to recruit black soldiers, including former slaves, for the war. Their work made a difference and a total of over 170,000 black soldiers would eventually join the Union Army, making a difference in the Civil War.

Still, it was daunting for the thirty-six-year-old to find himself in this strange land and also one that was torn by war.

The Haitian Civil war only worsened and by the autumn of 1869 President Sylvain Salnave controlled only a tiny portion of the country.

In fact, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish sent instructions to Bassett to remain as neutral as possible in the conflict: “The unhappy strife going on there partakes of the nature of a civil war, although it is not recognized as such by us,” Fish wrote him.

By December 1869, the capital itself was under attack, and rebels bombarded the Presidential Palace.   A few rounds even landed on Bassett’s fifteen-acre compound.

President Salnave’s supporters and remaining family rushed for cover, many coming to Bassett’s official residence.

As the battle raged on, an additional almost three thousand terrified refugees, women and children filled the grounds of his home.   Bassett’s wife, Eliza and their young children attempted to assist as many as they could, but in the end, they were simply overwhelmed in the face of the humanitarian crisis.   Because of diplomatic protocols, which could break at any minute if the armed forces chose, troops didn’t enter the grounds as it was considered sovereign U.S. territory.   But rebel troops stood ready to massacre any refugee who exited.

While his family did their best to aid the hungry, sick and injured, Bassett furiously worked, reporting these events to the Secretary of State and again requested support. Secretary Fish replied dryly and bureaucratically, noting that Bassett’s actions to allow refugees onto his compound had notbeen sanctioned by the State Department, but that he personally understood: “While you are not required to expel those who may have sought refuge in the Legation, you will give them to understand that your government cannot on that account assume any responsibility for them,” he coldly replied.

With these constraints, Bassett faced a dilemma.   Strictly obey orders and let thousands die, or take a stand in favor of human rights and work to protect these refugees as best he could.

President Salnave fled across the Dominican border but was quickly captured and brought back to Haiti.   He was charged with treason, found guilty, and executed in the smoldering ruins of his former palace.

Bassett immediately turned to negotiate with the new government for the release of the thousands that still sat panic-stricken in his compound. The new Haitian leader, Nicolas Saget, was defiant, demanding a list of refugees so that he could determine who might actually be political enemies.

There is an old saying in diplomacy – “It is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” Bassett didn’t have time to ask Washington for either! So instead, he boldly refused, telling him: “You will pardon me for reminding that the holding of women and children as hostages is repugnant to modern civilization and especially to the government of the United States.” He went on to express to the new Haitian leader that if he desired good bilateral relations, then he should simply allow the release of the refugees.

After tense negotiations, Saget finally gave in.

With little regard for his personal safety and health, Bassett escorted a band of refugees into the heart of the capital, returning them, unharmed, to their homes.   Other captured opponents did not fare as well as Bassett’s group, apparently, as many had their throats slit because the new government did not want to waste time on trials.

He managed all of this without help from the State Department, which would only write approvingly after all turned out well in the end.

Today, 150 years later, the rights of civilians in armed conflict, are protected under international humanitarian law and refugees have basic human rights that must be respected. I share this story to let you know more about the early work done on human rights and Bassett’s role in shaping it. But this story is also a reminder about leadership. The fact that one person can make a difference.

MODERATOR (Michael Krenn): There is little doubt that Bassett was not merely a pioneer, but someone who left a legacy of accomplishment for those who would follow in his footsteps—those other African American diplomats who realized that they, too, could make a difference. Yet, in the seven decades from Bassett’s appointment in 1869 to America’s entry into World War II in 1941, most African Americans found the path to careers in U.S. diplomacy filled with roadblocks. A tiny handful were still appointed to various overseas posts, principally Haiti and Liberia. Even the 1924 Rogers Act, which was supposed to make employment in the Foreign Service based entirely on merit resulted in only a few African Americans, such as Clifton Wharton, Sr., who became the first black to pass the Foreign Service exam, able to overcome the resistance of what some critics referred to as the “Lily White Club” of the Department of State. As our next presenter will ably demonstrate, however, small numbers did not equate to small accomplishments. Mr. James Dandridge II received his BA in Sociology/Philosophy from Howard University and his MA in Government from Georgetown University. He completed sixty-four years of federal service that included former career Senior Foreign Service Officer (Minister Counselor) with postings in India, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile; His domestic assignments included Director, Office of Policy Guidance, USIA; Senior Advisor, U.S. Department of State (INL); and Special Operations Branch Chief, Organization of the Joint Chiefs of State in his earlier military career, before becoming the single busiest “retiree” I have ever met. His talk today is entitled, “Ralph Bunche, Consummate Diplomat: An Odyssey or an Enigma.”

Ralph J. Bunche – James Dandridge

JAMES DANDRIDGE: Although, I might appear to be a bit pretentious in presenting on Dr. Ralph Johnson Bunche, I readily admit being an early Bunche junkie. Being the dinosaur of the panel, I proudly brag of having been in Dr. Bunche’s presence during my undergraduate days at Howard University in the late forties. Dr. Bunche officiated the establishment of the first chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Howard University with my class. No, I was not Phi Beta Kappa. But we collectively took pride in Dr. Bunche’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.


Ralph Johnson Bunche’s early childhood in Detroit introduces him to the realities of coexistence with and acceptance of ethnic and nationalistic differences. Although growing up in integrated neighborhoods, he experienced early neighborhood conflicts between late arriving Italians and Austro-Hungarian playmates. His mother discovered that he had joined his playmates in throwing coal covered snowballs at the newly arrived Italians and taught him an unforgettable lesson on equality in the playgrounds, which he did not forget.

Bunche’s family moved to Los Angeles where he graduated number 1 in his Thomas Jefferson High School class but was not recognized in the Los Angeles Ephesian Society. Nevertheless, he was given an athletic scholarship to attend UCLA where he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He later received a scholarship to attend Harvard, which did not include sufficient funds for his tuition. A Los Angeles black women’s organization raised funds to cover Bunche’s tuition where he completed his MA in Political Science.

Bunche reached out to W.E.B. Du Bois, who was the editor of the NAACP’s “Crisis” magazine after accepting a political science teaching position at Howard University. Although, he was recognized as one of the top ten young scholars at the time, he wanted to know what he could do “for the cause.” It was here where he connected with other scholars, dubbed the Young Turks by Du Bois through the formation of the National Negro Congress, a political science conference attended by many young American communist scholars.

Bunche accepted a Rosenfeld Foundation scholarship, after establishing Howard’s Political Science Department, to attend Harvard for his PhD in Political Science, which was the launching pad for his scholarly excellence in diplomacy. His PhD dissertation was selected as the best political science dissertation at Harvard. His choice topic, “Race relations in Brazil” was considered too toxic for its times. A compromise was settled on dealing with Colonial Africa.

His dissertation was never published. Nevertheless, Bunche’s later “A World View of Race,” which was written in one week, established his early preparations for his contributions to international diplomacy and the United Nations. Here again was another “first” for Bunche. He was the first black scholar to earn a PhD in political science at Harvard. Ironically, the first black to graduate from Harvard was Richard Greener in 1870 (with honors) who was also a legendary black diplomat with assignments to Bombay, India and Vladivostok, Russia. (There are so many similarities and out of generation similarities between Greener and Bunche that I would welcome some discussion on these during the comments and questions to the panel.)


Ralph Bunche’s scholarly approaches to understandings of Europe’s economic strangle holds on Africa prepared him to be uniquely qualified for selection by President Roosevelt as a senior social security researcher and head of the Africa Research and Analysis office in the then OSS in preparation for strategic counter operations to Hitler’s North Africa campaign. He was so good at what he did that assistant secretary Walski at State wanted him and Cordell Hull wanted him “inside the system to make a difference, ” which struck a chord with Bunche who realized that if there were to be a change in America taking advantage of its total resources, regardless of race or ethnicity, it would have to be done from within the system. Incidentally, Bunche’s “Atlantic Papers” written as a basis for America’s North Africa Campaign have been donated to our own State Department’s Bunche Library, by his OSS assistant, Professor Benjamin Rivlin, during our celebration of the Bunche Centenary, 2003-2004. Incidentally, our Bunche Library is America’s oldest Federal Library, started by Thomas Jefferson (his high school’s namesake). I leave it to you to make your own additional ironic conclusions, which I know Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

This background made Ralph Bunche a natural choice to be a member of the US Delegation to the 1945 San Francisco Conference on the establishment of the United Nations. Ralph Bunche’s close personal friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt afforded him the opportunity to work on the UN’s Human Rights Charter, in particular as it dealt with the issues of the League of Nations trusteeships of emerging African countries. His fingerprints were all over Articles 11 and 13, in fact, Article 11 was his draft to the letter albeit, the US delegation was not quite ready for it. Therefore, not being the type to be up front or to take credit, he slipped the whole thing to his Australian colleagues and said, here it is, run with it. So, they did and so it happened.


Upon the establishment of the United Nations, UN Secretary General Trgve Halvdan Lie selected Bunche to head up the UN decolonization processes as director of the decolonization programs. I would be extremely naïve to suggest that this role for Bunche and approach by the UN was favorably accepted and supported by principal black leaders at the time. Nevertheless, this was a part of Bunche’s developing diplomatic trademark, a principle of his life’s outlook on diplomatic negotiations have their place, or, as Bunche often put it, “change from within has more permanency and acceptance.”

The issue of Jewish populations forced out of Europe during and after WWII and return to Palestine presented new challenges to the UN to set up a Special Committee on Palestine and the issue of Federation or Separate States. Belgium’s Count Bernadotte’s murder as UN negotiator catapulted his deputy Ralph Bunche into the position as negotiator, where he successfully negotiated the first armistice between Israel and its four Arab neighbors: Syria, Lebanon, Trans Jordan and Egypt. For this, Ralph Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the first person of color, anywhere recognized with this honor.


The Soviets made loud noises in the UN complaining that under the leadership of Secretary General Trgve Lie, the UN was no more than an US international puppet. Trgve Lie was forced out and replaced by Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold who regarded Ralph Bunche as an equal. Hammarskjold considered Bunche as his chief trouble shooter and created the position of Under Secretary General for Special Political Affairs and assigned Sir Brian Urquhart as his deputy. Incidentally, today is Sir Brian’s 100th birthday and he sends his greetings to our gathering this evening.

Among Bunche’s tasks. UN Secretary General Hammarskjold , who had already included the UN program on the peaceful uses’ of atomic energy responsibility to Bunche, also gave Bunche the responsibility in 1956 to supervise the deployment of a 6000-man UN neutral force in the area of the Suez Canal following the invasion of that area by British, French, and Israeli troops. This was the beginning of the uses of such forces, with over 21 countries stepping up to the plate under the initial organizational structure under the guidance of Sir Brian Urquhart.


In 1960, Bunche was again in charge of UN peacekeeping forces in the Congo region as an extension of his already studious observations of European economic strangleholds on African resources for their economic survival.

In 1964, he again went to Cyprus to direct the UN 6000 troops to help settle the Greek Cypriot standoff with the Turks.


Needless to say, Bunche was subjected to domestic criticism for doing so much to address world affairs at the expense of not doing enough for racial strife in the homeland. It is not by accident that not only was Bunche front and center on the front line with Martin Luther Kling on the March from my childhood home of Selma Alabama to Montgomery Alabama. Also, he was present and accounted for as one of the key speakers during the March on Washington.

To the end, Bunche held very strongly to the position that change from within was much more permanent. In 1949, after Bunche’s successfully concluded Rhodes Treaty Negotiations, the New Amsterdam newspaper (a black news journal) asked him for his ten top New Year’s wishes for publication on New Year’s Day. His first wish was, “I would like for all Negroes to be more internationally aware and involved.”

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