Today’s post comes from John P. Blair with the National Archives History Office.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, arguably America’s most accomplished African American civil rights leader of the 19th century.
As we recognize the contributions of African Americans during Black History Month, we are reminded that on June 26, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglass to serve as the Minister Resident and Consul General of the United States to Haiti.
Douglass, the abolitionist, author, journalist, and social reformer, was born into slavery with the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey around the year 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. He chose the name Douglass following his first marriage and residence at New Bedford, Massachusetts.
His appointment as Minister in 1889 was not a first for African Americans. Republican Presidential administrations had appointed African Americans to serve at Port-au-Prince as a reward for black political support, and Douglass became the fourth black American to hold the position.
His predecessors included the very first African American diplomat, Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett (1869–77); future U.S. Representative from Virginia John Mercer Langston (1877–85); and one of New York City’s first black physicians, Dr. John Edward West Thompson (1885–89).
Nevertheless, Haiti was, as Douglass biographer William McFeeley wrote, “more than a diplomatic prize in the political spoils system.” For the United States it remained of crucial strategic importance in the time of coal-fired, steam-powered warships. For the nation’s African Americans, the island nation “symbolized the liberation and autonomy of black people.”
Learning of the appointment, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Governor of Massachusetts George S. Boutwell was “greatly pleased with the appointment” and contended that “with Douglas [sic] there would be integrity in action and accuracy in reports.”
Douglass arrived in Haiti to present his credentials and witness the swearing in of the country’s new President, Louis Mondestin Florvil Hyppolite. The former military general had overthrown the previous President, François Deny Légitime, who had been considered a political pawn of the French in the Caribbean.
Hyppolite’s ascension was due in part to the amount of American naval presence near Haiti. The strategic importance of the island had garnered this support from the United States and in return, the Harrison administration expected Hyppolite to repay this debt by successfully supporting the lease of Haitian territory at Môle St. Nicolas for a future American naval facility.
Douglass’s primary mission centered on obtaining approval of this plan from the new President and his government. U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Bancroft Gherardi, who had for years previously argued for a coaling station in Haiti, joined Douglass as co-negotiator.
Issues arose almost immediately.
Within two months of assuming his duties, Douglass learned of the presence of American naval officers scouting the conditions at Môle. This event, coupled with press coverage in the United States, prompted a rise in popular opinion against territorial concessions.
Hyppolite’s political enemies jumped to oppose any action by the President favorable to the United States. Nevertheless, in late January 1891, Douglass and Gherardi met with Hyppolite and his foreign minister, Anténor Firmin, and convinced them to approve the lease pending the approval of the legislative body.
A formal written application for the lease was submitted on February 2, yet the departure of President Hyppolite from Port-au-Prince to quell political opposition and the arrival of five more American warships ended the possibility of any agreement. In April Douglass cabled the State Department to report that Haiti has declined lease of the Môle.
Accepting the failure of the mission, Douglass applied for leave, yet remained in Port-au-Prince to assist in the protection of refugees from the “violent upheaval and ruthless suppression” brought forth by President Hyppolite’s military actions. Returning to the United States, Douglass resigned on July 31, 1891.
On February 20, 1895, Douglass died at home of a massive heart attack following a speech to the National Council of Women in Washington, DC. He is buried in Rochester, New York. He left a legacy of civil rights and public advocacy that endure to this day and whose abilities demonstrate the potential of the human spirit.
Visit the National Archives website for more information on our resources related to African American History.