Frederick Douglass and a Diplomacy of Blackness

*This post is part of the online forum on The Futures of Frederick Douglass. The contributions in this forum each highlight innovative approaches to the study of Douglass’s life and works.

The Santo Domingo Expedition – Address By Frederick Douglass (House Divided Project, Flickr).

Frederick Douglass belonged to an exclusive cohort of African American diplomats posted across the Caribbean at the end of the nineteenth century. These pioneers of Black diplomacy were forced to counterbalance historic achievement in race relations with the unenviable responsibility of representing the racist interests of American leadership. Douglass’s relentless campaigns in the late 1860s for the liberation and enfranchisement of Black people helped stoke the urgency with which American leaders transitioned from endorsing the ownership of Black bodies as white property, to abolishing slavery, to ratifying Black people as citizens through the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. A year after the amendment went into effect, Ulysses S. Grant appointed Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett as the Minister Resident to Haiti, the first Black person to represent a U.S. president in a foreign capital. Swift transformation in domestic race relations, however, did not indicate a smooth transition in American foreign affairs.

Reconstruction-era diplomacy with Caribbean nations was filled with racialized motivations and imperialistic problems. Frederick Douglass—unsurprisingly—found himself embroiled in some of the more controversial incidents. Prior to official postings, his overseas experience generally involved fundraising and promoting transatlantic abolitionism with European sympathizers. As a U.S. official in the Caribbean, Douglass undertook a diplomacy of Blackness, negotiating as a Black man within a white American-dominated system to realize mutual interests of Black people across the Atlantic world. His diplomacy was an important symbol of Black achievement and remains an indispensable subject for U.S. diplomatic historians and scholars of Diasporic and African American studies. Contemporary evaluations of his contributions to U.S. foreign affairs were mixed, and the historical view of his multifaceted endeavors remains complicated.

The most famous speech Douglass ever gave on U.S. diplomacy did not occur in the place with which his words are commonly associated. He delivered the “Lecture on Haiti” in 1893 in association with the opening of the Haitian Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition, or the World’s Fair, in Chicago. The symbolic importance surrounding the inclusion of the Haitian Pavilion in the fairgrounds, which took on the name “White City,” has garnered its own historical conversation. Haitian organizers named Frederick Douglass as commissioner of the exhibit in honor of his diplomatic tenure in Port-au-Prince.

With snow on the ground and the chilly temperatures of a Chicago January day, Douglass dedicated the Pavilion with cordial remarks about Haiti’s deserved place within the community of nations. But, for his more famous, scathing critique of racist U.S. diplomacy toward Haiti, Douglass found strength and support within Chicago’s vibrant Black activist community. Quinn Chapel is an African Methodist Episcopal Church that played a significant role in the abolitionist movement. The church’s history led famous orators, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King Jr., to spread their messages of freedom and justice from its pulpit.

Douglass’s foreign policy address was powerful, racial, political, historical, and instructional. To a crowd of 1,500 people, Douglass laid out his case for the importance of Haiti to the United States and the world, and to Black people in particular. He reminded the listeners of the enmity white American political leaders held toward the Haitian state and its people dating back to their emancipation and independence struggles with France during the Haitian Revolution. To sustained applause of acknowledgement and appreciation, Douglass explained succinctly why the United States government had not recognized Haiti as a sister republic until 1862—despite the country’s independence in 1804—and why bilateral relations had remained hostile since. “Haiti is Black,” he told the assemblage, “and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being Black or forgiven the Almighty for making her Black.”1

The 1893 speech came two years after Douglass resigned his post as U.S. Minister Resident and Consul General in Port-au-Prince. President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglass to the post in 1889. In that same year, Florvil Hyppolite became president of Haiti, with Anténor Firmin serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs.2 Douglass’s appointment, and his potential collaboration with a noted intellectual like Firmin, could have yielded important strides in Haitian-American diplomacy and Black Atlantic cooperation. But, as in many cases of Haitian-American relations, Douglass’s tenure in Haiti represented an unfortunate case of what could have been.

U.S. imperialistic ambitions in Haiti and the United States’s racist view of the Caribbean undermined the goodwill and potential of Douglass’s mission. The Harrison administration coveted Môle-Saint-Nicolas, on Haiti’s northwest coast, as an American naval base. U.S. Government officials understood Douglass’s fame and stature among people of color across the Atlantic world. They sought to exploit his well-earned trust among Caribbean people of color in order to achieve their racialized diplomatic goals. Scholars such as Claire Bourhis-Mariotti question whether Douglass was naïve regarding U.S. Government intentions, or whether Douglass accepted exploitation to carry out his Black Atlantic objectives.3

Two decades before his arrival in Port-au-Prince, a president leveraged Douglass’s reputation as a champion for Black people to lend credibility to an expansionist ploy to acquire Caribbean territory. In 1871, two years after the historic appointment of Douglass’s friend Bassett to Haiti, President Grant tapped the nation’s most famous Black man to act as an assistant secretary on a commission of white American men dispatched to study the prospect of annexing the Dominican Republic (then Santo Domingo). Douglass’s acceptance of the nomination placed him at odds with an abolitionist ally, Senator Charles Sumner, who opposed Grant’s plan. Southern newspapers featured Douglass’s commission post to highlight the rift between three reviled enemies (Grant, Douglass, Sumner) of the former Confederate states. One quoted Douglass, because of the discord, labeling Sumner as “the worst foe of the colored race has on this continent.”4 Despite his antipathy to U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean, Douglass supported Grant’s errant foreign policy in the (misguided) hope that the Republican government, which had accomplished much for Black Americans, would offer equality and advancement to Dominicans. His most important contributions to the Commission were the sketch of him printed across the front page of Frank Leslie’s Weekly speaking to African American emigrants to the Dominican Republic and his speeches in multiple Black churches endorsing the plan.5 In the end, the annexation scheme failed. But Douglass’s participation on the commission offered Black legitimacy to an imperialist scheme of Caribbean subjugation. It also sanctioned the white American press narrative that Haiti’s Black people were unable to govern themselves. According to one newspaper, “The Commission, even to Fred. Douglass, pronounces the Haytian Republic a complete failure.”6

In 1889, the bitter lessons of U.S. diplomacy in the Dominican Republic prompted consternation when Douglass was nominated for the ministerial post in Haiti. Black Americans feared (correctly) that President Benjamin Harrison wanted to use Douglass’s stature to oppress the Haitian people. White Americans who disagreed with Douglass’s interracial marriage to Helen Pitts suggested (incorrectly) that Haitians would reject the couple. The U.S. administration and Douglass held divergent objectives in Haiti. Harrison wanted Douglass to persuade Hippolyte and Firmin to cede Môle-Saint-Nicolas to the United States. Douglass, on the other hand, arrived in Port-au-Prince prepared to communicate Haiti’s successes to the American public and to offer ideas to Haitian officials on good governance.

Douglass linked the success of Haiti to the advancement of African Americans. In terms of their portrayal to the white American public, Douglass saw little difference between Haitians and African Americans. When Haitians succeeded, African Americans could claim the achievements as their own. Likewise, when Haitians failed, African Americans suffered the scorn of racist beliefs about Black people as unfit for democratic governance.

Harrison severely wounded Douglass’s mission when he dispatched Admiral Bancroft Gherardi, a naval commander, to intimidate Haitian officials regarding Môle-Saint-Nicolas. Diplomatic bullying was not a new tactic for Americans in the Caribbean. For over fifty years, to achieve objectives in the region, the U.S. Navy deployed armed ships offshore while officials “talked.” But bolstered by Haiti’s long history of resistance, Hippolyte and Firmin did not surrender Môle-Saint-Nicolas. And in an ironic twist to Douglass’s logic of transatlantic Blackness, when the Haitians succeeded in defending their sovereignty against an aggressive US administration, the white American press deemed the Black people’s champion to be a failed diplomat.

Douglass resigned his diplomatic post after two years and returned home. Douglass’s fight to support and to sustain Haitian sovereignty against racist, white American policies dated back over four decades to 1848. In reporting and editorials for the North Star Douglass had excoriated U.S. attempts to undermine Haitian independence and stability. Therefore, it should not have been altogether surprising for administration officials that he would not abet their efforts to coerce Black leaders into relinquishing sovereign territory.

The 1893 speech at Quinn Chapel, therefore, can be viewed as a final act in a diplomacy of Blackness with Haiti. In it, Douglass placed the blame for tense-to-hostile Haitian-American relations where it belonged: at the feet of racist U.S. foreign policy. Douglass’s effort in the services of American diplomacy encountered successes and disappointments for the African diaspora. Yet, he affirmed to the Chicago crowd, “the people of Haiti, by reason of ancestral identity, are more interesting to the colored people of the United States than to all others . . .  No matter where prosperity or misfortune may chance to drive the negro, he is identified with and shares the fortune of his race.”7 Frederick Douglass reiterated the bonds of triumph over suffering and his enduring belief in the connectedness between the lives of Black people across the Atlantic world.

  1.  Frederick Douglass, Lecture on Haiti: The Haitian Pavilion Dedication Ceremonies Delivered at the World’s Fair, in Jackson Park, Chicago, Jan. 2d, 1893 (Chicago: Violet Agents Supply Co., 1893), 9.
  2. Brandon Byrd, “Frederick Douglass, Haiti, and Diplomacy,” Black Perspectives, February 11, 2017.
  3.  Claire Bourhis-Mariotti, L’union fait la force. Les Noirs américains et Haïti, 1804-1893 (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015), 168-70.
  4.  “Sumner Repudiated by Fred. Douglass,” Richmond Whig (Richmond, VA), April 4, 1871.
  5.  “The Santo Domingo Commission,” Frank Leslie’s Weekly (New York), March 11, 1871; Millery Polyné, “Expansion Now!: Haiti, ‘Santo Domingo,’ and Frederick Douglass at the Intersection of U.S. and Caribbean Pan-Americanism,” Caribbean Studies 34, no. 2 (2006): 20.
  6.  “Letters from Santo Domingo,” Farmers’ Cabinet (Amherst, NH), March 23, 1871.
  7.  Douglass, Lecture on Haiti, 26.
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Ronald Angelo Johnson

Ronald Angelo Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Texas State University. He is a historian of the early United States. He is the author of 'Diplomacy in Black and White: John Adams, Toussaint Louverture, and Their Atlantic World Alliance' (University of Georgia Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @RonAJohnson.

Comments on “Frederick Douglass and a Diplomacy of Blackness

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    Nice piece, Professor Johnson – thank you for writing it and making it available here!

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