Ronald Angelo Johnson on Frederick Douglass and a Diplomacy of BlacknessHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Ronald Angelo Johnson, Frederick Douglas
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.
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.
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