African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy: From the Era of Frederick Douglass to the Age of Obama

African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy: From the Era of Frederick Douglass to the Age of Obama

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Bookended by remarks from African American diplomats Walter C. Carrington and Charles Stith, the essays in this volume use close readings of speeches, letters, historical archives, diaries, and memoirs of policymakers and newly available FBI files to confront much-neglected questions related to race and foreign relations in the United States. Why, for instance, did African Americans profess loyalty and support for the diplomatic initiatives of a nation that undermined their social, political, and economic well-being through racist policies and cultural practices? Other contributions explore African Americans' history in the diplomatic and consular services and the influential roles of cultural ambassadors like Joe Louis and Louis Armstrong. The volume concludes with an analysis of the effects on race and foreign policy in the administration of Barack Obama.
Groundbreaking and critical, African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy expands on the scope and themes of recent collections to offer the most up-to-date scholarship to students in a range of disciplines, including U.S. and African American history, Africana studies, political science, and American studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252080418
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/30/2015
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,214,400
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Allison Blakely is Professor Emeritus of History at Boston University. Linda Heywood is a professor of African American studies and history at Boston University and author of Contested Power in Angola: 1840s to the Present. Charles Stith is an adjunct professor of international relations and director of the African Presidential Center at Boston University, and the author of Political Religion. Joshua C. Yesnowitz has been a lecturer in American politics and research methods at Boston University and Suffolk University.

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African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy

From the Era of Frederick Douglass to the Age of Obama

By Linda Heywood, Allison Blakely, Charles Stith, Joshua C. Yesnowitz


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09683-9


Blacks in the U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Services, 1869–1924


The spectacular appointments of two successive black secretaries of state at the turn of the twenty-first century was an almost startling occurrence that for most of the public, both in the United States and abroad, first brought awareness of a significant role of blacks in the diplomatic service. A full century earlier black Americans were playing a very conspicuous part during the formative period of the U.S. Foreign Service, however, and these grand achievements at the dawn of the twenty-first century cannot be fully understood nor appreciated without knowledge of this earlier history. To its credit, the U.S. Department of State was the first major government department to appoint blacks to positions of prestige during the period from the Civil War to the 1920s, when more than sixty African Americans were appointed to diplomatic, consular, or commercial agency positions. In addition to such well-known historical actors as Frederick Douglass, John Mercer Langston, and James Weldon Johnson, those appointed included a host of other, similarly talented figures whose careers have gone unnoticed by later generations, including Richard T. Greener, John L. Waller, and Mifflin W. Gibbs, whose careers I give special attention to in the present chapter. A close look at this fascinating saga (one that still awaits comprehensive scholarly treatment) reveals that this practice, which was undeniably progressive for its time, nevertheless reflected the pervasive racism that was distinctly characteristic of that period of American history. Moreover, the frequency of such appointments showed a direct correlation to the varying interest of the two major political parties, particularly the Republican Party, in wooing the newly enfranchised black electorate. In this regard a telling statistic is that in 1880 there were four black consuls serving, in 1905 the number peaked at seventeen, and in 1920 there were only three. One likely influence on these appointments was the growing disenfranchisement of blacks, the majority of whom still resided in the South, as the Jim Crow system tightened its grip.

A Convergence of State Needs and African American Aspirations

Before the U.S. Foreign Service was formally created and professionalized by the Rogers Act of 1924, which combined the existing diplomatic and consular services and set up a stricter standard examination system, foreign service positions were filled by presidential appointments. This arrangement provided blacks entrée into high-level political appointments that could at times cut through the prevailing strictures of the racial hierarchy still governing American society. It should also be noted, however, that both official and private correspondence related to the subject of assignment of posts makes it abundantly clear that certain regions were designated as "Negro posts." Thus, by far the majority of the assignments for blacks were in Africa, especially Liberia, and in the Caribbean and South America, with roughly a third of the assignments falling in Liberia alone and a fourth in Haiti or Santo Domingo. Although whites were also assigned to these posts at times, both of the political parties in power tended to honor the color designation. For example, when in 1885 the newly elected Democratic administration refused to allow George Washington Williams (1849–1891) to assume the post of minister to Haiti, even after Senate approval and a commission from the State Department, President Grover Cleveland nominated John Edward Thompson, who thereby succeeded John Mercer Langston in that country. From the late 1890s until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington played a key role in preserving this type of racial preference. Favored by the white establishment as a black leader because of his relatively conservative stance on civil rights, he often had dominant influence in advising both presidents and other powerful political figures on which blacks to reward with government appointments in general. The depth of his involvement in such matters was such that much of the history surrounding the present topic could be written simply by exploiting his voluminous correspondence, which is now available to researchers in the invaluable multivolume related works by the eminent historian Louis Harlan. That such appointments of blacks to consular and diplomatic posts should not be mistaken as clear signs of progress in race relations is evident in the following internal exchange within the State Department regarding the appointment of George Washington Ellis (1875–1919):

Memorandum, July 3, 1907

Mr. Dean:

There is nothing to do but transfer him to the consular service if we want to keep him. Would he be better than some new coon?

R. B. [Robert Bacon]

Memorandum, July 10, 1907

Dear Mr. Carr:

With the possibility of two additional colored brethren coming into the service as a result of the examination do you think it would be desirable to consider transferring Mr. Ellis from the diplomatic to the consular service, and if so where could we send him?

C.R.D. [Dean]

Dear Mr. Dean:

I doubt whether we shall be able to pass more than one colored brethren (adopting your very courteous term), and I think it probable that Ellis could be transferred to the consular service if in making up the list we can find a place for him. Wouldn't he have to be examined?

W.T.C. [Carr]

July 12, 1907 [Alvey A. Adee to Congressman Charles F. Scott]

The Department is in receipt of your letter of June 25, in which you suggest the desirability, if practical, of transferring Mr. George W. Ellis, now Secretary of Legation at Monrovia, Liberia to some other post. I do not know that this can be done, but the matter will have careful consideration. You undoubtedly appreciate that there are difficulties in the way of finding a post where he would be acceptable on account of his race.

A telling commentary on the status of blacks in the service is the fact that Ellis, who was already a respected lawyer and sociologist, never rose beyond his initial rank of secretary of the legation in his eight years of service in Monrovia. Nevertheless, despite the concept of "Negro posts" and a generally low esteem among State Department officials for black officers, other scattered postings spanned the globe, including John Quarles's service in Spain from 1877 to 1880; Richard Greener in Russia at Vladivostok, 1898–1905, and Ivan Smit at Libau in 1908; Mifflin Gibbs and William Henry Hunt in Madagascar, 1897–1901; James G. Carter in Madagascar from 1906 to 1916, in Turkey in 1916, and in France from 1927 to 1940; Hunt in France from 1906 to 1926; Edward B. Cipriani in Wales, England, and Scotland from 1919 to 1921; and Whitney Young in Kobe, Japan, from 1926 to 1929 (and later, beyond the period under review here, in Yokohama in 1932, and in Tientsin, China, in 1938). Regarding these early U.S. consuls and diplomats collectively, it is particularly striking how impressive some of their performance was and how seldom it seemed to be appropriately acknowledged or rewarded. Here it should also be kept in mind that great sacrifice and considerable danger often accompanied the honor these appointments conveyed.

While their white patrons may have considered African Americans more resistant to West Africa's deadly fevers, a number of appointees nevertheless succumbed to them, and others developed chronic illnesses. The very first appointed, Ebenezer Bassett, whom President Ulysses S. Grant appointed minister to Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1869, died in 1908 but had experienced frequent illnesses associated with malaria or dengue that were first contracted during his initial appointment there. He had also served as consul general for Haiti in New York from 1879 to 1888. Richard Greener was originally appointed to serve in Bombay rather than at the post he finally assumed in Vladivostok, but he had declined to go to India after receiving reports that the bubonic plague was raging there. Health risks continued on into the twentieth century. Ellis suffered from frequent illness throughout his stay in Liberia. His successor there, William D. Crum, served only from 1910 to 1912 and died back home in Charleston, South Carolina, of "African fever," despite his being a physician. An editorial in the New York Age even observed that there seemed to be a pattern of such deaths among black diplomats.

Another among the consuls who were also physicians was Henry W. Furniss (1868–1955), who served in Brazil from 1898 to 1905 and in Haiti from 1905 to 1913. In a letter to Congressman James W. Overstreet he reported that the unhealthy conditions there had resulted in his contracting both yellow and black water fever, leaving him with a chronic liver problem. (A daughter-in-law in the United States later reported that late in his life he showed her a cigar box with kidney stones he had passed over the years.) Furniss conveyed this information to the congressman as part of his ongoing plea for a more commensurate salary, pointing out that his pay was several times lower than that of his peers there representing other countries. Despite such risks, foreign service was very attractive to African Americans of talent and ambition, and some were extraordinarily persistent in seeking posts abroad, especially beyond Africa and the Americas, but had very limited success in the latter regard.

An especially poignant illustration of the determination of some to serve is that of George Washington Williams, best known for his pioneering contributions as a historian. His History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1882, was the first scholarly history on this subject by anyone; it was followed in 1887 by Harper's publication of Williams's History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion. His fondest aspiration, however, was to pursue a political career. This nearly came to fruition when President Harrison appointed him minister to Haiti in 1885, but, as noted earlier, he was denied the position by the new Democratic administration. Returning to Boston, where he had been practicing law, he began to pursue his interests in international relations on his own. His attendance at the World Conference on Foreign Missions in London in 1884 and subsequent travels to Europe led him to promote his ideas about the future of Africa. He did so through published articles and a personal tour of four months in the Congo, which he undertook notwithstanding being urged not to go by King Leopold of Belgium, whom he had met during his European travels. In fact in his "Open Letter to His Serene Majesty, Leopold II, King of the Belgians," he directly criticized the king for inhumane treatment of the Congolese people. Other related articles followed, including "Report upon the Congo-State and Country to the President of the Republic of the United States" and "Report on the Proposed Congo Railway." He also visited Portuguese and British possessions in Africa and spent several weeks in Egypt. He had other research and writing in progress when illness led to his untimely death in England in 1891.

Williams thus exhibited the main characteristics common to all the black consuls and diplomats discussed in this chapter: outstanding talent and unbridled ambition. These attributes are sharply reflected in their success in multiple careers. While the main interest here is in their roles in U.S. foreign policy, these were generally highly trained professionals at a time when relatively few of their fellow black Americans were well educated at all. During other phases of their careers they were educators, journalists, lawyers, doctors, politicians, businessmen, and clergymen. One can scarcely conceive of any other grouping of blacks during the half century under discussion that would reveal so many individuals who broke the color barrier by being the "first" in various fields. They were shining exemplars of commitment not only to the "American dream" in terms of their personal aspirations but often as well to the embryonic American imperialism emerging in some aspects of their government's foreign policy. There is more than a little irony in the fact that some of them, though certainly not all, also largely shared the popular perception of Africa and Africans as uncivilized and inferior in culture. Even on the domestic scene some shared the dominant white class and color prejudices regarding the socially constructed "racial" class that they were viewed as being part of. In the era of Booker T. Washington's strongest influence, those successful in gaining his support for appointment were also more likely to ascribe to his conservative political and social views than to the more radical demands for equality being asserted most fiercely by W.E.B. Du Bois.

The Correlation between Qualifications, Performance, and Recognition

The ways in which the lives of these black elites brought them to the U.S. Foreign Service and what they brought of value to the service can best be appreciated by a closer look at a few of them who left extensive informative records. Among the best examples in that respect is Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823–1915), whose life included a remarkable number of different careers and lasted into his ninety-third year. Born in 1823 in Philadelphia, his first occupation, at the age of sixteen, was as a carpenter's apprentice, which led to his becoming a journeyman contractor on his own. Meanwhile he gained literacy through a local black men's literary society. Eventually he became active in the Underground Railroad movement with William Still and others, and in 1849 he accompanied Frederick Douglass on a dangerous abolitionist speaking tour in western New York. Upon receiving word the next year of the gold rush in California, he sailed west as a steerage passenger. When racism in San Francisco prevented him from working as a carpenter, he became a partner in a clothing import firm that did so well that his new status allowed him to become a civic leader and a member of state Negro conventions in 1854, 1855, and 1857. He was later prominent at national-level Negro conventions. He was also co-owner and editor of an abolitionist newspaper, The Mirror of the Times. In 1858 he moved to British Columbia after gold was discovered there, set up a new store for his firm, and again prospered, well enough to invest in real estate on the side. By 1866 he and his wife, Maria A. Alexander, were settled in Victoria with their five children, and he had been elected to two terms on the city's Common Council, became director of the Queen Charlotte Island Coal Company, and began studying law on the side.


Excerpted from African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy by Linda Heywood, Allison Blakely, Charles Stith, Joshua C. Yesnowitz. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Preface: Reflections of a Black Ambassador Walter C. Carrington ix

Introduction 1

Part I Early African American Diplomatic Appointments: Contributions and Constraints

1 Blacks in the U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Services, 1869-1924 Allison Blakeiy 13

2 A New Negro Foreign Policy: The Critical Vision of Alain Locke and Ralph Bunche Jeffrey C. Stewart 30

3 Carl Rowan and the Dilemma of Civil Rights, Propaganda, and the Cold War Michael L. Krenn 58

Part II African American Participation in Foreign Affairs through Civil Society: Religious, Military, and Cultural Institutions in Foreign Policy

4 Reconstruction's Revival: The Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention and the Roots of Black Populist Diplomacy Brandi Hughes 83

5 White Shame/Black Agency: Race as a Weapon in Post-World War I Diplomacy Vera Ingrid Grant 109

6 Goodwill Ambassadors: African American Athletes and U.S. Cultural Diplomacy, 1947-1968 Damion Thomas 129

7 The Paradox of Jazz Diplomacy: Race and Culture in the Cold War Lisa Davenport 140

Part III The Advent of the Age of Obama: African Americans and the Making of American Foreign Policy

8 African American Representatives in the United Nations: From Ralph Bunche to Susan Rice Lorenzo Morris 177

9 Obama, African Americans, and Africans: The Double Vision Ibrahim Sundiata 200

Epilogue: The Impact of African Americans on U.S. Foreign Policy Charles R. Stith 213

Contributors 225

Index 231

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