Historical Markers
Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett (1833-1908) Historical Marker
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Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett (1833-1908)

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
2121 N 29th St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

"Your appointment is a grand achievement for yourself and for our whole people. It forms an important point in the history of our progress and upward tendency. I have no doubt you see the importance of your position. As you shall acquit yourself in it -wisely or otherwise, we shall be affected favorably or unfavorably."
                                                          - Frederick Douglass to Ebenezer D. C. Bassett, April 13, 1869

Wood engraving, head and shoulders.
Ebenezer D. Bassett, Minister Resident to Haiti, Harpers Magazine, May 1 1869....
In the spring of 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Philadelphia school principal Ebenezer D. C. Bassett (1833-1908) the new United States minister to Haiti. Since first establishing diplomatic relations with that nation in 1862, when the absence of Southern slaveholders in Congress permitted passage of a treaty establishing diplomatic relations with a republic founded by rebel ex-slaves in 1804, the United States had sent three ministers to Haiti. Bassett, however, was the first African American. Indeed, he was the first African American to serve as a U.S. diplomat anywhere, so as Douglass noted, his behavior in the post would be closely scrutinized.

In his eight years of service, Bassett served the nation ably, providing regular intelligence on political events in this highly unstable nation. For months he provided asylum to Haiti's deposed president by taking him into his own home. After his recall in 1879, Bassett moved to New York, where he served for the next nine years as the American consul general for Haiti, then returned briefly to Haiti as secretary for the new ambassador, Frederick Douglass.

African Americans heralded Bassett's appointment and other firsts, including P.B.S. Pinchback becoming governor of Louisiana in 1872, and Blanche Bruce of Mississippi being elected to the Senate in 1875, for they represented African Americans' move into government and politics during the era of Reconstruction, a time of new possibilities, optimism, and the hope that African Americans might at long last become public leaders in the American republic Bassett's successful service also opened the door for other African Americans in the diplomatic service, including four fellow Philadelphians, among them A.M.E. minister C.C. Astwood, who served as minister to the Dominican Republic, and John Smythe, who served as minister to Liberia.

Born in Connecticut to an escaped slave and an American Indian woman, Bassett in 1853 graduated from the State Normal School in Connecticut, then attended classes at Yale while serving as the principal of a public grammar school in New Haven. In 1855 he moved to Philadelphia and two years later became principal, teacher, and librarian of the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth (ICY). Founded by Quakers in 1842, the ICY (today's Cheney University) was one of the finest schools for African Americans in the country. Indeed, it would produce many of the city's black leaders for decades to come.

<i>Scene of the Shooting of Octavius V. Catto,</i> on October 10, 1871.
"Scene of the Shooting of Octavius V. Catto," from The Trial of Frank Kelly...
During the Civil War, Bassett helped raise troops for the Union army and became friends with celebrated black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. When Ulysses S. Grant took office as president in 1869 and was looking for an African American to appoint to minister to Haiti, Douglass recommended Bassett. (Douglass would soon regret his recommendation, wishing that he had taken the position and the substantial $7,500 a year salary that came with it.)

When Bassett left for Haiti in 1869, Philadelphia had the largest African-American population of any northern city. Four years after the end of the Civil War, however, African Americans lacked the legal right to vote there, or anywhere else in the state of Pennsylvania. After ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which prohibited governments from using race to bar a person from voting, the struggle to extend and exercise that right in the City of Brotherly Love was led by Bassett's successor as ICY principal, the dynamicmarker Octavius Catto. Catto's murder during the "Election Riots" of the 1871 election by a thug working for the Democratic Party boss outraged the city, opened the polls to African-Americans voters, and cemented their allegiance to the Republican Party.

 Head-and-shoulders portraits of Frederick Douglass, Robert Brown Elliott, Blanche K. Bruce, William Wells Brown, Md., Prof. R.T. Greener, Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, J.H. Rainey, E.D. Bassett, John Mercer Langston, P.B.S. Pinchback, and Henry Highland Garnet.
“Distinguished Colored Men,” Published by A. Muller & Co., New York,...
In the decades that followed, black Pennsylvanians struggled for political representation and the benefits that came with it, the most important of which were jobs. During the Gilded Age, Philadelphia exploded in size, and so did the government services provided by the city and the state. Federal and state jobs were controlled by Republican senator marker Simon Cameron,who used them to cement his political control of the state, and in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by new Republican city machines. Racism and their own small numbers limited the political gains that black Pennsylvanians made during their first decades of political enfranchisement. They did, however, press their struggle for political and civil rights, winning court decisions and legislation for the desegregation of marker the state's schools and public accommodations.

When Bassett returned to Philadelphia in the 1890s, the city had undergone revolutionary changes. In just over twenty years it had become an industrial powerhouse and its population had exploded from under 674,000 to more than one million people - almost one-fifth of all people in Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia's more than 22,000 African Americans represented less than 4 percent of the city's population.) Democrats' control had been replaced by an equally corrupt Republican city machine. Black voters, like their white counterparts, were divided into competing factions.

The most powerful black political leader was saloonkeeper Gil Ball, president of the Matthew S. Quay Club, who brought out the vote for the Republican machine candidates and dispensed the favors and services that only the Party could provide. The black Seventh Ward had four black councilmen (the number of black councilmen, however, would soon decrease to two for the whole city).

By the mid-1890s, more than 100 African Americans held steady, well-paying jobs, including more than forty policemen, the first thirty-five of whom had been appointed by the city's lone Democratic mayor, Samuel King, after his election in 1880. When Bassett died in 1908, however, no black Pennsylvanian had yet been elected to the state legislature -Harry Bass would be the first do so in 1910 - or served in Congress.
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