US State Department public historian provides lecture on diplomatic career of Frederick Douglass at MTSU

Photo and story by Daniel Shaw-Remeta / Contributing Writer

Alison Mann, a public historian with the U.S. State Department, gave a lecture on famed 19th-century author and activist Frederick Douglass Wednesday in the Paul W. Martin Sr. Honors Building.

She discussed Douglass’s diplomatic career and mentioned a few historically significant events in his life that she believes don’t typically get covered in the history taught about Douglass.

“Today, we’re going to be talking about the diplomatic career of Frederick Douglass,” Mann said at the beginning of her lecture. “If you go through any history book, Frederick Douglass is pretty much gone by the end of the Civil War. You don’t really hear much about him, but he was around for another 40 years, doing a lot of stuff.”

Mann’s discussion revolved around Douglass’s diplomatic presence as the general council minister to Haiti and as a U.S. minister, and she provided historical context for some of the diplomatic issues he faced. Appointed in 1889 by President Benjamin Harrison, Douglass faced the task of trying to secure a lease for a U.S. coaling station from the Haitian government.

He knows that his sole mission here is to negotiate a lease with the Haitian government for a port called the Mole St. Nicolas,” Mann said. “At this point, Haiti has underwent another political revolution, and they have a new president, (Florvil) Hyppolite. He and Douglass establish an excellent relationship, and so Hyppolite and his foreign minister are talking to Douglass every day. They are working out this lease, and it looks like it’s a done deal.”

Mann explained how things began to turn quickly because Douglass hadn’t secured a deal after being in Haiti for about four months. The American press began to write pieces, which questioned his loyalty to the United States and undermined his diplomatic work in Haiti. In a firm push to obtain a port on the coast of Haiti, the U.S. sent Admiral Bancroft Gherardi, the commander in chief of the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Fleet, to Haiti in a warship to interfere and take over negotiations for the port.

“What do you do when your own country is sabotaging what you’re trying to do?” Mann said. “He knows he’s making in-roads. He knows he can make this deal, and his own country is sabotaging his efforts. That’s the way he see’s it. So, he decides he’s going to stay and do damage control.”

Mann said that it was an event in history when the U.S. decided to take military action when diplomacy was needed. Mann explained that Admiral Gherardi was unable to make the deal for the lease of the U.S coaling station, and ultimately, Douglass took the blame from the American press. She also discussed some of the writing Douglass did after his diplomatic efforts in Haiti, and she mentioned that he was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage.

Mann’s visit to campus was a part of a series of events to promote careers with the U.S. State Department among students interested in diplomacy. Her visit included a crisis simulation activity and a presentation on careers, internships and fellowships prior to her presentation on Frederick Douglass.

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