A committee of Central Connecticut State University faculty, staff, and local community members came together to celebrate and commemorate the life of Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett, the first African-American man to graduate from CCSU. Ebenezer Bassett was born in 1833 and enrolled in 1852 at what was then the Connecticut Normal School. He later went on to be the first African-American diplomat. “His life is full of triumphs. This is a Connecticut son, an alum of our institution. For us not to celebrate him, it would be a travesty,” said William Fothergill, head of the committee and an associate counselor at CCSU. The committee got October 16, 2014 recognized as Ebenezer D. Bassett Day in Connecticut. Fothergill also established and oversees the Ebenezer D. Bassett Student Achievement Award at CCSU, which recognizes the personal, professional, and scholastic achievement of male students at CCSU.
Bassett was by all accounts a remarkable man. He was humble, studious, highly educated, empathetic, and committed to living the values he espoused. He achieved great things both as a diplomat and later as a beloved teacher and school superintendent. “His life symbolizes opportunities. In a time period where blacks were not considered human beings, he was able to get a formal college education through individuals who believed in him as a person,” said Fothergill.
Ebenezer Bassett was born into an illustrious family from Derby, CT. His father Eben and grandfather Tobiah were both elected as Black Governors, a position within the black community whose duties included mediating disputes between African-Americans and between black and white communities. The diplomatic abilities of his forebears rubbed off on Bassett, who managed to flourish in his position as US ambassador to Haiti. At the time of Bassett’s appointment, Haiti was chaotic and had recently been rocked by revolution. Creating goodwill and normalizing relations between the US and Haiti would be a difficult job, but President Grant believed Bassett was the man to do it. “Bassett was unanimously selected. Even Southern legislators selected him. It speaks true about who he was and his abilities that he built that level of confidence,” said Fothergill.
Bassett already spoke French and taught himself Haitian Creole in order to become a more effective ambassador. During his tenure, he lobbied the US government to provide support and supplies for Haiti. He also stood up for Haitian independence as the United States mulled taking over the island nation. When Grant left the presidency Bassett resigned, as was customary for ambassadors of the time. Later, Bassett would return to Haiti as secretary to the new ambassador, Frederick Douglass. “Later in life he was selected again for a political post by the Haitian government because of their respect for him,” said Fothergill.
In between his assignments in Haiti, Bassett was a teacher and school superintendent. He taught at many schools including the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University, the oldest historically black institution of higher learning in the United States. After a year there he became principal. Bassett gained a reputation for being able to get through to students who were considered incorrigible or impossible to teach. During his time at Cheyney the Civil War broke out and Bassett became involved in recruitment drives for the Union Army and spoke out in favor of emancipation.
The committee hopes to establish a permanent memorial to Ebenezer Bassett on the CCSU campus. Dr. Kathy Hermes, chair of the Department of History at CCSU, is also a committee member. “Our department is committed to it and I think the administration has been committed to Bassett. There will be other memorials for him in the form of some kind of public space,” she said. There is already a banner celebrating Bassett on campus in addition to the award given out in his honor. Fothergill believes Bassett will be a continuous inspiration for CCSU students. “What [Ebenezer Bassett] says to our present students is ‘follow me.’ No matter how rich you are or what your race is or who your parents are, if opportunities are afforded you can rise to be a prominent person.”