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Documentary covers the extraordinary life of Ebenezer D. Bassett

Christopher Teal offers remarks during the 2017 Ebenezer D. Bassett Humanitarian Awards in October. (Photo by Bill Costen)

By Loretta Waldman

The name Ebenezer D. Bassett is a familiar one at CCSU, but the story of this remarkable alumnus is not widely known beyond campus. Christopher Teal, an American diplomat and the author of a 2008 biography of Bassett, is on a mission to change that.

Teal is working on a documentary that he hopes will introduce Bassett to a wider audience, especially young people. Bassett made CCSU history when, in 1852, he became the first African American to be admitted to what was then New Britain Normal School. He graduated a year later and, after a distinguished career in education, went on to become America’s first African American diplomat as the Minister Resident to Haiti. 

Teal, who took a year-long sabbatical to focus on the project, was in Connecticut last month to conduct interviews and shoot film in Derby, New Haven, and New Britain. He was also among the recipients of an Ebenezer D. Bassett Humanitarian Award, presented Oct. 16 as part of Ebenezer D. Bassett Day ceremonies on campus. On the final day of his four-day visit, Teal sat down to talk about the documentary, which he hopes to have released by 2019 — the 150th anniversary of Bassett’s appointment as a diplomat.

Teal’s interest in Bassett dates to the start of his 18-year diplomatic career and his very first assignment in the Dominican Republic. While visiting with the ambassador there, Teal noticed a picture of Frederick Douglass, next to which were the pictures of several African Americans who preceded him as US diplomats in Haiti.

“The first man was someone I knew nothing about,” Teal recalled. “I started to do a little investigating, but there wasn’t a lot of information in the Dominican Republic or Haiti. So I began to piece together information at the Library of Congress and the National Archives and working with historians here in Connecticut to put together the genealogy piece – his family history.”

It was at this point, Teal says, that he learned about Bassett being not only the first African American diplomat, but also the first African American who was admitted to and graduated from CCSU. As he uncovered those and other facts about Bassett, a picture of a heroic, extraordinary figure began to emerge.  

“I saw this story of someone who was a real groundbreaker in a lot of ways,” he said. “That just spurred my interest and led me to do more and more research and eventually the book came out of that and was published in 2008.”

When Bassett first arrived in Haiti, the island nation was in the midst of a civil war. His willingness to take refugees into his compound saved hundreds of lives, said Teal. When two men fleeing the leaders of the new Haitian government came knocking on his door at 2 a.m., Bassett took them in. By morning, 1,000 soldiers surrounded the compound, leading to a five-month siege of Bassett’s house. 

“I put myself into that situation, imagined myself as counsel general surrounded for five months by a hostile army,” Teal said. “He was not only able to deal with it and have himself and his own family be safe, but he was able to negotiate for their release and they were able to leave the country. I just saw the courage, the real leadership he exhibited. It’s been an inspiration to me and my work as a diplomat as well.”

The thought of making a documentary was always in the back of his mind, Teal said. The drama of war, conflict, and courage surrounding Bassett’s life are the kind of things you see in movies, he said. Add to that Bassett’s roughly four-decade friendship with Frederick Douglass, and you’ve got the makings of a great tale.

Bassett and Douglass are believed to have met at a rally in New Haven, but they stayed in touch when Bassett moved to Philadelphia. Douglass, the more senior of the two men, was something of a mentor to Bassett and advocated to have President Ulysses S. Grant appoint Bassett to the Minister Resident post in Haiti.

Teal credits Mary Mycek and Marian O’Keefe with the early research on Bassett that saved his story from obscurity. Both women, the town historian in Derby and a teacher/researcher respectively, were interviewed for the documentary as was William Fothergill, a counselor at CCSU and independent historian who has led the crusade to raise awareness about Bassett at CCSU. 

To produce the documentary, Teal has partnered with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, which has provided office space, a research assistant, and technical assistance. But the project is about more than making a movie, he says. His work includes helping teachers create lesson plans around Bassett’s life and legacy. He has also created a website where teachers can find materials on Bassett. Teal regularly writes articles about Bassett and speaks at forums and to school groups. His recent trip to Connecticut included a presentation at Shelton High School, where he spoke to about 400 11th-graders who are learning about local history.

“I’d really like to see how we can reach a wider and younger audience just by telling a good story. A good American story,” Teal said. “I don’t want the documentary to be strictly for somebody who wants to know more about diplomacy or who wants to know about African American history. It really is just a great, great story. One-hundred and fifty years later, the human rights issues and the war and peace issues are still really relevant. His leadership and his courage and issues of diversity in the foreign service is something that’s really relevant.”

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