Husband And Wife Duo Paved The Way For Blacks In Diplomacy

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Tell Me More continues its Black History Month series with a conversation with Adele Logan Alexander. Alexander is professor of history at George Washington University and a member of the National Council on the Humanities. She's also author of "Parallel Worlds," a new book that details the lives of married couple William Henry Hunt and Ida Gibbs Hunt. William Henry Hunt was the first African-American to have a complete career in U.S. diplomacy; Ida Gibbs Hunt was an intellectual on world issues.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, tips on how to get your car unstuck from the snow. I know, I know -this is old news to some. But some of us need that refresher course. So we'll have that for you in just a few minutes. But first, we have another conversation from our Black History Month series. We've been focusing on new news about black history: scholarship and information that has emerged in recent decades and that most people know a little about.

Here to tell us one of those little-known stories is Adele Logan Alexander. She's professor of history at George Washington University and a member of the National Council on the Humanities. She's also author of "Parallel Worlds," a new book that details the lives of William Henry Hunt and Ida Gibbs Hunt. He was the first African-American to serve a complete career in U.S. diplomacy. Now, that might not seen like a big deal now that the country has its first African-American president, is currently represented at the United Nations by an African-American woman and has seen not one, but two African-Americans in charge of the State Department. But William Henry Hunt, along with his wife Ida Hunt, got his start in diplomacy back in 1898.

Here to tell us more is Professor Adele Logan Alexander. Professor Alexander, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Professor ADELE LOGAN ALEXANDER (History, George Washington University; Member, National Council on the Humanities): Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How did you become aware of this story?

Prof. ALEXANDER: I first became aware of this story back some 25 years ago when I was doing research in a course in international diplomacy, U.S. diplomacy at Howard University. And I wrote a long seminar paper on black women as internationalists, which was something that I didn't know anything about and nobody had ever written about. So I came across Ida Gibbs Hunt at that point. And her husband, William Henry Hunt, who, as you said, was the first African-American who had a full career with the State Department, was a remarkable person, and we don't know anything about them. But marvelously, there's lot of information about these folks out there.

They did writings of all sorts. There were family members, had relationships with people that we do know a lot about, like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, as well, of course, as people in the State Department.

MARTIN: So how did William Henry Hunt and Ida Gibbs meet?

Prof. ALEXANDER: William Hunt and Ida Gibbs - as she was at that time - met in Minnesota, of all places, in the early 1880s. And she was there because her sister was a concert pianist and her father was a remarkable man whose name was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, who was one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the country at the time. And ultimately, in the late 1890s, he - because he was active in the Republican Party, he received an appointment to be sent to Madagascar as our U.S. counsel there. And Ida, who had met this charming young man some years before, said, hey dad, why don't you take my friend along with you?

And so William Henry Hunt first went to Madagascar as the clerk, which shows us once again how important these links of family and friendship are. And that's one of the things that I think is absolutely fascinating about - particularly about these early African-American lives, where those who had some education, who had opportunities were really a very small group. And they tended to know each other. But it's a fascinating group, as well.

MARTIN: And I have to ask you a question, which might be a delicate one for some people, which is these were both very light-skinned people.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Yes.

MARTIN: And, you know, this is an issue which has kind of newly surfaced because of, you know, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's comments about Senator Obama, or rather President Obama's complexion. But I do want to ask whether these two people moved in the world as African-Americans, or were they seen as white? Were they passing?

Prof. ALEXANDER: I am convinced, and many other sources that I quote in this book are convinced that one of the reasons he lasted so long with the State Department was that they really weren't quite 100 percent sure. But one of the tricky points with this comes when what do you do when people simply assume in a world where you don't think in the middle of France, where certainly the local people didn't run into African-Americans all of that time - here is this sophisticated man, here is this consul who likes to do sporting things and ride horses and eat fine food and wine. He is not part of their image of what a black man is supposed to be. And, of course, in France a lot of the things that black people were pictured as had to do with their colonial visions, and they didn't fit this picture.

MARTIN: So Don't Ask Don't Tell pretty much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALEXANDER: I think Don't Ask Don't Tell may be a very - a very apt metaphor for this.

MARTIN: So before we get to Ida - tell us about his postings. Tell me, where did he serve?

Prof. ALEXANDER: He served in Madagascar and then he was sent to and lived and worked in central France for 20 years. Then he was very, very disappointed after that because he was sent to Guadalupe, a quote-unquote "black posting." But then from there he went to Portuguese Azores.

But the place where most African-Americans went, were sent by the State Department because they thought it was an appropriate place to send black people, was to Liberia. And that was, except for a few months' final assignment back here in Washington, that was where he spent the last two years of his diplomatic career, and that was in the early 1930s.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Adele Logan Alexander. She is the author of "Parallel Worlds." It's about William Henry Hunt. He's the first African-American to have a complete career in U.S. diplomacy. It's also a story his wife, Ida Hunt, who had a fascinating life in her own right.

And so tell us about Ida Gibbs. And

Prof. ALEXANDER: Ida

MARTIN: Ida Alexander Gibbs and why was - why was it important to tell her story as well?

Prof. ALEXANDER: I felt that these two people were remarkably well-matched. Not 100 percent compatible with each other at all times, but of course we all understand that. But they kind of had equal weight. She started out at going to Oberlin. And Oberlin was the first school in the country that accepted African-Americans and also put men and women on a fairly equal standing.

And she graduated in 1884, and she took these what was called the gentleman's course, not the two year ladies' course, but the gentlemen's course, and she graduated with another two other women, and all three of these women who were most likely the - we think that only two African-American women before them had ever graduated from a four-year college.

MARTIN: Wow. And she was a teacher. She was a very highly regarded teacher.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And she had to quit her job upon marriage.

Prof. ALEXANDER: She had to quit her job, believe it or not, until I believe it was 1920 or thereabouts the public school system in Washington, D.C. insisted that married women leave their jobs. They were not considered to be appropriate teachers for the young. This didn't have anything to do with either the black schools or the white schools, it's not to do with race. This had to do with sex and gender.

MARTIN: What was her role while her husband was pursuing his diplomatic career? What role did she play?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, she was - she was very active with women's groups back in the United States. But certainly her most significant institutional role was as a probably the most important sidekick the W.E.B. DuBois in the Pan-African Congresses that he arranged in the capitals of Europe, right - starting right after the First World War. So, that was her main - one of her main activities in 1919 through 1925. And she raised money for him and she organized these -these meetings and she ran his offices and she had really quite wonderful spats with him through her letters.

And so she was a significant thinker in terms of Pan-Africanism - Pan-Africanism being the idea that somehow there's sort of an ancestral home, not that your ancestral home is necessarily any place that you want to go and live in Africa, but there were common cultural things that all people of Africa, in the African Diaspora, interests that they might have in common.

MARTIN: Again, this is quite remarkable because here was a time in which the images that many people are having of Africa are coming from Tarzan - you know, it's just - there is not a lot of understanding and awareness of Africa as a desirable place, as a place of civilization, as a place of - where there's anything desirable about the culture. So for someone to say that there are something to study, learn from, organize around. So if

Prof. ALEXANDER: No, it is quite - it's quite remarkable.

MARTIN: Quite amazing.

Prof. ALEXANDER: And of course there are a series of American Pan-Africanists who take all kinds of incarnations. They are the - you know, the Garveys and his Back to Africa movement, there are black American missionaries, there are people who think of Africa as sort of a cultural homeland, and probably the -at the heart of is there an African homeland would be the experience of Liberia, and she lived in Liberia for some time.

MARTIN: What were their lives after they retired from diplomatic service?

Prof. ALEXANDER: They lived in a wonderful home over in Foggy Bottom, and William Henry Hunt attended the Black Episcopal Church in that area. And she had lots of friends from her, you know, the Dunbar teaching crowd, those wonderful women who taught at Dunbar, and

MARTIN: This is a very - well, I would say famous high school in Washington, D.C. area...

Prof. ALEXANDER: Absolutely famous.

MARTIN: ...for those who are not aware, and just known a center of learning and support for young African-American scholars at a time when

Prof. ALEXANDER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: education was hard won.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Was very hard won. And it was - it was a school that attracted black people not only from Washington but from all over the country. People would lie and say that their kid, if they lived in Augusta, Georgia, had an aunt whom they were living with in Washington.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALEXANDER: Just so they could go to Dunbar High School.

MARTIN: So

Prof. ALEXANDER: And they had, for example, when my mother went to Dunbar High School in the 1920s, they had four African-American women who had PhDs, if we can imagine teaching at Dunbar High School.

MARTIN: So she had her crowd, but...

Prof. ALEXANDER: So she had a crowd, and also they had

MARTIN: Yeah.

Prof. ALEXANDER: they evidently had - they had some family around them and they had a lot of friends in the international world, people who they had met at various points.

MARTIN: And it turns out that there is a personal connection between you and Ida Gibbs Hunt.

Prof. ALEXANDER: There absolutely is. My maternal grandmother and Ida Gibbs Hunt were very good friends in Washington, D.C. In fact, she urged my grandmother to join an international women's group, a mostly white international left-leaning women's group. And she was - Ida Gibbs Hunt was a teacher of my mother at Dunbar - at wonderful Dunbar High School in the 1920s. And she wanted my mother to come and live with them in France. But my grandmother thought, oh, my 15-year-old daughter can't possibly go off and live with foreigners. I'm sure she said it exactly like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALEXANDER: But in any case, they did keep in touch, and after my mother died I found among her possessions a little tiny note, which was a congratulations that Ida sent to my mother on the occasion of my birth. And I have that - I have that note reproduced in the book, along with a photograph that I am convinced was the one that my grandmother showed her friend Ida Gibbs Hunt

MARTIN: Oh, that's wonderful.

Prof. ALEXANDER: when I was first born.

MARTIN: Well, first born is very - it's very cute. What do you like about this story, the fact that you are able to give this narrative a wider audience than it otherwise would have had? I must say, I was quite amazed by this. You know, I consider myself a fairly well read person and I said, I know nothing of this.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, I love to - the stories I love to tell are the stories that that contribute to our understanding of the complexity of the American experience and particularly the complexity of the African-American experience. And this is certainly - is certainly one that - that does that for us. You know, these are remarkable people. These are not people that you always know about. Nobody is trying to say that these are the - the typical experiences, but it is a - a wonderfully good story with love and adventure and sex and travel and war and violence and the lies that people tell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALEXANDER: All of which I think make for a terrific story.

MARTIN: Adele Logan Alexander is professor of history at George Washington University and a member of the National Council on the Humanities. She's also author of "Parallel Worlds." It is the remarkable story of William and Ida Hunt, the first African-American couple to have a complete career in the U.S. diplomacy, and she was kind enough to tell us about it in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Thank you very much, Michel.

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