By David Langbart.
At the outbreak of World War I, William H. Hunt was serving as the U.S. Consul in St. Etienne, France. In addition to his official duties, Hunt was also a true American pioneer. In 1914, he was one of the very few African Americans serving in the Department of State, the Diplomatic Service, or the Consular Service in a professional capacity. Even more notable, he was not serving at a post in the Caribbean or in Africa.
OPF William H. Hunt photograph 1911
[Source: William H. Hunt, Official Personnel Folders-Department of State; Record Group 146: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; National Archives, St. Louis, MO]
William Henry Hunt was born near Nashville, Tennessee on June 28, 1864, even as the American Civil War still raged. He received his education in the public schools of Nashville, at the Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, and spent one year at Williams College before entering the business world as a clerk for Price, McCormick Co. in New York City. In 1898, he became a clerk in the U.S. consulate in Tamatave, Madagascar. His professional career began with appointment as a vice consul at Tamatave in May 1899. When the consul there, Mifflin W. Gibbs, resigned, he urged President McKinley to appoint Hunt in his stead. The President and Department of State took that advice and Hunt was appointed consul at Tamatave in August 1901. Hunt married Gibbs’s daughter Ida in 1904.
In 1904, Hunt sought transfer to a less remote post with a better climate and greater level of work. Hunt was appointed as consul in St. Etienne and entered into service there in November 1906. He remained in that city for over 20 years, until the U.S. closed the office in 1927. In last six years of his career, Hunt held the following postings:
- Consul at Guadeloupe, May 1927
- Consul at St. Michaels, Azores, September 1929
- Consul and Second Secretary of Legation at Monrovia, Liberia, January 1931
- Detailed to the Department, August 1932
Hunt retired on December 31, 1932, and died on December 20, 1951.
[Source: Department of State to U.S. embassy Paris, January 15, 1927, file: 123 H 911/42a, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives, College Park, MD]
The fact of Hunt’s background was ever present in his personnel file. The summary sheet of his serviced is headed “WILLIAM H. HUNT, of New York. (Colored).” There are also the following comments over time:
- 1913: Mr. Hunt is a well educated colored man.
- 1915: The only possible objection to him and the only obstacle in the way of his promotion to a more important post is the fact that he has negro blood.
- 1921: The only possible objection to him is the fact that he has negro blood. . . . Good personality for a colored man.
- 1921: Seems a very creditable member of his race.
- 1923: For a colored man, Mr. Hunt’s personality in all respects deserves to be rated as excellent . . . were it not that his colored blood restricts his usefulness to certain posts and countries where no prejudice against such blood exists. . . . He should not be sent to a country where any race prejudice exists.
- 1925: The fact that he has negro blood in his veins cannot but detract, however, from cultural standing; . . . . standing is greatly handicapped by the fact of his wife’s racial extraction which is more evident than in his own case.
- 1926: The fact that he has negro blood in his veins cannot but detract, however, from cultural standing; . . . . standing is greatly handicapped by the fact of his wife’s racial extraction which is more evident than in his own case.
- 1926: The Board will remember that Mr. Hunt is colored. [In reference to a new assignment.]
- 1927: As the officer and his wife are colored, he is not very mobile and must be rated low as to post utility. . . . it is possible to assign him to only a limited number of posts.
When he went to Madagascar, Hunt already read, spoke, and wrote French. After working in the French colony and in France for an extended period of time, Hunt became quite fluent with the language. Indeed, he was so immersed that when he visited the Department of State on his first return visit to the United States in 17 years in November 1921, one official noted “that he has some difficulty expressing his thoughts in English.”
Hunt was not a standout performer. His ratings varied over the years, generally in the fair/good range, but he sometimes came in for severe criticism for the small number of reports the lack of comprehensiveness in those he did submit, and a lack of initiative. It was also noted that his reports were not very well written. On the other hand, he was considered tactful, courteous, prompt, accurate, industrious, and generally made a favorable impression on the local population wherever he served. He was quite prominent and popular in St. Etienne.
Sources: William H. Hunt, Official Personnel Folders-Department of State (NAID 3752654); Record Group 146: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; National Archives, St. Louis, MO; Appointment Cards, file “2313? in the 1906-1910 Numerical File (NAID 654171), and file “123 H 911” in the 1910-29 and 1930-39 segments of theCentral Decimal File (NAID 302021), all part of RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.
I greatly appreciate the assistance of my colleagues Ashley Mattingly and Tina Ligon.