Records of the Foreign Affairs Agencies in the National Archives Bearing on the History of United States Relations with Africa-I: Records of the Department of State, part 1

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

At the 1969 National Archives Conference on the National Archives and Foreign Relations Research, the proceedings of which were published in 1974,[1] Morris Rieger, a longtime National Archives staff member, contributed a paper entitled “Sources in the National Archives Bearing on the History of African-American Relations.” Since that time, the National Archives has accessioned a huge volume of additional records, rendering his important essay out of date.

This is the first of four parts. It updates those portions of Rieger’s essay dealing with the records of the Department of State (treaties and headquarters records). It includes discussion of the records not in the National Archives in 1969 and an expanded discussion of records on the domestic civil rights struggle.

The holdings of the National Archives bearing on the history of American relations with Africa are very rich—so much so that in the brief space avail­able it is possible to attempt only an overview.

From the very nature of archival sources it should be clear that the National Archives contains no separate collection of materials on Africa; rather, such materials are located among the records of federal departments and agencies. The Department of State and other foreign affairs agencies, of course, take first place among them.


Department of State records pertaining to relations with Africa are found in five major groupings. The first of these, the treaty series, covers the period from 1778 to 1995 and includes treaties with African states or with European states dealing with African territories or Africa-related matters, together with associated documentation and maps. These records are found in RG 11: General Records of the U.S. Government. There are several major categories of Africa-related treaties: (1) “peace and friendship” treaties (all with the various Barbary States between 1786 and 1836); (2) commer­cial treaties (with Muscat and Zanzibar, 1833; Madagascar, 1867 and 1881; Orange Free State, 1871; Egypt, 1884; Congo Free State, 1891, and Ethiopia, 1903 and 1914); (3) antislave trade treaties (two with Great Britain, in 1842—the Webster-Ashburton Treaty—and in 1870; and one in 1890 with the European powers multilaterally—the Statute of Brussels);  (4) treaties defining United States rights in the post-World War I Afri­can mandates (seven between 1923 and 1925 with the mandatory powers: England, France, and Belgium); and (5) treaties delineating the formal U.S. relationship with countries in Africa since their independence. Other important treaties include that of 1884 recognizing the flag of the International Congo Association (which soon afterwards became the Congo Free State), the Algeciras Convention of 1906 regarding Morocco, and the 1919 Versailles multilateral agreement regulating the liquor traffic in Africa. While the treaties themselves are found in RG 11, the documentation relating to the negotiation of the treaties will be found among the records of the Department of State described below.

The second major group consists of the basic headquarters records of the department which break down into two major segments: the central files and the decentralized files. These records are in RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

Distributed through these records is a great volume and variety of docu­mentation concerning American relations with the various African countries and/or their European metropoles during the two centuries following the establishment of the federal government. Most aspects of these relations are documented, in particular the following principal themes and topics:

  • the series of Barbary Wars;
  • the transatlantic slave trade and the long history of nineteenth century efforts to eliminate it (including such milestones as the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 with Britain, the operations of the United States Navy’s African Squadron during the 1840s and 1850s, and the Brussels Conference of 1890);
  • the “colonization” movement that brought about the mid-nine­teenth century settlement in Liberia of freed American slaves and of Africans liberated from slave ships seized by the United States African Squadron;
  • the special quasi-protectorate relationship of Liberia to the United States since the 1820s and the United States military, diplomatic, financial, and economic support this often necessitated;
  • the development of “legitimate” (i.e., nonslave) trade with the coastal regions of subsaharan Africa, beginning in southern Africa soon after the Revolution as an outgrowth of American commerce with the Orient and in association with offshore whaling opera­tions in the region, expanding to dominant proportions in east Africa and to very substantial ones in west Africa during the middle third of the nineteenth century, and reaching its peak at the beginning of the Civil War;
  • the decline in U.S trade with Africa during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the efforts to revive it, which bore fruit only in the twentieth century;
  • the American missionary movement in subsaharan Africa, its origin in Liberia and southern Africa before the Civil War, and its constant growth and expansion thereafter;
  • the United States effort to preserve the commercial Open Door in tropical Africa during the period of its partition amongst the European powers, particularly through support of the establish­ment of the Congo Free State before and during the Berlin African Conference in 1884—85;
  • the growth of American capital investment in subsaharan Africa— in mineral and forest resources especially—beginning in southern Africa in the late nineteenth century and expanding to central and west Africa during the twentieth (as, for example, gold and dia­monds in South Africa, copper in northern Rhodesia and the Congo, rubber and iron ore in Liberia, etc.);
  • the participation of Americans in the struggle between Great Britain and the Boer Republics leading to the Boer War, and the pro-Boer popular sentiment in the United States during the war;
  • the Congo scandals during the first decade of this century and American involvement in the international campaign for reform;
  • the American role in the establishment of the mandate system in Africa at the Versailles Peace Conference;
  • United States military operations and subsequent occupation responsibilities in North Africa during World War II;
  • decolonization in Africa and the establishment by the United States of diplomatic relations with the newly-independent states;
  • American involvement with the early 1960s Congo crisis;
  • American concern and involvement with the Nigerian civil war;
  • the American reaction to the Cold War struggle in Africa;
  • American concern with apartheid in South Africa; and
  • foreign policy aspects of the civil rights struggle in the United States.

These themes and topics and others associated with them are documented in consider­able detail among the headquarters records of the State Department.

Over the years, the Department of State has maintained its central files in several ways. From 1789 to 1906, the records are arranged by type in separate series, generally arranged geographically and thereunder chronologically, of instructions to and despatches from Ameri­can diplomatic and consular representatives and special agents abroad, notes to and from foreign missions and consuls in the United States, and miscellaneous outgoing and incoming correspondence. From 1906 to 1910, the documents on a given topic formerly found in separate series were brought together in the case files that make up the Numerical File and the Minor File. That recordkeeping system proved inadequate so the Department adopted a pre-arranged subject filing scheme known as the Central Decimal File. In this file, documents were arranged using file numbers combining subject and country numbers. There were two versions of the decimal file. The first was used from 1910 to 1949 and the second from 1950 through January 1963. Beginning in February 1963 and running through 1973, the central file is arranged according to a pre-arranged subject filing system using alpha-numeric filing designations. In 1973, the Department phased in yet another recordkeeping system which was known by a number of different names over the years, but is now called the State Archiving System. In this system, records were no longer arranged by subject. Documents were indexed using an automated tool, telegrams were preserved electronically, and hardcopy documents on microfilm. Records through 1979 are in the National Archives and the declassified telegrams are available online. As of the date of this revision, records dating 1980 and later remain in the custody of the Department of State.

The headquarters decentralized files consist of records filed in the bureaus and offices in the Department of State, but not as part of the central files. These records can be a valuable complement to the documentation found in the central files. Included are records of organizational units, records relating to certain functions, special subjects, events or individuals. Some documents duplicate items in the central file; many do not.

For the study of relations with African nations, the records from organizational units are generally the most important. For the most part, these files date from the period of World War II and later. Most of the records of organizational units come from the various geographic area offices within the Department of State, such as the bureaus dealing with Europe, Africa, Western Hemisphere, Middle/Near East, South Asia, Asia and the Pacific, or the functional bureaus dealing with international organization affairs, politico-military affairs, intelligence and research, or public affairs. Other organizational records originated in major policy offices such as the Secretary of State, the Deputy Secretary of State, the under secretaries, the Executive Secretariat, and the Policy Planning Staff. Among the geographic offices, the records from those organizations dealing specifically with Africa will be most important, although during the period of decolonization, the records of the offices covering the European metropoles will include documentation of interest. Perhaps most notable for the early 1960s are the files of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs G. Mennen Williams.

In addition to documenting U.S. relations with African nations, the records of the Department of State include documentation on the foreign policy implications of the domestic civil rights struggle and the affect discriminatory treatment of non-Caucasian, particularly African, diplomats serving in the U.S. had on relations with those countries. Notable topics include the Department’s contribution to the 1947 report of the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice; the Department’s response to a Department of Justice request for a statement on the impact of domestic discrimination on U.S. foreign relations for use in an amicus curiae brief to file with the Supreme Court in several of the cases leading up to Brown v. Board of Education; and reporting on the world-wide reaction to the August 1963 March on Washington;  and other domestic racial disturbances.

Next: Records of the Department of State (Foreign Service Post files, specialized record groups, and records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace).

[1]See Milton O. Gustafson, ed., The National Archives and Foreign Relations Research (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1974).