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    Entries in passport application (3)

    Frederick's Application is Sabotaged by the American Consulate General

    When Frederick tried to apply for a new passport at the American Consulate General in Constantinople, his long residence abroad immediately emerged as a major problem because it raised suspicions that he had expatriated himself (although Frederick must have blessed his foresight in concealing what he had actually done in 1915, as I describe in my book).  There was little that Frederick could say to Allen, the consul in charge, to mitigate this, but he tried.


    Entrance to American Consulate General in Constantinople c. 1919, when Frederick Thomas went there to try to get a new passport (Carpenter Collection, Library of Congress)


    Frederick explained that he had intended to return to the United States in 1905 when he accompanied a Russian nobleman as an interpreter on a trip to San Francisco, which, however, had to be aborted in Manila in the Philippines because of the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War.  Whether or not Frederick took such a trip is uncertain, although he did mention it to other Americans later and provided some plausible-sounding details. In any event, such a trip would hardly have satisfied Allen’s misgivings about Frederick’s decades-long residence abroad and consequent automatic expatriation.

    For his part, Allen responded to Frederick’s duplicity with a carelessness that was negligent or worse.  This ranged from not bothering to correct the typo “Frederirick,” which was the first item that appeared on the passport application, to not filling out several important sections in accordance with instructions found on the forms themselves, including those about the applicant’s family, his identity as an American, and the Consul’s evaluation of the application.

    These omissions would have been sufficient to invalidate the application in the eyes of the State Department, had it been sent.  But Allen did not even bother to forward what he had to Washington and let the documents languish in the Consulate General for the next fourteen months.  The most likely conclusion is that Allen sabotaged the application simply by setting it aside, and that he did so because of his distaste for Frederick specifically or for black people in general.  This is in fact suggested by some slighting comments he made to the State Department the following year when he finally did submit paperwork on Frederick’s behalf.

    (To be continued)


    Frederick Has to Lie to American Diplomats in Constantinople

    The note in Orient News was a wonderful endorsement for Frederick’s new nightspot in Constantinople, and a “Winter Salon” did open in the Anglo-American Villa a month later with a program similar to what had proven successful during the summer.  But Frederick’s optimistic plan to travel to the capital of Romania to book new acts ran into a serious obstacle. 

    To leave Constantinople, he would need a passport, and to get one he had to apply to the American Consulate General.  This would be more complicated and risky than dealing with Jenkins, the American Consul in Odessa, had been.  Unlike him, the American diplomats in Constantinople were not facing a panicked evacuation and would not act without authorization from the State Department in Washington.

    Frederick took the plunge on October 24, 1919, and met with Charles E. Allen, the Consul in Charge.  Allen was a young southerner and a fairly low-ranked figure among the Americans at the Consulate General.  And as documents in the National Archives demonstrate, he resented the black man in front of him, who had arrived trailing stories of riches and fame in Moscow, and with a white wife and a clutch of mixed-race sons to boot.


    Charles Allen, the American diplomat with whom Frederick Thomas had to deal in 1919


    Without going into all the details that I discuss in my book, it is clear that Frederick tried to do whatever he could to protect himself and his family.  For the first time in many years, the long arm of American racism was reaching out to him across oceans and continents. 

    During his interview, Frederick told Allen a series of big and small tactical lies about his past, such as inventing a sister in Nashville who could supposedly vouch for him.   He was also very canny about his future intentions and said exactly what he thought Allen would want to hear.  This included that Frederick wanted the passport to go to Russia and France because he intended to “settle my property interests en route to the U. S. to put my children in school.”  Frederick also indicated that he planned to return to the United States within six months and to reside there permanently. 

    This was all a smokescreen and it is unlikely that Allen believed him.  Frederick had no financial interests in France (although he might have fantasized about moving there because Paris was becoming famous for its hospitality toward black Americans after the Great War).  And he could not possibly have wanted to return to Russia while the Bolsheviks were in power and a civil war was raging. 

    Frederick also undoubtedly understood that he and his family would not be able to lead normal lives in most of the United States, where Jim Crow was riding triumphant and where Frederick’s marriage to Elvira would be seen in many states not only as reprehensible, but illegal. 

    The situation of black people in the United States was well known in Constantinople, where English and French-language newspapers regularly ran lurid articles about American racial policies and lynchings. 

    (To be continued)

    Frederick Thomas Enters the Historical Record

    Frederick Thomas applied for his first passport in Paris on March 17, 1896.  The one-page application, which is preserved in the National Archives in Washington, D. C., required that three dozen blanks be filled in to identify the applicant; and these brief entries by a secretary, like quick brush strokes by an artist in a hurry, sketch the first glimpse of Frederick that we have as he begins to emerge from the mists and generalizations of the historical past. 

    The man who walks off the page is somewhat taller than average at 5 feet, 9 inches, has a complexion described as “colored,” a high forehead, a large nose, and black eyes and hair.  His face and chin are “square,” and his mouth is “large.”  All of this suggests a manly face, but the terse notations are too abstract to capture the handsome black man we can see in an early photograph, which can be dated from around the same time. 


    Frederick Bruce Thomas, Paris, c. 1896


    Among other matters, the form inquires how soon the applicant will return to the United States “with the purpose of residing and performing the duties of citizenship therein.”  Frederick’s response is “two years,” but it is not at all certain if he really meant this or if he simply said whatever he thought would help him keep his options open.  It would not have been in his interest to make the embassy staff suspect that he might have left the United States for good.  Having a valid American passport was advantageous because it would provide him with protection in case he got into any kind of trouble, and it could be renewed abroad repeatedly with minimal explanations. 

    Moreover, the second secretary of the legation who filled out the application for Frederick and who personally confirmed his identity was Newton B. Eustis, the Ambassador’s son.  This may have affected what Frederick chose to say.  On the one hand, the secretary was merely a government employee fulfilling his duties vis-à-vis an American citizen and collecting the mandated $1.00 fee for the passport and 50 cents for administering the oath of allegiance that the document required.  But on the other, this official encounter was not likely to be color blind, given that the second secretary was his father’s son. 

    Ambassador Eustis was a “Southern gentleman” of the old school.  He came from New Orleans, had been a staff officer in the Confederate Army, fought with distinction at the Battle of Galveston, and served as a Louisiana senator for fourteen years before being appointed to his diplomatic post.  The Democratic Party of which he was a member had been a major force in American political life after the Civil War and did much to dismantle Reconstruction and to install repressive Jim Crow laws throughout the South.  One wonders, as result, how Frederick would have reacted to the encounter with this man’s son, whom he would have been able to size up quickly and accurately.  Americans from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line traveled widely in Europe in those years and Frederick could have met them often in both London and Paris.  In turn, one also wonders how the young official’s Southern white background would have made him view a black man who, judging by his accent, had escaped from his natural and proper American setting to the racially permissive French capital.