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Van Horne, Mahlon(1840–1910) - Diplomat, consul, Educator and Minister, Chronology, Emerges As Civic and Political Leader

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One of only about twenty African Americans appointed to diplomatic posts abroad during the Progressive Era, Mahlon Van Horne served as the U.S. consul to St. Thomas, Danish West Indies from December 1896 to July 1903. He was appointed early in the administration of President William McKinley, winning that coveted position after a distinguished career as a prominent minister, civic leader, and first black state representative from Newport, Rhode Island. Though Van Horne earned praise for his nearly six years in the U.S. Foreign Service, a shift in the political climate during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt resulted in his being ousted from his post under a cloud of suspicion. He devoted the last years of his life to missionary work in Antigua.

Van Horne was born on March 5, 1840, in Princeton, New Jersey, the eldest of the three surviving children of Mathias Van Horne and Diana Oakham Van Horne. At nineteen, he began his studies at the Ashmun Collegiate Institute for Colored Youth, established in Pennsylvania in 1854 to train African American youths for missionary work. In 1862, while still a student, he married Rachel Ann Huston. The couple had four children during their thirty-five-year marriage. Van Horne continued his education as Ashmun evolved into Lincoln University in 1866, known as the first institution in the world to provide higher education in the arts and sciences for African American men and women. He studied theology, education, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and became an ordained minister.

Educator and Minister

In 1867 during Reconstruction, as schools for newly freed African Americans sprang up throughout the South, Van Horne accepted an appointment as principal of the Zion School for Colored Children in Charleston, South Carolina. There he served as the administrator of eighteen faculty members and 900 students.

A year later he earned his A.B. degree from Lincoln University and then accepted a pastorate in Newport, Rhode Island at the historic Union Congregational Church, which had been established for blacks in the eighteenth century. The struggling church had been without a regular pastor for three years before Van Horne’s appointment. Van Horne served as pastor of the church until his consular appointment twenty-eight years later.

Chronology

1840

Born in Princeton, New Jersey on March 5

1841

Enrolls in the Ashmun Collegiate Institute for Colored Youth

1862

Marries Rachel Ann Huston on April 8 in Princeton, New Jersey; over the years, the couple has four children

1866

Becomes an ordained minister

1867

Accepts appointment as principal of the Zion School for Colored Children in Charleston, South Carolina

1868

Graduates from Lincoln University; moves to Newport, Rhode Island to accept a pastorate at the city’s historic Union Congregational Church

1871

Builds a new church edifice after the original building is demolished; church membership includes both blacks and whites; becomes the first African American member elected to the Newport School Committee

1885

Becomes first African American representative in the Rhode Island General Assembly

1886

Elected as state representative for two more terms

1891

Named the “Most Popular Minister of Newport”

1896

Resigns as pastor of Union Congregational Church after serving for 28 years; on December 1 begins service as U.S. consul to St. Thomas, Danish West Indies after his appointment by President William McKinley

1902

In March American Protective League Congress petitions President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint Van Horne governor of the West Indies in the event of U.S. purchase of the island

1903

On July 31 Van Horne is removed from his diplomatic post as Consul to St. Thomas by President Theodore Roosevelt

1907

Wife Rachel dies

1910

Dies from heart trouble in Graceland, Antigua, on May 25 while serving as a missionary

Called “The City by the Sea,” Newport was a thriving summer resort for the black elite and the Gilded Age’s wealthiest, most aristocratic white families, such as the Astors and Vanderbilts. During Van Horne’s tenure as pastor of Union, he drew a number of prominent families from both communities into his interracial congregation. The charismatic minister earned accolades for his eloquent sermons. He also orchestrated the construction of a new church building in 1871 after the demolition of the original church. Such accomplishments led to his being named “Most Popular Minister of Newport” in 1891.

Emerges As Civic and Political Leader

Van Horne’s popularity went beyond the boundaries of Union Congregational Church. His concern about the welfare of African Americans propelled him to become one of the leading citizens of Newport and of the state of Rhode Island. He served through the “Colored Masons,” African American mutual aid societies, and the local and state branches of the Republican Party.

In 1871 Newport voters elected Van Horne the first African American member on the Newport School Board. Fourteen years later in 1885, the stalwart Republican became the first African American elected as a representative in the Rhode Island General Assembly. He served for three consecutive one-year terms.

Soon after the election of President McKinley, a Republican, Van Horne applied for an appointment to one of the limited number of U.S. consular positions. Van Horne faced stiff competition from black and whites vying for the coveted posts, yet he persisted, garnering endorsements from a number of influential Rhode Islanders, including the chairman of the Republican State Central Committee, former and current members of the Rhode Island state legislature, the attorney general and five justices of the state supreme court.

President McKinley appointed Van Horne as consul to St. Thomas in December 1896 at a pivotal juncture in history. The United States had begun its campaign to gain control of the western hemisphere and emerge as a world power. The federal government viewed its protracted efforts to purchase St. Thomas and neighboring islands from Denmark as crucial to this objective. The United States would then be one step closer to eliminating European colonial rule and spheres of influence in Central and South America as well as the islands of the Caribbean. Since the Civil War era, agents of the federal government had repeatedly botched attempts to purchase St. Thomas. These negotiations failed, in large measure, because of deception on both sides and U.S. attempts to bribe Danish officials. The United States would not succeed in purchasing St. Thomas from the Danish until 1917, fourteen years after the termination of Van Horne’s consular appointment.

Loses Diplomatic Post Despite Praise

Supporters of Van Horne in the United States and St. Thomas praised the diplomat’s record of service on St. Thomas even as the federal government charged him with incompetence in January 1903. Allegedly, a lack of communication and neglect of duties led to the mishandling of small sums of money during his administration. Ironically, just before the accusations, the American Protective League petitioned Congress to appoint Van Horne governor of St. Thomas in the event that the U.S. purchased it.

In June 1903, several months after the charges, a group of seventy merchants, officials, and other inhabitants of St. Thomas petitioned for the reappointment of Van Horne as the U.S. Consul, praising Van Horne for having done a worthy job over the previous five and a half years. Despite the petitions, President Theodore Roosevelt dismissed Van Horne from his post on July 31, 1903.

Stripped of his position in the U.S. Foreign Service, Van Horne returned to his religious roots and training by becoming a missionary in Antigua. Van Horne died of heart trouble in Graceland, Antigua on May 25, 1910. His wife had died three years before. Three of his children—Dr. M. Alonzo Van Horne, Mrs. Louise Miller, and Mrs. Florence Miller, all prominent members of the Newport, Rhode Island black community—survived him.

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