This man rose from an enslaved Kentucky house valet to the ambassador to Liberia. All on his own.
Despite having spent the first ten years of his life as a slave in Kentucky, Dr. George Washington Buckner went on to become a prominent educator, statesman, and diplomat.
After leaving Kentucky in the early 1870s, he studied in Indianapolis and Terre Haute, eventually graduating from the Terre Haute Normal School (a teacher’s college) and the Indiana Eclectic Medical College. Buckner eventually settled in Evansville, where his reputation as a selfless physician, caring educator, and community leader caught the eye of an Indiana congressman and led to Buckner’s diplomatic career.
George Washington Buckner was born into slavery in 1855, in Green County, Kentucky. His home was a small cabin shared with his mother, stepfather, and several other children. The cabin had the barest of comforts. Windows were nothing more than holes in the wall covered with bark shutters. Their narrow straw beds were covered with patchwork quilts.
For most of Buckner’s childhood, his mother was an invalid. She suffered incapacitating weakness and ailments as the result of bearing multiple children without medical assistance. Buckner would later look back on the hardship his mother endured when considering a career in medicine.
As a young boy, Buckner was given to the slave owner’s son Dick as a personal valet. The two boys were about the same age. As a personal valet, Buckner laundered Dick’s clothing, picked up his toys, and provided him with companionship. This position was short-lived, however, as Dick succumbed to illness before reaching the age of 10.
Slave children were not provided with an education, but Buckner longed to learn to read. He eventually taught himself, with the help of his sister and a McGuffy reader owned by the slaveowner’s children. He would receive no formal education, however, until slavery was abolished in 1865.
It’s unclear exactly how long it took for news of their freedom to reach the Buckner family, or how soon thereafter they actually left their master’s residence. By the time he was 10, however, Buckner was beginning to learn what it was like to be free.
Between 1865 and 1870, Buckner attended classes at a school for former slave children run by the Freemen’s Association. After learning basic skills in reading and writing, he began to teach other children in his community to read.
In 1870, Buckner moved to Louisville to live with an aunt. There, he found work as a domestic servant. The association’s schooling didn’t last long, however. Soon after, Buckner was back in the Greensburg area boarding with a local family.
Buckner eventually made his way to Indianapolis, where he met Robert Bagby, principal of Public School No. 17 (Indianapolis’s first black school). Bagby was a graduate of Oberlin College and the first educated black person Buckner had ever met. Inspired by Bagby’s success, Buckner enrolled at No. 17 and studied there for several years.
After completing his schooling, Buckner worked a number of odd jobs around Indianapolis. He eventually decided to pursue a career in teaching, and after encouragement from friends, applied to attend the Terre Haute Normal School. After earning his teaching degree, Buckner taught school in several Indiana communities, including Vincennes, Evansville, and Washington. In Vincennes, Buckner met his future wife, Stella White. The couple married shortly thereafter in 1879.
Editor’s note: I spent roughly six or seven hours pouring through different online collections and databases looking for photos of Dr. Buckner, his family, his businesses, anything. Considering his many accomplishments, this shouldn’t have been difficult. I found only a handful, and I am damn good at hunting online. That absence of record for such a man as this is passing criminal. And the guilty party isn’t the ethereal them of our past, it is US, in the here and now. WE have to do better.
His early exposure to sickness and death filled Buckner with a desire to help others get the medical care they needed, Buckner decided to enroll in medical school. He was accepted at the Indiana Eclectic Medical College in Indianapolis. Just a year shy of his graduation, his wife tragically succumbed to tuberculosis. Buckner persevered and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in medicine in 1890.
Buckner practiced medicine in Indianapolis for a short time before relocating to Evansville. In Evansville, he found a community that truly needed his attention. In the 1890s, travel to rural areas surrounding the city was difficult and even hazardous in inclement weather. Buckner never flinched at aiding a sick patient, even those that lived in the hardest-to-reach places, and in the worst weather. As a physician, Buckner quickly earned a reputation as being sympathetic to the needs of his patients and showing genuine compassion. He consistently put their welfare ahead of his own.
In 1896, Buckner married for a second time. His wife, Anna, was a teacher and would later become a librarian at Evansville’s first African American library. The couple had five children.
As Buckner became more entrenched in his Evansville community, he became active in civic affairs. Buckner served as a Trustee of the Alexander Chapel AME Church and as a member of the United Brotherhood of Friendship. He also co-founded the Cherry Street YMCA and eventually located his medical practice there.
Through these civic interactions, Buckner became acquainted with congressman John W. Boehne. The Democratic congressman became a friend and valued ally. Buckner became an active member of the Democratic Party, believing that they were fairer towards the country’s African American citizens. He also began to write a column for the Indiana Democrat titled “Colored Folks.”
In 1913, at the recommendation of Boehne, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Buckner as the official U.S. Ambassador to Liberia. In 1914, he was appointed concurrently as the U.S. Consul General in Monrovia. Buckner became the first African-American diplomat appointed to serve in a foreign country. Sadly, this appointment lasted only two years, since health issues forced Buckner’s resignation in 1915.
Upon returning to Evansville, Buckner resumed his medical practice and became a civil rights activist. After a fulfilling life serving his community, he died in 1943. After his death, his family graciously donated memorabilia from his remarkable career to the Evansville Museum, where it remains on display.