By 1920, Lawrence Dennis, with his properly British name, his “blueblood” credentials from Exeter and Harvard—and his closely cropped haircut, which gave the foregoing resonance and a kind of authenticity—was well positioned to advance upward on the nation's socioeconomic ladder. Yes, there was the nettlesome issue of making sure his mother was kept safely in the background but that seemed to be a manageable problem. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department—then known as a refuge for the well born—beckoned.
“'I took refuge in the diplomatic service,'” Dennis said later, “'by performing the easy feat—easy for me—of passing a two-day 12-hour written examination in a number of subjects.'”1 Certainly his facility with languages, developed during an earlier life as a Negro child preacher touring Europe, made him attractive to the State Department.
It was in 1920 that Dennis set sail for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, then under U.S. occupation, to take up his duties as a “clerk” in the U.S. legation, a job he performed, it was said, with “satisfaction.”2 It is striking that this color-conscious society was Dennis's first diplomatic posting, though his fluent French did mean he could converse easily with Haiti's elite. The nation had just been occupied by the United States in 1915, and Dennis was able to occupy a ringside seat in watching the ongoing conflict between the “two oligarchies” of this nation. “The mulatto oligarchy specialized in the export of foodstuffs and became increasingly urbanized, whereas the black oligarchy mainly continued to be large landowners. In fact, the mulattoes eventually came to form the dominant economic and political group, even though the blacks benefited from their predominance in the army and from their number, which gave them a broad and legitimate base among the population. This was the political framework and particular class structure, with economic legitimacy depending on skin colour, with which the United States occupants had to contend in 1915.