In 1922, West African and French dignitaries place flowers on the tomb of the unknown soldier in Paris. The Senegalese statesman Blaise Diagne stands at the center with hat in hand. Photo by Roger Viollet for Getty Images.
The first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies, Blaise Diagne transformed Senegalese and French colonial politics and helped prepare the way for development of democracy in Senegal. The Four Communes of Senegal had a unique status in which they were given the right to have a deputy to the French Parliament. (Senegal was the only colony north of South Africa where ordinary Africans had the right to vote). Those elected were usually from the mulatto elite, called the metis, but in the first years of the twentieth century, educated Africans, organized in a group called the Young Senegalese, wanted a more important role in government.
Blaise Diagne, son of a cook, was adopted by a leading metis family. In 1914, he won the election and served in the Parliament. In 1915, as a leading recruiter for the French army during World War I, when thousands of black West Africans fought on the Western Front, he was able to put forward a law that allowed originaires, the resident of the Senegal to serve in the better-paid regular army rather than with the colonial troops. The next year, he persuaded the Chamber of Deputies to pass a law recognizing originaires as French citizens. After the war, his influence waned–with swing to the right in French elections. In 1923 Diagne forged an alliance with his former enemies, the commercial houses based in Bordeaux. He remained a deputy until his death in 1934.