African Americans compose 5.6% of the approximately 11,471 members of the U.S. Foreign Service. This percentage falls short of the number of African Americans in the civilian workforce and the general population but represents, over time, efforts to promote diversity through senior-level appointments and recruitment into the career Foreign Service.
The first African American diplomat, Yale graduate Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett, was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as Minister Resident and Consul General in Haiti in 1869. It was not until 1924 when the Rogers Act combined the Consular and Diplomatic Service that James Carter, James Weldon Johnson and William Yerby became the first African Americans to enter the regular career Foreign Service. They were joined by Clifton Wharton who was named Ambassador to Norway in 1961 by President Harry S Truman. After Wharton no other African American entered the Foreign Service for the next 20 years.
In 1949, Edward Dudley was promoted from Minister in Liberia to be the first African American to hold the rank of Ambassador. In that post World War II period, Ralph J. Bunche, after whom the Department’s Library is named, went from the Department of State in 1946 to the United Nations where his efforts for peace in Palestine won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Since then a growing number of African Americans have served as ambassadors including three U.S. Representatives to the United Nations: Andrew Young, Donald F. McHenry and Edward J. Perkins. Others who have made significant contributions to U.S. diplomacy include: Terence Todman, six-time ambassador with appointments beginning in 1969 in Africa, Europe and Latin America and Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs; Ronald D. Palmer, three-time ambassador in Africa and Asia between 1976 and 1986, and; Johnnie Young, four-time ambassador in Africa, the Middle East and Europe between 1989 and 2004. Four African Americans, including Terence Todman, Ruth A. Davis, Johnny Young and George E. Moose, former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, have been promoted to Career Ambassador, the highest rank in the Foreign Service. Also, four have been appointed Director General of the Foreign Service (DG) including the present DG, Harry K. Thomas and his predecessor, George M. Staples. In December 2007, Barry L. Wells became the first African American Civil Service employee to serve as Ambassador, posted to The Gambia.
African American ambassadors and senior diplomats have not all come from the ranks of the State Department. The former United States Information Agency began an active recruitment effort aimed at African Americans in the latter part of the 1950s and 1960s and attracted numerous officers who achieved ambassadorial rank, including O. Rudolph Aggrey (Senegal, The Gambia and Romania), John E. Reinhardt (Nigeria), Horace G. Dawson, Jr. (Botswana), W. Beverly Carter (Liberia and Tanzania) and Carl T. Rowan (Finland). During this period, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its predecessor organization also hired a number of African Americans who distinguished themselves as senior diplomats, including Samuel C. Adams and John L. Withers (whose son is presently U.S. Ambassador to Albania), Edward J. Perkins, the first African American Ambassador to South Africa and the first African American Director General of the Foreign Service. In 2001 Mattie R. Sharpless of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was named Ambassador to the Central African Republic.
Patricia Roberts Harris was the first of 36 African American women to serve as U.S. ambassador. Her 1965 appointment to Luxemburg was by President Lyndon Johnson who also named Barbara M. Watson as Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs in 1968. Other notable non-career appointments include Carol Moseley-Braun’s nomination by President William J. Clinton as Ambassador to New Zealand and President George W. Bush’s 2004 naming of Jendayi E. Frazer as the first female Ambassador to South Africa and in 2005 as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Aurelia Brazeal was the first African American female Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to rise from the entry level to the senior ranks of the Foreign Service. She became Ambassador to Micronesia, Kenya and Ethiopia and Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In 1992 after a posting as Consul General in Barcelona, Spain, Ruth A. Davis was appointed as Ambassador to the Republic of Benin and the first African American woman to serve as Director of the Foreign Service Institute and Director General of the Foreign Service. Several African American women have had the distinction of being named ambassador to two or more countries including Arlene Render, who served in The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire and Zambia; Robin R. Sanders, who became Ambassador to Nigeria in 2007 after having served in the Republic of the Congo; and June Carter Perry, Chief of Mission in Madagascar and Sierra Leone.
Efforts made by Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice to increase diversity in the Department and to attract more minorities to the Foreign Service bode well for augmenting the under-representative number of African Americans in the Service and for achieving a broader geographical distribution of African American Ambassadors throughout the world.
— Ambassador Ruth A. Davis
Senior Advisor, Bureau of African Affairs