Ambassador Davis speaks to a room full of people from a podium.

When I take a historical look at Black Women in international affairs, I immediately think of outstanding figures such as Patricia Roberts Harris, the first Black female ambassador and others who followed her including Ambassador Mabel M. Smythe, then later in 1990 Ambassador Aurelia E. Brazeal who became the first African American female Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to be appointed ambassador, three times — a singular honor.

Patricia Roberts Harris with her hand raised as she is sworn in with U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the background.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter watches as Patricia Roberts Harris is sworn in Washington, Friday, August 3, 1979 as Secretary of Health, Education Welfare. [AP Photo/Cook]

I am awed by the resistance of these women to being stereotyped and their determination to excel in a profession dominated by white males. I am impressed by their persistence and important contributions, despite the lack of a level playing field. They, and others like them today, are real achievers who have made a significant impact on the accomplishment of U. S. goals and objectives in foreign affairs.

The list of African American female ambassadors includes many who have been the first to be named to certain senior positions and the first to be recipients of honors previously reserved for their white male colleagues.

Below is a sample of fourteen women who represent Foreign Service Officers and political appointees; the five Foreign Service career tracks, Political, Economic, Consular, Administrative, and Public Diplomacy; and, The Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture – a foreign affairs agency from which the Department of State can nominate candidates for ambassadorial appointments. They have served in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America and in senior-level positions in Washington.

Black and white photo of Aurelia Brazeal walking with a group of men in suits with suitcases in her hands and a helicopter in the background.
Aurelia Brazeal walks with Secret Service and U.S. Embassy officials on the lawn of President Anwar Sadat’s summer residence in Alexandria, Egypt in 1974. [AP Photo/Horst Faas]

As I look back, what comes to mind is that as African-American females, we frequently led the way. That I think comes from the strength built from the obstacles we had to overcome.

AMBASSADOR ELIZABETH MCKUNE

Each of these women has a compelling story accompanying their rise through the ranks. They faced discrimination, in one case ostracism, microaggressions, and numerous race-related obstacles that impeded their progress.

On the other hand, they also benefited from the support of majority colleagues, mentors and sponsors. They are grateful for family members who supported them and the Foreign Service lifestyle. Ambassador Elizabeth McKune sums it up well, “None of this could have happened without the help and support of my husband, parents, Foreign Service mentors, and many others, including organizations like The Thursday Luncheon Group (TLG) and The Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA).”

Below is a list of these fourteen ambassadors and the “firsts” that are credited to them.

Joyce A. Barr

  • First African American female to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Namibia (2004-2007)
  • First African American female to serve as Executive Director of the East Asia and Pacific Bureau (2007-2009)
  • First African American female to serve as Interim Chancellor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (Now Eisenhower School) (August, September Oct of 2010)
  • First African American female to serve as Assistant Secretary of Administration of the U.S. Department of State (2011-2017)
  • First African American female to be inducted into the National Defense University’s Hall of Fame, (May 2018)
Joyce Barr sits at a table and signs a paper during her swearing-in ceremony.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a swearing-in ceremony for Joyce Barr as Assistant Secretary of State for Administration at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 8, 2012. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Carol Moseley Braun

  • First woman and first African American in Illinois history to serve as Assistant House Majority Leader, (1978)
  • First African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate and the first female senator from Illinois, (1993-99)
  • First African American to serve as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, (1999-2001)
Secretary Kerry smiles down at a smiling Carol Moseley Braun.
With Rev. Jesse Jackson looking on, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chats with Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun after the Secretary spoke at a Congressional-hosted reception for African leaders on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on August 4, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Aurelia E. Brazeal

  • First Spelman graduate to enter the U.S. Foreign Service, (1968)
  • First African American woman career officer in economic cone
  • First African American woman career officer to serve on the State Department Secretariat Line, (1973-1974)
  • First African American woman career officer selected for the Senior Seminar, (1986-87)
  • First African American woman career officer Trade Officer in the Economic Section of Embassy Tokyo (1979-1982)
  • First Deputy Director for Economics on the Japan desk, (1984-86)
  • First African American woman career officer as Minister/Counselor for Economics, Embassy Tokyo (number three position in the Embassy), (1987-1990)
  • First African American woman career officer to be promoted into the Senior Service, (1986)
  • First African American woman career officer to be Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, (1996-1998)
  • First African American woman career officer to be appointed as a U.S. Ambassador, (1990)
  • First U.S. Ambassador to The Federated States of Micronesia, (1990-1993)
  • First African American woman career officer to be U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, (1993-1996)
  • First African American woman career officer as Dean of the Senior Seminar, (1998-2002)
  • First Dean of the Foreign Service Institute’s new Leadership and Management School, (1999-2002)
  • First African American woman career officer as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, (2002-2005)
  • First African American woman career officer appointed U.S. Ambassador by three different U.S. Presidents
  • First African American woman career officer promoted to Career Minister in the U.S. Foreign Service

Pamela Bridgewater

  • First African American woman to serve as Consul General, Principal Officer in Durban, South Africa
  • First African American woman to serve as Ambassador to Republic of Ghana
  • First African American woman Ambassador to Jamaica
Group of embassy staff smiling next to Secretary Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela Bridgewater.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela Bridgewater and U.S. Embassy Jamaica staff in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on June 22, 2011. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Sue K. Brown

  • First African American to serve as ambassador to Montenegro (2011-2015)
U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Sue K. Brown and Montenegro’s Minister of Transportation and Maritime Affairs Andrija Lompar smile while holding documents.
U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Sue K. Brown and Montenegro’s Minister of Transportation and Maritime Affairs Andrija Lompar signed the U.S.-Montenegro Open Skies Agreement in Podgorica, Montenegro, on March 2, 2012. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Ruth A. Davis

  • First African American female Senior Watch Officer in the State Department’s Operation Center – which is described as the engine of the State Department, (1982-1984)
  • First African American to serve as U.S. Consul General in Barcelona, (1987-1991)
  • First African American female Ambassador to the Republic of Benin, (1992-1995)
  • First African American Director of the Foreign Service Institute, (1997-2001)
  • First African American female Director General of the U.S. Foreign Service, (2001-2003)
  • First African American woman (and only to date) to be promoted to Career Ambassador – the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service, (2002)
  • First recipient of The International Career Advancement Diversity Award for Visionary leadership and Fostering Diversity within Foreign Affairs, (2008)
  • First African American recipient of American Foreign Service Association’s Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award, (2016)

Harriet L. Elam-Thomas

  • First African American Counselor of the United States Information Agency (USIA) – the most senior career position in that U.S. Government Agency prior to its integration into the Department of State (1997-1999)
  • First African American woman to serve as Acting Deputy Director of USIA (1999)
  • First African American woman to serve as Public Affairs Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, Belgium (1995-1997)
  • First African American to lead the U.S. Observer Delegation to the UNESCO Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development in Stockholm, Sweden (1998)
  • First African American woman assigned as Cultural Attaché to Athens, Greece (1983-1987)
  • First African American woman Branch Public Affairs Counselor-Istanbul Turkey (1990-1994)
  • First African American woman to pass the Greek and Turkish language exams (1983 & 1990)
  • First African American woman to be honored consecutively by the heads of the Greek and Turkish Governments for improving U.S. Cultural Relations with each government.  (1987 & 1994)
  • First African American female U.S. Ambassador to Senegal (1999-2002)
  • First African American woman to represent the U.S. Information Agency at the White House Conference on Culture and Diplomacy (2000)
  • First and only African American member of the EUCOM Senior Advisor Group (2006-2008)
  • First African American woman recipient of Simmons College Distinguished Graduate Award (2004)

Elizabeth D. McKune

  • First African American female confirmed as Chief of Mission to any Middle Eastern Country, the State of Qatar, (1998-2001)
  • First female from any country appointed as ambassador to the State of Qatar;
  • First female ambassador to be awarded the State of Qatar’s Sash of Merit, (2001)
  • First female and first African American Deputy Executive Secretary of the Department of State, (1989-1991)
  • First African American female to graduate with distinction from the National War College, (1992)
  • First female appointed to a senior executive post in a Gulf Cooperation Council country, as DCM to Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, (1992-1995)
  • First African American Ambassador to be awarded DoD’s Joint Civilian Service Award for service as advisor to the Commandant of the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces, now known as The Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, (2001-2003)
  • First African American to attain a 4/4 in FSI Arabic language training, (1982)
  • First African American Director of Area Offices in NEA (ARN-Northern Arabian Affairs) (1996-98) and EAP (Pacific Island Affairs) (1988-89)
  • First and perhaps only African American female Ambassador to co-author an academic manual on U.S. national security –The National Security Process:  The National Security Council and the Interagency System — used in colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and at the Foreign Service Institute

Wanda L. Nesbitt

  • First African American female Senior Vice President of the National Defense University (2013 – 2016)
  • First African American Dean of the School of Language Studies at the Foreign Service Institute (2016 – 2019)
Wanda Nesbitt smiles while speaking to students.
Ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire Wanda Nesbitt chats with local students during International Education Week. [State Department photo/Public Domain]

Helen Patricia Reed Rowe

  • First resident Ambassador to the Republic of Palau (2010-2013)

Ambassador Mattie R. Sharpless

Foreign Agricultural Service U.S. Department of Agriculture

  • First and only African American Member of the Agricultural Delegation, U.S. Mission to the Kennedy Round Trade Negotiations, Geneva, Switzerland (1967)
  • First and only African American Staff, Office of Agricultural Affairs, U.S. Mission to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris, France (1968-1972)
  • First and only African American member of the USDA Delegation of the U.S./Russian Grains Trade Negotiations, Moscow, Soviet Union (1973)
  • First and only African American Agricultural Attaché, Office of Agricultural Affairs, U.S. Mission to the European Community, Brussels, Belgium (1977-1979)
  • First and only African American Division Director of European Affairs, International Trade Policy, Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA, Washington, DC (1980-1982)
  • First and only African American Agricultural Counselor, Office of Agricultural Affairs, American Embassy, Bern, Switzerland (1983-1985)
  • First and only African American Agricultural Counselor, Office of Agricultural Affairs, American Embassy, Rome, Italy (1986-1988)
  • First and only African American to serve as Deputy Administrator, International Trade Policy, Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA, Washington, DC (1988-1989)
  • First and only African American Female to serve as Director General of the Foreign Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (1990-1995)
  • First and only African American Female to serve as Agricultural Minister Counselor, American Embassy, Paris, France (1995-1999)
  • First and only African American or any other officer to serve as Special Envoy to the Administrator, Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA, Washington, DC (1999-2000)
  • First and only African American to serve as Acting Administrator, Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA, during the Presidential Transition (2000-2001)
  • First and only African American appointed as Ambassador from the Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA. Served as U.S. Ambassador to the Central African Republic (2001-2003)
  • First African American Female to serve as Special Adviser, Deputy Under Secretary, Farm and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2003-2006)
  • Retired on January 3, 2006, after 41 years, from the U.S. Foreign Service, as the highest ranked career employee of the Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Ambassador Mattie R. Sharpless stands next to a sign with her name on it and Dimosse Torkam Yam.
Ambassador Mattie R. Sharpless is welcomed by Dimosse Torkam Yam, then Prefect (Governor) of the Prefecture of Lobaye on July 9, 2002, at the Boussimba/Molangue Primary School of the Congolese Refugee Camp, which was named in her honor during the inauguration ceremony on World Refugee Day, June 20, 2002. [U.S. Embassy Bangui photo/Public Domain]

Pamela L. Spratlen

  • First African American female FSO posted to the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (USOECD) Paris, (1995-98)
  • First African American female FSO posted to the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (USOECD) Paris, (1995-98)
  • First African American female FSO posted to Vladivostok and first Black U.S. consul general in the Russian Federation), (2002-04 )
    First African American female FSO assigned as Deputy Chief of Mission in — Russian-speaking post and part of the former USSR (Kazakhstan, (2009-11)
  • First African American Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic, (2011-14)
  • First African American Ambassador to Uzbekistan, (2015-2018)
Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Spratlen talk under an umbrella as they walk across a plaza.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Pamela Spratlen walk across the plaza in front of the Tilya-Kori Madrasah at Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, November 1, 2015. [State Department photo/Public Domain]

Sylvia Gaye Stanfield

  • First African American woman assigned to U.S. Embassy Taipei; was Vice Consul in 1969.
  • First African American Foreign Service Officer (FSO) assigned to The State Department Operations Center as a junior watch officer, (1971)
  • First woman — and African American woman — to study Chinese (a “designated hard language”) at the Foreign Service Institute (1969) and to attend the Department of State School of Advanced Chinese Language and Area Training in Taichung, Taiwan, (1972)
  • First African American Foreign Service Officer (FSO) assigned to U.S. Embassy Beijing (political section) after the US established diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China in 1979
  • First African American FSO to serve as Country Director for Australia-New Zealand Affairs, (1991)
  • First African American FSO to serve as Charge /Deputy Chief of Mission at Embassy Wellington, (1993)
  • First African American FSO to serve as Coordinator for Taiwan Affairs at the Department of State, (1997)
  • First African American woman to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam, (1999)
  • First African American to serve as the Department of State Senior Advisor for Mentoring Coordination, (2006)

Bisa Williams

  • First non-CIA officer to receive Agency Seal Medal awarded by the Director of the CIA in recognition of “exceptional contributions to national security and (her) valued partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency as the Ambassador to Niger.” (2015).
  • First African American to serve as ‘Acting” Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, (2009-2010).
  • First African American to serve as Coordinator for Cuban Affairs In the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, (2007-10).

About the Author:  Ambassador Ruth Davis was a trailblazer throughout her 40-year career, including as the first female senior watch officer (SWO) in the Operations Center, the first African-American director of the Foreign Service Institute and the first African-American female Director General of the Foreign Service.

She was also the first and only African-American woman to be named Career Ambassador, the longest-serving officer at that level and, upon retirement, the highest-ranking Foreign Service officer. She is also the first African American to be awarded AFSA’s Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award.

Ruth A. Davis stands with a bouquet of flowers at a podium while Secretary Blinken and Director Bernicat smile and clap.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Global Talent Marcia Bernicat honor Ambassador Ruth Davis on the 50th anniversary of Thursday Luncheon Group, in Washington, D.C., on February 2, 2023 [State Department Photo by Freddie Everett/Public Domain]

U.S. Department of State

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