AMBASSADOR ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Good afternoon and a warm welcome to you all. We are gathered here in the cafeteria, and if it wasn’t for a pandemic this place would be buzzing with activity, filled with people breaking bread with colleagues from all backgrounds, and exchanging ideas on the latest in foreign policy.
But just over six decades ago, this was not the case. It couldn’t be. At the Foreign Service Institute across the river, black diplomats could not eat with their colleagues due to Virginia’s segregation laws. In 1957, a young American diplomat named Terence Todman would go on – who would go on to become a six-time ambassador, decided to speak up. Because of Ambassador Todman’s courage in the face of injustice, the department eventually leased a dining facility so that black Foreign Service officers could be treated equally and with dignity.
This kind of courage was a thread throughout his career, and in his interview with Professor Krenn, who is here with us today, he described himself as a troublemaker, in a good way. For Ambassador Todman, desegregating the cafeteria was more than just having a place to eat. It was about fundamentally changing our institutional culture.
He knew that for our foreign policy to be most effective, we needed to harness all of the great talent our nation has to offer. He brought both wisdom and humility to our foreign policy, and his success earned him the highest distinction of becoming the first African American to attain the rank of career ambassador.
As the department’s first chief diversity and inclusion office, I am proud to follow in Ambassador Todman’s steps. Without his work and the work of countless others, including former Assistant Secretary Phyllis Oakley, I would not be standing here today in my current role. To honor Ambassador Todman’s legacy and the other good troublemakers who came before me, I am committed to making trouble by taking action to further advance diversity and inclusion.
My work is guided by three principles: intentionality, transparency, and accountability.
The first principle, intentionality, is all about asking who is at the table, who’s missing, and is it accessible to everyone. In June of last year, the White House issued an executive order – the first of its kind in our nation’s history – tasking every federal agency to develop multiyear action plans to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in concrete ways. My team and I have been hard at work soliciting input from every employee in the department to inform our own strategic plan, which will be released later this spring.
The second guiding principle is transparency, and the foundation of our transparency efforts at the State Department is grounded in data. And by data, I mean disaggregated. That’s why my office recently developed a workplace demographic baseline report to serve as the benchmark against which we will track our future progress. We’re also conducting a series of barrier analyses to better understand the root causes of inequitable career outcomes.
And lastly, and perhaps the most important pillar, is accountability. Accountability is twofold. First, we must hold perpetrators of bullying, harassment, and discriminatory behaviors accountable for their actions. This means we need to build a culture of courage, the kind of culture Ambassador Todman lived and embodied.
But there is also a flip side to accountability, and by this I mean ensuring that our incentive structures reward good work. For far too long, diversity work within our institutions has been largely uncompensated side work, and all too often disproportionately falling on the shoulders of those impact the most by inequities – women, people of color, and those with disabilities.
I am proud to announce that the department will now be integrating work to advancing diversity as a metric for performance evaluation. It will now be formally tied to performance requirements and career advancement. Like Ambassador Todman, I am a firm believer that when we bring and fully integrate greater diversity of thought, lived experience, and perspective, bring it to the table, our foreign policy inherently will be stronger, smarter, and more effective.
It’s my great honor to have led the effort to name the cafeteria after Ambassador Todman so that future generations will know our history and be inspired by those who came before us. There is a long list of people to thank. We would not be here today if it weren’t for the great work of the A Bureau staff – Deborah Schneider, David Grossweiler, and so many more.
I also want to thank the Global Public Affairs Bureau for their hard work and also the Medical Unit, who spent so many hours helping my team navigate how to make this ceremony safe for everyone. I’d also like to recognize finally the trio who initiated this effort almost a year ago – Yolonda Kerney, Sharlina Hussain-Morgan, and our tireless warrior Maryum Saifee. Thank you.
It’s now my distinct honor to introduce the living legacy of Ambassador Todman, Terence Todman, Jr. Terence is a distinguished lawyer who has also worked in the department in the Office of the Legal Adviser. He is very much one of us, and he’ll be speaking on behalf of the Todman family.
MR TODMAN: Thank you very much. Thank you for that introduction and thank you for this opportunity. The truth of the matter is I was going to start by saying Xīnnián kuàilè, which is Happy New Year in Chinese Lunar New Year, and this is the year of the Tiger. As it happened, my father was born in the Year of the Tiger in 1926, and one of the things that that taught us was you never know who is going to say what. For those of you who speak better Mandarin than I do, I hope I didn’t insult your parents or your family or some other. (Laughter.) So the Year of the Tiger.
Secretary Blinken; Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley; ambassadors past, present, and future; friends and family: Those of us who have grown up in one way or another in the Foreign Service have come to know we are all family. On behalf of my mother, who sacrificed her stomach for the State Department – (laughter) – but was unwilling to sacrifice her 96-year-old bones to Washington’s cold this year; my sister Patricia who is here present; my other sister Kathryn who left us too early but with a wonderful legacy of her own, four children and four grandchildren, and at least so far; my brother Michael: I am delighted to be included in this event celebrating my father’s efforts to remove barriers from the entire American family’s participation in and contribution to our great country at home and overseas.
I particularly want to thank those whose indefatigable efforts made this even possible. Knowing in a small way how hard it is to get anything out of this building – (laughter) – I am truly grateful for their imagination and their persistence. Many great Americans who didn’t look like the norm in years past left the State Department frustrated by the obstacles they encountered in their efforts to serve.
My father, for reasons that were his own – and he was a competitive so-and-so – stayed and fought for as long as he was allowed. He believed that it was his responsibility to lend a hand, to lift others up. Those who knew him know he was not a starry-eyed idealist. He saw the United States as it was, a work in progress, predicated on beautifully expressed ideals. What he lamented was the obstacles put in front of him and others, often sadly by his own colleagues, to impede his ability to contribute to the work in progress, to make ours a better country.
He did not miss the irony that as a Virgin Islands resident he could not vote for the very presidents he represented. Nevertheless, he refused to change his residence, which he could do, because he wanted to stand for all Virgin Islanders and – until they could all vote.
So as my father’s son, I can’t let the moment pass, not only without celebrating the small steps, but also noting how much is left to be done – not only in the department, but also around the country at large. He held the belief that with persistence and good faith we can and would succeed. But he would be appalled by the efforts around the country to roll back the vote, the franchise to vote, and undermine the integrity of our elections. He would have considered those efforts an inexplicable lack of confidence in the American people.
I admit he would have also been surprised that he was being recognized for speaking truth to power. He thought that was why he was being paid. And he was always surprised when it was so uncommon. To give the best information, you had to do the work, which meant being willing to listen with respect and to understand the meanings and intentions of your interlocutors.
From his perspective, especially as a rising officer, it was his responsibility to give decision makers the best available information to enable them to make the best possible decisions, irrespective of the consequences. It was not his job to tell them what they wanted to hear or to tell them that which would require the least amount of further work or the least amount of stress.
My father loved his work and the tradecraft of diplomacy, in which he excelled. He never subscribed to the rarefied elitist notion of diplomacy. He was a people person and he believed at its heart diplomacy was a people’s trade, the ability to observe closely and carefully, the willingness to listen with respect, the training to communicate and report effectively and clearly, without ambiguity or deliberate obfuscation, and the desire to build relationships, relationships among people, at whatever level.
The parlor games of moving chess pieces around the board were not alien to him, and those who played him know he was competitive. But he thought those games distracted from building trust and promoting understanding among peoples. He would be gratified that the Secretary of State has taken up the Herculean challenge for what my father would have believed to be exactly the right reasons.
After reading the Secretary’s speech on the modernization of FSI and his remarks appointing Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley, he would have recognized, sadly, that these were the same issues with which he wrestled 40, 50, and 60 years ago. And he certainly would have counseled the Secretary to enlist the entire State Department and all of its personnel if he wished to avoid the fate of Sisyphus.
So Mr. Secretary, I applaud you. I thank you. We will be watching you. And it is my pleasure and distinct honor to introduce the Secretary of the United States Mr. Antony Blinken. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you all very, very much. Terence, that’s a hard act to follow, but one I’m incredibly gratified to follow. And I take your powerful, eloquent words to heart.
I usually get to say wherever I’m speaking that it’s an honor to be here. It really is an honor to be here today. This event, this moment, has deep meaning for me, but much more important than that, for this institution, for those assembled today, but especially, especially for the generations to come who will walk through those doors.
And we had a chance – Terence, Patricia, Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley, and I – to stand in front of the doors just a few moments ago, where Terence Todman’s name is now there for all to see. And just to think for a minute about what that means for all these years to come, as generation after generation of Foreign Service officers and civil servants, visitors, dignitaries come into this place that will be hopping and thriving again, and look up and see the name and ask, “Who is that? Why is the name there?” And then we will have a story to tell and a story that resonates to this day and inspires us to carry on what he started. So it is an honor to celebrate the truly extraordinary service of Ambassador Terence Todman and the reason we’re here today.
I do want to recognize some members of the family. Besides his son Terence, his daughter Patricia here with us today, Michael, and his late daughter Kathryn, and his partner for more than six decades, Doris, who I believe is tuning in from St. Martin – St. Thomas, excuse me. Do I have that right? Is she, in fact, tuned in? I hope so. But St. Thomas, where she and the ambassador graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1944.
To try to grasp all that Ambassador Todman achieved, it’s important to understand the State Department where he made his indelible mark. In 1926, when Terence Todman was born to a laundress and a grocery store clerk – one of 13[i] siblings – the department was almost entirely white and entirely male.
Only two years before his birth, the Rogers Act created the Foreign Service exam, which promised that State Department appointments would be made on merit – not based on who you were or who you knew.
But that same year, the chairman of the Foreign Service Personnel Board made clear to reviewers that any black applicant who passed the written exam should be rejected in the oral exam. The board’s executive committee even drafted a memo suggesting that President Coolidge issue an executive order to, and I quote, “relieve the Government of the necessity,” end quote, of appointing blacks, women, and naturalized citizens.
Over the next two decades, as Terence became the first member of his family to graduate from high school, only a handful of black men were able to join the Foreign Service. At their urging, in 1949, the department carried out a study on opportunities for black staff. America’s first black ambassador, Edward Dudley, and his team led this effort.
The findings were stark. From 1925 to 1949, black Foreign Service officers and other staff had spent 92 percent of their time rotating between three so-called hardship posts: Liberia, where Dudley was ambassador, Madagascar, and the Azores – what came to be known as “the circuit.” black people in the department, the report concluded, were, and I quote, “drastically restricted in their opportunities for transfer as compared with the opportunities afforded by their colleagues of equal rank and length of service.”
The report was not made public. And while a few additional black Foreign Service officers were assigned to South Asia and Europe, “the circuit” mostly lived on.
This was the institution that Terence joined in 1952. The first morning he reported to work, the chief of personnel told him that the department couldn’t hire him. In the official’s words, they needed people who were, and I quote, “100 percent identifiable as Americans.” Terence demanded a chance to speak with the director of the Office of South Asian Affairs, where he had been assigned.
William Witman II was the archetype of the department: white, male, Yale, as the saying goes. He told Terence the job would be a lot of work, that he couldn’t afford to waste any spots. Terence said this: “If you didn’t have work for me, I wouldn’t want to be in your office.”
Witman gave Ambassador Todman a shot, which was all he ever needed, all he ever wanted. Years later, when he was appointed ambassador to Togo, Witman asked Terence to be his deputy.
In those first years at State, Terence has said, people would regularly knock on his door looking for Mr. Todman. And he’d say, “Well, I’m Mr. Todman, come on in.” And they’d say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Ambassador Todman later said, “It took them a while to accept that I could be the person responsible for some activities.” Which was putting it diplomatically.
His first posting abroad was to India, where he was initially given the assignments that no one else wanted. One was writing a report on wheat production, in preparation for a visit by a congressional delegation from the Midwest. Terence threw himself into that work. He met with small farmers, with agronomists, with the local businessmen – people he could talk to because he had learned Hindi. The report was so impressive that he was asked to brief the congressmen in person. And the U.S. ambassador at the time, the great Ellsworth Bunker, started taking Terence with him whenever he traveled to the field.
That was the approach that Ambassador Todman brought to every assignment. We heard some of that from his son. He never relied on second-hand reports when he could speak to people directly. Not just officials, but the people who were living the issues that he was working on. The rice farmer in India. The military officer in Tunis. The labor organizer in San Juan.
And Ambassador Todman knew that to engage people, he needed the language. So he put in the hard work to learn languages wherever he went.
Terence Jr. remembers seeing his dad late at night and on weekends, sitting down in front of an old-fashioned reel-to-reel player recorder, listening to Arabic language audio tapes. Having the language meant that there was no person Ambassador Todman couldn’t speak to – or listen to – and that was important, because he believed he could learn from everyone.
Now I suspect part of this is because Todman knew how much was missed when certain people were overlooked, ignored, not heard, because of who they were or how they looked. For him, there were no less-thans – only fellow human beings.
Another part of his approach was Terence’s commitment to learning everything that there was to know before reaching a conclusion. Knowing your facts – that was what was expected, whether you served under Ambassador Todman or, as I’ve heard indirectly, sitting around the kitchen table. If you took a position, you’d better be able to back it up.
A junior officer who worked for Terence decades later, when he was ambassador to Spain, remembered that he arrived at the office every morning having read all the major Spanish and international papers.
That approach helped Ambassador Todman make remarkable contributions over his decades of service.
To name just one: When he was appointed assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the Carter administration, he was charged with reopening diplomatic talks with Cuba.
The first meeting was held in New York, on a very bleak winter’s day. When the Cuban delegation arrived, Ambassador Todman walked over, extended a hand and, in perfect Spanish, assured them that the warmth of the talks would more than make up for the freezing temperatures outside, and he remembered seeing immediate relief on the faces of the Cuban guests.
Having learned in advance that the head of the Cuban delegation suffered from an ulcer, Ambassador Todman made sure to have warm milk on hand, a remedy that brought him some relief. Whenever the talks hit a snag, he called a recess; the two would meet by the milk to iron it out.
When Fidel Castro wanted to finish the negotiations in Havana, some in the administration were reluctant to let Ambassador Todman lead the U.S. delegation. He told them, “If you don’t think I’m able to take care of our interests in dealing with Castro, then I shouldn’t be assistant secretary of state.” They relented; Terence delivered. The talks led to a series of agreements, including the opening of the first U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
This happened again and again during Ambassador Todman’s career. He was an extraordinary diplomat. But because he was a Black diplomat, he was routinely forced to prove himself worthy to serve the country that he loved.
This, as you’ve heard, is what so rankled him early on in his career, about not being able to eat in a nearby restaurant while studying at the Foreign Service Institute. It wasn’t just the indignity of it, or the fact that, at the same time they were being trained to represent the United States abroad, they were being treated as less than equal at home.
It was, as Terence Jr. later put it, that his father couldn’t understand why anyone would want to put obstacles in the way of the best people serving their country.
And that’s exactly, exactly what we’re so inspired by today. That’s exactly why there’s a direct thread between Ambassador Todman and the work that Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley is doing, that we’re doing together, to make sure that we have a department that reflects the country that we serve, that reflects the best of our country in all its diversity, in all its strength. To do otherwise – to do otherwise is to shortchange our country. And it’s thanks to Ambassador Todman that we are carrying out this work. This is his legacy, too.
Now, he didn’t set out to be a troublemaker – a good troublemaker; John Lewis would so appreciate – but he was willing to make trouble when he believed it was in the best interests of the United States.
It’s the reason he spent his career trying to change the system from within, so that it would attract and promote outstanding Black diplomats. It was a point he raised in every meeting that he ever had with a secretary of state – and he met more than his share, and worked with more than his share. And as he said, and I quote, “I have always contended that you don’t do this for minorities, you do this for the United States. We need, as a country, the very best input that we can get.” And that’s exactly what this is about.
For him, mentorship was a part of patriotism – a way of shoring up people he might otherwise give up – who might otherwise give up on serving a country that kept asking them to prove themselves. It’s why he played a leading role in the Thursday Luncheon Group, which was created back in 1973 to provide advice and fellowship for Black foreign and civil servants as they navigated the obstacles here at State. It’s why he made a point of staying in touch with junior Black diplomats for years after they’d worked for him.
And it’s why he sought postings that broke down barriers, like when he accepted the ambassadorship to Costa Rica after serving ambassador to Guinea. On paper, it was considered a move to a lower-tiered post. But for Ambassador Todman, it was a chance to break out of the “circuit.” To show, once again, that he could be an extraordinary public servant anywhere.
As both Terence Jr. and Gina said, the best way to honor his legacy is for this department to take up the work of attracting and advancing the best people, regardless of who they are – rather than leaving that work to individuals like him.
And that’s why we’re working with such urgency to learn how previous efforts have fallen short, to put what we learn out in the open, to systematically eliminate every obstacle, close every gap.
One way we can do that is by empowering everyone throughout the department to highlight the remarkable contributions of people like Ambassador Todman, and the perpetual battles that they waged to make those contributions.
Which brings us, finally, full circle to today.
In 2005, an American diplomat named Yolonda Kerney arrived in Guinea for her first tour as a Foreign Service officer. Walking the halls of our embassy, she saw one photo after another of former U.S. ambassadors. All white men. Then she stopped. There, on the wall, was a photograph of Ambassador Todman.
The embassy was being rebuilt at the time. The more Yolonda learned about him, the more she thought it would be a good idea to name part of the compound in his honor. But at the time, she didn’t feel that she could put that idea forward.
Well, Yolonda is now our diplomat-in-residence in Washington D.C. It was her idea – together with other colleagues, Maryum Saifee, Sharlina Hussain-Morgan – to name this cafeteria in Ambassador Todman’s honor. And working with Gina, here we are. They made it happen. Thank you, thank you, thank you. (Applause.)
I have a feeling this would make Ambassador Todman very proud. And knowing what I now know of him, I suspect it would make him even prouder to see that women like Yolonda, Maryum, Sharlina, who represent the very best of our nation, are leading new generations in this department as we take this unfinished work forward.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)