Celebrating the American Ambassador in Black History


Black history studies are about celebrating, elevating, and even critiquing Black leadership in every field of human endeavor. However, other than Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the first two Black Secretaries of State, or Ralph Bunch, the first Black American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in Arab-Israeli conflict negotiations, many are unaware of the contributions of other Black leaders in diplomacy/international affairs. Black American U.S. ambassadors are one such group. Since 1893 when the rank “ambassador” was first used to describe the highest ranking U.S. official in a country, there have only been 139 Black Americans to hold this rank.

These 139 ambassadors have served 197 times in over 100 postings and have included 90 men and 49 women. Sub-Saharan Africa has hosted a Black American ambassador 125 times, with Liberia topping the list with eight. The Caribbean has been equally active with 12 Black American ambassadorial appointments; while the United Nations has also hosted eight. Politically, Republican presidents have successfully deployed a Black American ambassador 99 times and Democrats 98. Seventy-nine have chosen the U.S. Foreign Service as their profession, while 60, called non-career or political appointees, have come from other professions.

Of particular note are Edward Dudley (Liberia, 1949), the 1st Black American ambassador; Clifton Wharton Sr. (Norway, 1961), the 1st Black American to be appointed ambassador to a non-African country; Patricia Roberts Harris (Luxemburg, 1965), the 1st Black American woman ambassador; Terrence Todman (Chad, 1969; Guinea, 1972; Costa Rica, 1974; Spain, 1978; Denmark, 1983, and, Argentina, 1989) appointed the most of any Black American; or the three most powerful Americans within the United Nation’s system during the period around 2010, Ambassadors Susan Rice (USUN/New York, 2009), Betty King (USUN/Geneva, 2010), and Ertharin Cousin (USUN/Rome, 2010). Furthermore, Ulric St. Clair Haynes Jr., while ambassador to Algeria, was instrumental in the negotiations leading to the 1981 release of American hostages in Iran. James Joseph was the only U.S. ambassador (South Africa, 1995) who had the honor of presenting his diplomatic credentials to President Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s global human rights icon.

Their professional diversity, capacity for leadership, accomplishments, and varying personal characteristics suggest that the stories of these Black leaders will be valuable to those interested in diplomacy/international affairs and leadership. The lives and professional experiences are full of inspirational stories of achievement and overcoming obstacles. This is a challenge to further explore the influences of these Black leaders. What better time to start than right now – Black History Month!

Carlton McLellan, Ph.D. can be reached at carlton@myinternational.org.

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Celebrating the American Ambassador in Black History

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