Monday, July 22, 2013 African Americans Serving the United States Abroad

Edward R. Dudley (1911-2005)

Ruth A. Davis 

Edith S. Sampson 

Hazel Singer
July 17, 2013

African Americans Abroad

African Americans have a long history of serving their country in the Foreign Service. The following is a list of 'firsts': this list is by no means exhaustive and presents many people not commonly discussed.

The first such individual was William A. Leidesdorff, who was appointed in 1845 as Vice Consul at Yerba Buena (now San Francisco), when California was part of Mexico. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Yale graduate Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett as Minister Resident and Consul General in Haiti. From this point on through the 1930s, African Americans served as ministers, consuls, and other officials in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. These officials included such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Archibald Grimke, George Washington Ellis, and Henry Francis Downing.

Lester Aglar Walton can be considered the first African American Ambassador, even though his title did not officially use that term. He was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Liberia in 1935. His successor, Edward R. Dudley, was appointed Minister to Liberia in 1948 and promoted to Ambassador to Liberia in 1949, thus becoming the first African American to officially hold the title of Ambassador.

The first African American woman to hold the post of Ambassador was Patricia Harris. She was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1965-1967. Ruth A. Davis is the first African American woman to be promoted to the rank of Career Ambassador, the highest rank in the 
Foreign Service. Ambassador Davis joined the Foreign Service in 1969 and served her country during the Clinton Administrations.

James Carter and William Yerby were the first African Americans to enter the regular career Foreign Service. Their colleague, Clifton Reginald Wharton Sr. joined the Foreign Service in 1925. He became the first African American Foreign Service Officer to become chief of a diplomatic mission to a European country when he was appointed Minister to Romania in 1958 and served until 1960. He subsequently served as Ambassador to Norway from 1961-1964. His son Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. was the first African American to hold the number two position in the State Department as Deputy Secretary of State, 1973.

Dr. LaRae Washington Kemp was the first African American Medical Director, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Department of State for Health Affairs and Medical Director for the U.S State Department and Foreign Service (1991-1994). The first African American Civil Service employee to serve as an Ambassador is Barry L.Wells, who was appointed as Ambassador to the Republic of The Gambia in 2007.

The first African American Secretary of State was Colin Powell, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001. The first African American woman to be Secretary of State was Condoleezza Rice, appointed in 2005 by President George W. Bush. Barbara M. Watson had a distinguished career in the Foreign Service, starting as Administrator of the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs in 1968. In 1977, she became Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs and served until 1980. She was the first woman to hold the title of Assistant Secretary. She also served as Ambassador to Malaysia, 1980-81.

Andrew Young is trumpeted as the first African American Ambassador to the United Nations, appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. However, Edith S. Sampson was an African American diplomat who was appointed by President Harry Truman as an alternate U.S. delegate to the United Nations in 1950, thus making her the first African American to be hold this position.

The final entry for this discussion is Pamela Spratlen, Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic. is proud to list her as a contributor to the website. For individuals wishing to peruse a longer list of African Americans in the Foreign Service, the information can be found at the U.S State Department History Archives, some of which is compiled here.

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