February marks National African American History Month in the United States. In observance of African American History Month, we’re highlighting African-American individuals who dedicated their lives to public service and broke barriers to accomplish U.S. diplomatic history.
Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett: First African-American Diplomat
President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Ebenezer Bassett as the U.S. Minister to Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1869. He was the first African American to serve as a U.S. diplomat anywhere in the world.
Clifton R. Wharton: First African-American Foreign Service Officer
In 1925, Clifton R. Wharton became the first African American to enter the Foreign Service after the passage of the 1924 Rogers Act, which consolidated the Department’s Consular and Diplomatic Services. He would be the only African American admitted to the Foreign Service for the next 20 years.
Edward R. Dudley: First African American to hold the rank of Ambassador
In 1948, President Truman appointed Edward R. Dudley to the position of United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Liberia. In accepting this position he became, the first United States Ambassador to Liberia and the first African-American ambassador. Dudley’s chief objectives were to implement President Truman’s Four Point Plan, which outlined foreign aid to Africa. The plan also sought to provide technical assistance, as well as agricultural and industrial equipment and skills training.
Ralph Bunche: First African-American Nobel Peace Prize Recipient
“The well-being and the hopes of the peoples of the world can never be served until peace — as well as freedom, honor and self-respect — is secure.”
Beginning in the 1940s, Ralph Bunche embarked on a career that made him one of the most prominent diplomats in U.S. history. He was a leading advocate of granting independence to colonial regimes around the world. In 1944, he joined the Department of State as an advisor on the future of colonial territories. He also advised the U.S. delegation that helped to draft the charter of the United Nations. Bunche joined the United Nations in 1946. He played an important role in the creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his mediation efforts in the Middle East. He became Under Secretary General of the United Nations in 1968.
Edith S. Sampson: First African-American delegate to the United Nations
American diplomat who was appointed by President Harry Truman as an alternate U.S. delegate to the United Nations in August 1950, making her the first African American to officially represent the United States at the United Nations.
Patricia Roberts Harris: First African-American woman to serve as an Ambassador
“If my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts can wind up as being part of the system.”
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson chose Patricia Harris to become the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. She was the first African-American woman named as an American envoy. She said, “I feel deeply proud and grateful this President chose me to knock down this barrier, but also a little sad about being the ‘first Negro woman’ because it implies we were not considered before.” She also served as an alternate delegate to the 21st and 22nd General Assemblies of the United Nations.
Andrew Young: First African-American Ambassador to the United Nations
“In a world where change is inevitable and continuous, the need to achieve that change without violence is essential for survival.”
President Jimmy Carter appointed Andrew Young U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1977. With his help, protection of human rights and economic advancement in underdeveloped countries became objectives of U.S. foreign policy.
Colin L. Powell: First African-American Secretary of State
“America is a nation of nations, made up of people from every land, of every race and practicing every faith. Our diversity is not a source of weakness; it is a source of strength, it is a source of our success. We are a country of countries, drawing from every country in the world and contributing to every country to the world.”
Colin L. Powell was the first African American to serve as Secretary of State. He was appointed Secretary of State by George W. Bush on January 20, 2001, after being unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He served for four years, leaving the position on January 26, 2005.
Condoleezza Rice: First African-American Woman Secretary of State
“Our work has only begun. In our time we have an historic opportunity to shape a global balance of power that favors freedom and that will therefore deepen and extend the peace. And I use the word power broadly, because even more important than military and indeed economic power is the power of ideas, the power of compassion, and the power of hope.”
Condoleezza Rice was the first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State. She was nominated for Secretary of State by George W. Bush on November 14, 2004, and assumed office on January 26, 2005. She served for four years, leaving the position on January 20, 2009.
Interested in learning more about African-American leaders in U.S. diplomacy?
This month, the U.S. Diplomacy Center will host a special program exploring the diplomatic careers of two 19th century prominent African Americans who served as U.S. ministers to Haiti: Ebenezer Bassett, America’s first African-American diplomat, and Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, writer, activist, civil servant, and diplomat.
Christopher Teal, U.S. Foreign Service Officer and author of Hero of Hispaniola: America’s First Black Diplomat, Ebenezer D. Bassett, will discuss his current project, a documentary on Bassett, after a screening of the upcoming film. Dr. Ka’mal McClarin, Curator at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, National Park Service, will lend insight into Douglass’s little-known diplomatic career. Several artifacts belonging to Douglass during his time in Haiti will be on display.