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 minisers, consuls, and other officials in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. These officials included such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Archibald Grimke, Richard T. Greener, George Washington Ellis, and Henry Francis Downing.

Edward R. Dudley, 1911-2005
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
Ruth A. Davis
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.

Edith S. Sampson
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.


Armchair Travel 2013

The debut post for Blog was July 1, 2012. Happy Anniversary! There has been a variety of topics covered, some more popular than others, thoughtful comments, and positive feedback.

Last August, one of the posts (Thinking of Travel: Armchair and Otherwise) explored how to get the most out of travel planning by using fiction to get ideas, learn about a place, or get lost in imagining a vacation in a place and culture whose physical geography may be out of reach. The topic of armchair travel will be revisited in this post by going on a musical excursion. Music of another place, music in a place we know, music of the diaspora. Any of these categories will be an expedition to people and places worth listening to, reading about, or even planning a trip of a lifetime. Clearly, this list will not be all-encompassing and complete. It is meant to start the reader's own journey of research. Please feel free to add lists, ideas, favorite musicians in the comment section.

Andy Palacio of Belize
Ready? Let's go! The first stops are in Central America: Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and the island of Roatan. One common denominator of these places is the Garifuna people. The Garifuna are descendants of Caribs and West Africans and whose language is Arawak in origin. The musician Andy Palacio (December 2, 1960 – January 19, 2008) has been instrumental (no pun intended) in trying to save the Garifuna language and culture through the medium of his music and that of The Garifuna Collective and The Garifuna Women's Project. Palacio's last album, Watina, is filled with the plaintive longing of home, exuberance for life, and love of his people. Listening to any of the albums found through the links above will take you on a holiday far from your daily life.

Next stop: Mali. Malian music is well-known for its variety, quality, accessibility for a world-wide audience. The music of Mali is ethnically diverse, but one influence predominates: that of the ancient Mali Empire of the Mandinka (from c. 1230 to c. 1600). Mande people (Bambara, Maninke, Soninke) make up 50% of the country's population, other ethnic groups include the Fula (17%), Gur-speakers 12%, Songhai people (6%), Tuareg (the music of Terakraft will leave your head bobbing...desert rock!) and Moors (10%) and another 5%, including Europeans. This link will take the inquisitive listener to ten groups to begin a wonderful audio journey.

Head over to Senegal, listening to Baaba Maal's album Nomad Soul or Cheikh Lo's Bambay Gueej . Never been to Sierra Leone? Don't know enough about the pain and suffering of people living through a civil war? Check out the remarkable stories of survival and hope with Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars in their album Living Like a Refugee. For an evening (140 minutes!) of "The Finest African Ballads from Ethiopia, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Egypt, Guinea, Western Sahara", check out Desert Blues 1, Desert Blues 2 and now Desert Blues 3!

Before heading south, let's take a quick trip over to Cape Verde, a string of islands off the west coast of Africa. Cesaria Evora's haunting voice will lead you on a side trip to Portugal and will be a reminder of the colonial role played by Portugal in Africa and South America. A list of her albums and videos can be found at this link.  

Now let's head south! Not to the usual music mecca of South Africa, but first to Zimbabwe. Oliver Mtukudze has been performing since 1977. Like many musicians, he is a reminder of the fine line artists often tread when they want to both express the needs/feelings of their communities, but dare not openly criticize a government for fear of reprisal. And now on to Angola. The musician Bonga,considered one of Angola's greatest artistic legends, will take you on a musical, and historical, journey with influences from Angola, Portugal, and Brazil. Ah, Brazil! Virginia Rodrigues.
Virginia Rodrigues
Ms. Rodrigues has produced four albums and, again, she is a reminder of the linkages between African and Portuguese cultures and history.

One final musical stop today will be with The Toure-Raichel Collective, a collaboration between Idan Raichel (of Israel), Vieux Farka Toure (of Mali), Yossi Fine (of Israel), and Souleymane Kane (of Mali). The album was the result of sessions in Tel Aviv. Music is an amazing bridge between cultures, a testament to the ability of people to create and thrive, regardless of the trials of everyday life.