Exchange Matters / February 27, 2018

Black American Ambassadors

Article by Carlton McLellan, Senior Advisor, Global Ties U.S.

Leaders in diplomacy and international exchange come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Since 1893, there have been more than 2,300 U.S. ambassadors; less than 7 percent of them have been Black. The first was Edward Dudley, a civil rights attorney and close advisor to Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Liberia in 1949.

This year, we celebrate Black History Month by sharing some of the many contributions made by Black American leaders in diplomacy and exchanges.


Image source: ADST

Patricia Roberts Harris served as the first Black American woman to be appointed U.S. Ambassador. She served in Luxembourg from 1965-66.


At least 10 Black Americans who served as ambassador gained early international exposure through cross-cultural exchange and volunteer organizations. Seven volunteered with Operation Crossroads Africa, an organization which sponsors cross-cultural exchanges and service projects in Africa:

  • Cynthia Akuetteh (Gabon, 2014-present)
  • Shirley Barnes (Madagascar, 1998-2001)
  • Suzan Cook (At-Large for International Religious Freedom, 2011-13)
  • Howard Jeter (Botswana, 1993-96; Nigeria, 2001-03)
  • James Joseph (South Africa, 1995-2000)
  • Eunice Reddick (Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, 2007-10)
  • Cynthia Shephard Perry (Sierra Leone, 1986-89; Burundi, 1989-93)

Other Black American ambassadors received Fulbright scholarships and assistantships prior to their service:

Image source: Wikipedia

Ronald Palmer (Togo, 1976-78; Malaysia, 1981-83; Mauritius, 1986-89), studied in France from 1954-55 under a Fulbright scholarship.


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Hugh Smythe (Syria, 1965-67; Malta, 1967-69) was a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Thailand from 1963-64. He and his wife, Mabel Murphy Smythe (Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, 1977-80), helped establish Operation Crossroads Africa.


Black American Ambassadors who held senior leadership at Meridian International Center, a Global Ties U.S. National Program Agency, and Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center:

Image source: Wikipedia

John Reinhardt served as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 1971-75.


Image source: ADST

Kenton Keith served as U.S. Ambassador to Qatar from 1992-95.


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Sharon Wilkinson served as U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso from 1996-99, and Mozambique from 2000-03.

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Elizabeth McKune served as U.S. Ambassador to Qatar from 1998-2001. She later became Executive Director of the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in 2007.


Image source: Denver Post

David Bolen (right) served as U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho from 1974-76, and the German Democratic Republic (1977-80). He was also an Olympic athlete who competed for the U.S. in the 1948 Summer Olympics Games in London, placing fourth in the 400 meter dash.


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As U.S. Ambassador to Algeria (1977-81), Ulric St. Clair Haynes, Jr. was instrumental in the negotiations that ultimately led to the highly publicized release of American hostages in Iran in 1981.


Image source: Wikipedia

In 1925, Clifton Wharton, Sr. became the first Black American to take and pass the U.S. Foreign Service Exam. He later became the first Black American to be appointed U.S. Ambassador to a European country, serving in Norway from 1961-64.