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Susan O'Rourke | February 11, 2022

This month, UNC World View is excited to celebrate Black History Month by sharing resources on the history of Black American leaders in global affairs.

From Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett (“generally acknowledged as the very first African American to serve as a U.S. diplomat”) to Patricia Roberts Harris (the first Black American woman served as an ambassador) to Derek J. Hogan (the former ambassador to Moldova and current Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs), Black Americans have been and continue to be leaders in U.S. foreign relations. Black Americans have worked in organizations and offices including the United Nations, USAID, the United States Department of State, the United States Foreign Service, and the United States Department of Defense.

Some influential leaders throughout history in global affairs include:

  • Ralph Bunche, Undersecretary General to the United Nations, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and “leading advocate of granting independence to colonial regimes around the world” who helped found the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Patricia Roberts Harris, Ambassador to Luxembourg, “first African American dean of a U.S. law school at Howard University[, and] first African American woman to hold a cabinet position when she served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1977”
  • Mabel M. Smythe-Haithe, “Ambassador to Cameroon, Republic of Equatorial Guinea, [from] 1977-1980” and former “deputy director for NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund [who] worked with Thurgood Marshall on the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case.”
  • Barbara M. Watson, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs under Lyndon B. Johnson and former U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia; In an interview in 1992, Cornelius D. Scully, II (Director of the Office of Legislation, Regulation, and Advisory Assistance in the Bureau of Consular Affairs) recalled Watson’s impact: “She was a lawyer by training, and she had a brilliant legal mind and an incredible memory. She had the most sensitive political antennae of anybody I have ever encountered. She was absolutely a genius at the politics of a situation… She worked and did more, I think, to enhance, to raise, to dignify the consular service and consular work as a career than anybody in modern times.”
  • Colin Powell, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, four-star general, former Deputy Secretary of State, “Ronald Reagan’s Deputy National Security Advisor in 1987 then National Security Advisor,” and founder of the Colin Powell School for Leadership at The City College of New York and of America’s Promise; As Secretary of State “Powell pushed the Administration to increase its commitment to the international fight against AIDS, and oversaw a doubling of development assistance funding. He also pressed for international cooperation to halt the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran.”
  • Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush and “[champion of] the idea of ‘Transformational Diplomacy,’” former “director of Soviet and East European Affairs on the National Security Council,” former advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Stanford University professor of political science and Provost
  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a scholar and foreign service official, current United States ambassador to the United Nations, former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and former professor of political science at Bucknell University

Advocates continue to stress the importance of diverse representation within U.S. foreign affairs agencies. The Council of Foreign Relations (citing research from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Census Bureau) reports that, as of 2018, Black Americans made up only 6% of the State Department Foreign Service and “below 3 percent…of…senior officers.” Greater diverse representation in the foreign service, they report, is essential as the United States “[promotes the] values of inclusion and equality…abroad.”

We understand the important role educators can play in bringing awareness to the service of Black Americans in global affairs and bringing global perspectives into their classrooms. Diplomat Ralph Bunche, himself, celebrated the positive impact of teachers. He recognized his primary school teacher, Miss Emma Belle Sweet and “credited Miss Sweet’s geography lessons for opening up the world to him.” We encourage educators to check out the resources below to bring the rich history of Black leaders in foreign affairs into your classrooms.

Diplomats—Contextual Resources

Educator Resources