Each year since 1976 the United States celebrates African American History Month during the month of February. This month was chosen because it includes the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 65), who passed the 13th amendment abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, and the famous abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (1818 – 95). Each February, the United States recognizes the achievements, successes, and contributions of African Americans throughout history and the present day.
“Our responsibility as citizens is to address the inequalities and injustices that linger, and we must secure our birthright freedoms for all people. As we mark the 40th year of National African American History Month, let us reflect on the sacrifices and contributions made by generations of African Americans, and let us resolve to continue our march toward a day when every person knows the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (President Barack Obama in his African American History Month Proclamation, 01/26/2016)
As representatives of the United States Mission to the European Union (USEU), we would like to take the opportunity presented by African American History Month to highlight the important contributions that African American men and women have made to the U.S. Foreign Service. According to a 2008 State Department Bureau of Resource Management report, African Americans compose 5.6% of the approximately 11,471 members of the U.S. Foreign Service. This percentage falls short of the number of African Americans in the civilian workforce and the general American population. It is however already a significant improvement compared to prior years, partially due to efforts made by Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Colin L. Powell, and Condoleezza Rice to increase diversity in the Department.
“We must inspire young Americans from diverse backgrounds to see themselves as the face of America to the world”. United States Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield
While there is still progress to be made, the State Department has had many African American diplomats within its ranks who have made notable contributions to advancing United States foreign policy abroad. The first African American to hold a major foreign policy portfolio was Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett, who was appointed Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti in 1869 (the term Ambassador was not used before 1893). Since then, African Americans have served as Ambassadors in nearly 100 countries and international organizations, and numerous others have held senior positions within the foreign service. The first African American to officially carry the title of Ambassador was Edward Richard Dudley (1949-53), who served as Ambassador to Liberia. The first female black Ambassador was Patricia Roberts Harris who served in Luxembourg (1965-67). In recent years, two African Americans have served as Secretary of State: Colin Powell (2000-2004) and Condoleezza Rice (2005-2009). There have also been four black U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations, including Edith S. Sampson in 1950 and most recently Susan Rice (2009-2013).
One more recent example of a senior African American member of the U.S. Diplomatic Service is Ambassador Betty King who led the U.S. Representative to the Office of the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva from 2010 to 2013. Ambassador King has had an extensive career in public service, having been the United States Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, where she worked on human rights, development, children, aging, and population issues. She was also the principal U.S. negotiator of the Millennium Development Goals.
At the United States Mission to the European Union (USEU), Ambassador William E. Kennard led our organization from 2009 – 2013. Besides having been an outstanding U.S. Ambassador to the EU, Ambassador Kennard is also known for being a tireless advocate to reduce inequalities within societies. With his background as a leader in the telecommunications sector, he continues helping people bridge the digital divide in the United States as well as in developing nations. As Ambassador Kennard said in 2013 when introducing the Academy Award winning film Lincoln that demonstrates how President Lincoln fought to pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I stand here before you tonight myself a great grandson of slaves and I am here today because Lincoln did what he did. Thank you for coming here tonight to share in honoring an important chapter in our American history.”
The contributions made by African American men and women to the State Department are only a small example of the signifiant contributions that African Americans have made to the U.S. government, society, economy, and culture.
The USEU Press Team