The original idea for Black Diplomacy came up a few years ago when I was having a discussion with my husband, a Foreign Service Officer for over 15 years, about the contributions of black diplomats in the State Department. He knew that the African American men and women who served during the the early days of the Cold War paved the way for black Foreign Service Officers like himself to be of part of a very elite and closed off profession.
These early diplomats, like those featured in Black Diplomacy, faced higher barriers to admittance into the Service, limited career possibilities, and outright racism in the workplace. My husband was afraid their stories, their contributions, and their experiences would be lost as time went on and these diplomats began to pass away. He kept saying, “Leola, this would make a great film.” He handed me Michael Krenn’s book, Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 1945-1969. I became immediately fascinated by the early culture of the Foreign Service--its elitism and how that elitism worked to subtly and not so subtly keep African Americans out. This led me to learn more about the lives of Edward R. Dudley, Terrence Todman, and Carl Rowan--how they navigated that world, and, eventually, conquered it. My husband was right. Telling these stories would make a great film.
While our project uses Black Diplomacy as a working title, it owes its genesis to Krenn and his research. Michael has been one of the project’s earliest and most ardent supporters, always offering to help and always game for a last minute insight or quote when I was up against a funding application deadline. When it was announced last week that the project received scripting support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), I decided this was a good time to start introducing the advisory team behind the project, a small group of scholars at the top of their field, researching the intersection of race, international relations, and civil rights. This team was critical to our success with NEH. I thought it would be appropriate to begin with introducing Michael whose work helped shed light on the little known history of African Americans in the Foreign Service.
Q. I remember during our first conversation you described the start of your research for Black Diplomacy as almost being an accident. What led you to write Black Diplomacy exploring the history of African Americans in the State Department?
I came across the topic for Black Diplomacy quite by accident. While I was doing research on another book at the Eisenhower Library I came across a State Department memorandum from 1949 entitled, “Countries to which an Outstanding Negro might Appropriately be sent as Ambassador.” It was certainly an eye-opening document: the only “outstanding Negro” that could be found was Ralph Bunche; “appropriate countries” were also in short supply. Since I always had an interest in the impact of race on U.S. foreign policy I decided to write up a brief research note on the African American presence in the Department of State since World War II. I ended that piece by saying that I hoped it would serve as a “spur to further research”—and then decided that maybe it should spur me!
Q. You had the opportunity to do one of the last interviews with Edward R. Dudley before his passing in 2005. What was compelling about Dudley and what do you see as his impact on the State Department?
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do one of the last interviews with Edward R Dudley. He was a fascinating individual, even aside from the fact that he was the first African American ambassador in the history of the United States. Prior to meeting with him I had already done an immense amount of archival research on his time with the Department of State and discovered that not only was he an extremely effective American representative to Liberia, but that he was instrumental in breaking up what was known as the “Negro Circuit”—the extremely limited number of posts to which African American diplomats were confined prior to World War II. Without his forceful efforts, it is doubtful that much would have been done to alleviate the problem. What was most striking about Dudley was his self-effacing attitude about his role—he simply viewed it as something that needed to be done and, so, he did it. I think, too, that while he was justifiably proud of his work as a diplomat he viewed it as just one of many accomplishments during a lifetime of noteworthy effort.
Q. Why is this history relevant today?
I think that the history of African Americans in the Department of State is important on several levels. First, it adds another layer—and one that is often overlooked—to the overall history of the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunity. People such as Dudley were, in fact, pioneers in an inhospitable work environment and their story deserves to be heard. Second, examining the role of African Americans in the Department of State, particularly during the Cold War, adds an important new level of understanding about how America’s civil rights problem became an international issue. Finally, given the world in which we live today, it is important for us to understand that issues of race and ethnicity did not suddenly arise after 9/11 and that they continue to impact America’s relations with the world.
Q. What is your current research?
I am currently finishing up a book on the history of U.S. cultural diplomacy from the time of Thomas Jefferson to the use of what is being called “hip hop diplomacy” today. I’m also working on a historiographical piece on race and U.S. diplomacy.
Q. Since we're working on a documentary, this question seems imperative: What's your favorite documentary?
I’m fairly eclectic in terms of “favorite documentary.” I use the old PBS documentary, “Chicago 1968” every time I teach my course on the Vietnam War (and its portrayal of the fraying and rending of the American political system seems quite timely for today’s students). But I also enjoy those documentaries that focus on U.S. culture, such as the recent one (also shown on PBS) dealing with Orson Welles’s famous (or infamous) “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast from 1938.
Michael Krenn is a Professor in the Department of History at Appalachian State University. You can find his work here.
Look for more Meet the Advisor interviews in future FLOWSTATE Stories posts.