Foreign Affairs

Terence A Todman, first African-American diplomat in US to be appointed as the career ambassador

Terence A TodmanPhoto Credit: Twitter

What is the connection between a State Department cafeteria being renamed this week, the overwhelming White dominance of American diplomacy, and India? The solution can be found in Terence A. Todman’s life and work as the first African-American diplomat to be appointed as a career ambassador in the United States (US).

When a 26-year-old Todman attempted to join the State Department after passing his exam in 1952, he was turned down. Todman recalled the personnel department chief telling him, “You are not the kind of person we can utilise,” in a 1995 interview as part of an oral history project of American diplomacy. We require foreign service personnel in the United States who are 100% recognised as Americans… Your accent isn’t so strong that you’d be mistaken for an American right away.”

Todman, on the other hand, persevered and succeeded, as the head of the Office of South Asian Affairs, to which he was transferred, decided to give him a chance.

The link with India

Todman was promoted to India’s assistant desk officer. His first overseas assignment was to India as a political and labour affairs officer in the American embassy in New Delhi a few years later. He learned Hindi, met political leaders, kept track of parties, went to Parliament, and, perhaps most poignantly, escorted Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife during their visit to India in February and March 1959.

“The tie-in with China and close links with Moscow,” Todman remarked of his thoughts of India at the time. Existence of a true democracy, in which people are free to say and do whatever they choose. A country aiming to carve out its own niche in the globe, one warranted by its size and economic progress. A place with more contradictions than I could have imagined…a country with such uneven development…a country with a strong anti-Pakistan obsession…a country with an extremely rich culture.”

Getting across the bridge

Todman had to cross the bridge from Washington DC to Virginia to complete introductory training on India at the Foreign Service Institute before he could fly to Delhi. It was the year 1957. Virginia’s segregation laws were still in effect. A modest coffee shop was located within the institute. All of the white officers ate lunch at a regular restaurant across the street. When Todman inquired about where he could eat, the State Department told him there were no plans, that they “regretted” that they were in Virginia, which did not allow Whites and Blacks to eat together, and that the Department could do little because it was a privately-run restaurant.

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By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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