The following is an excerpt from Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar (December 2017) by Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas with Jim Robison.
From Chapter 4: Young, Black, Female, and . . . from the White House
Foreign Service officers serve at some 265 U.S. diplomatic missions, some at embassies and consulates around the world and others in Washington and elsewhere for the Department of State. The Departments of Agriculture and Commerce and the U.S. Agency for International Development have their own overseas contingents. Traditionally, their people are assigned at U.S. embassies abroad as well. The entrance process for State Department officers is far more complex now. Other government agencies have a different entry process. No matter the process, by this time I had heightened self-esteem and considered myself very much like the title of Nina Simone’s song “Young, Gifted and Black.” I was going to ace the orals, and thanks to the tutoring and guidance of several senior black officers, I did.
I was always inspired when I listened to Nina Simone’s song. For Christmas 1970, my brother Harry and his dear wife, Barbara, gave me Lorraine Hansberry’s work of the same title. Their inscription in that book reads, “You are young, gifted and black—and most importantly, you care. Your caring, your loving spirit, your warmth, your joy of life endear you to those whose lives you touch. Your bright shining personality and deep concern sustain, enrich and nurture all of us.”
Although I recognize the family bias in the flattery, the message was particularly meaningful to me at the time. With a slight change in Nina Simone’s lyrics, the song gained even greater significance. As I entered my new professional home at the venerable Department of State, I was not welcomed with open arms. I was young, black, female, . . . and a former secretary from the White House. My new State colleagues were not interested in my undergraduate Simmons degree in international relations. As a black officer and a female officer, I faced two glass ceilings in the Foreign Service. Many of the older civil servants were not at all thrilled with my arrival. From the outset, I noted how they were subtly unsupportive of any initiative I suggested, no matter how valid. Upon reflection, I honestly believe my challenges stemmed more from being a woman than from being black. To add insult to injury, I came from the White House, which was not, in their view, a badge of honor. Well aware of that bias, I immediately worked to establish credibility, especially since many were far more senior to me in age as well as being experienced civil servants.
My secretary was my mother’s age and deserved my respect. My brothers reminded me that I could learn so much from experienced professionals. I treated each person with dignity and respect, turning the tense situation around. In time my colleagues came to respect and acknowledge my work. Dorothy Alexander, one of my former secretaries in the Office of Youth, Students, and Special Programs, now lives in Boca Raton. She turned 102 in 2017, and we remain in touch on birthdays and holidays. I continue to marvel at her clarity, her positive spirit, and her joie de vivre. Dottie continues to ballroom dance twice a week and drives, albeit cautiously.
I was the only African American in that State Department office. There were, however, African Americans in relatively senior positions at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at that time. Richard Fox was the executive director of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and later became ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. William Jones, who would become ambassador to Haiti, was the deputy assistant secretary in Cultural Affairs. Our future ambassador to Liberia and South Africa, Edward J. Perkins, served in the Near East Asia executive director’s office. Another career diplomat, William B. Davis, a Russian and Czech speaker, directed the Office of Exhibits for the USIA. Davis, who did not suffer fools, was my drill sergeant as I prepared for the Foreign Service oral exam. I also knew I had to be prepared before I entered a meeting with him regarding overseas exhibits for my posts.
Three of these gentlemen (Fox, Perkins, and Davis), along with Roburt Dumas, then director of USIA’s Personnel Department, prepared me for the Foreign Service oral exam. At the time, I thought they were unmerciful as they drilled me for the exam. Not only did they provide me with a heavy reading list, they asked questions based on issues not included in their assigned readings. Yet the drilling paid off. I endured the three hours of the oral exam before a panel of diplomats and soon learned I passed. (It is seven hours today!) I shall be forever in debt to those demanding gentlemen.
A week prior to the oral exam, I was promoted to the next higher grade at USIA. However, the Board of Examiners did not accept that new grade after I passed the examination. I had to accept entrance at the lower grade. This was yet another indirect message to women and minority candidates.
Later I came to know these gentlemen (Fox, Perkins, Davis, and Dumas) even better through the Thursday Luncheon Group, a mentoring program founded in 1977 by senior black Foreign Service officers. Its founders, Davis and Dumas, chose what they considered an innocuous and nonthreatening name for the organization at that time. In 1977 State would have felt uneasy about any affinity group. Now there are LGBT groups, women’s groups, Asian American groups, and Latino groups. In the midseventies, State viewed any group that might pressure or lobby for equal rights as threatening.
These men were the trailblazers for African Americans currently in the U.S. Foreign Service. I noted earlier that William “Bill” Davis not only spoke Russian but also was conversant in Czech. When Madeleine Albright, who is of Czech descent and speaks the language, became the first secretary of state to address the Thursday Luncheon Group in 1989, Davis and I were seated to her right. She was duly impressed when he spoke to her in Czech. As I observed that interaction, I became even more excited about my burgeoning Foreign Service career.