The American Diplomat explores the lives and legacies of three African-American ambassadors — Edward R. Dudley, Terence Todman and Carl Rowan — who pushed past historical and institutional racial barriers to reach high-ranking appointments in the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. At the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, they were asked to represent the best of American ideals abroad while facing discrimination at home. Colloquially referred to as “pale, male, and Yale,” the U.S. State Department fiercely maintained and cultivated the Foreign Service’s elitist character and was one of the last federal agencies to desegregate.
Through rare archival footage, in-depth oral histories, and interviews with family members, colleagues and diplomats, the film paints a portrait of three men who created a lasting impact on the content and character of the Foreign Service and changed American diplomacy forever. Directed by Leola Calzolai-Stewart, narrated by Andre Braugher, and executive produced by Cameo George, The American Diplomat premieres Tuesday, February 15, 2022, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET
On March 12, 1947, President Harry Truman declared in a speech to Congress that the United States would protect democracy and freedom around the world. At the same time, Americans grappled with widespread racial violence and segregation at home. As the Cold War escalated, so did the Soviet Union’s use of racially violent imagery and propaganda to turn the world’s non-aligned (and largely non-white) nations against the U.S. The appointment of Black ambassadors to the historically white and historically elitist State Department would be an important step in changing America’s face to the world. Each ambassador — Dudley, Todman and Rowan — would harness the opportunity to serve at the highest levels of U.S. diplomacy to bring America closer to its own ideals.
“At American Experience, we like to tell stories of people who have impacted history but may not be well-known,” said Cameo George, executive producer of American Experience. “As diplomats, Edward R. Dudley, Terence Todman and Carl Rowan were tasked with spreading democracy around the world, yet they were unable to enjoy its full benefits back home. Each man found his own way to work from inside the State Department to make fundamental changes in the Foreign Service, leaving a lasting legacy on the agency.”
Watch the official trailer for The American Diplomat
About the Subjects
Edward R. Dudley (March 11, 1911–February 8, 2005) was the first African-American to hold the rank of Ambassador of the United States. A prominent civil rights lawyer working with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP, he was appointed by President Truman to represent the U.S. in Liberia in 1949. Rare photos take viewers inside the embassy run by Black Foreign Service Ofﬁcers (FSOs), overseen by Dudley. Despite the appearance of freedom and autonomy, these talented FSOs were professionally trapped, locked into a collection of only ﬁve posts the State Department deemed “appropriate” for Black diplomats — the “Negro Circuit.” Dudley applied his adept legal skills to challenge this insidious system, citing the Department’s own policies that made this practice illegal.
Terence Todman (March 13, 1926–August 13, 2014) was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the motto is “Black and free.” He entered the U.S. Army and was stationed in Japan, a critical turning point for his career. Possessing an innate skill in mastering languages, Todman saw how his role as a linguist could help bridge cultural divides. That led to a position in the Foreign Service. Not long after he started at the State Department, he fought to desegregate the Foreign Service Institute’s dining facilities in Virginia — and won. Todman was named Ambassador to Chad in 1969 and would go on to serve in Guinea, Costa Rica, Spain, Denmark and Argentina, becoming the first African American to achieve the rank of Career Ambassador.
Carl Rowan (August 11, 1925–September 23, 2000), a celebrated journalist known for his work chronicling America’s race relations, was appointed by President Kennedy to be Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in 1961. His job was to help sell Kennedy’s foreign policy to journalists both at home and abroad. Although Rowan came to regard the State Department as a “virtual plantation” and considered leaving, he accepted the ambassadorship to Finland in 1963, an integral post at a time of intense posturing by the Soviet Union on Finland’s border. Rowan would achieve diplomatic success in Finland, but when Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson called Rowan home to lead the United States Information Agency. The USIA was responsible for ﬁghting Russia in the global war of ideas. Rowan’s job was to protect America’s image. He described his task this way: “My task is difﬁcult. On the one hand, I am a Negro with a ﬁerce determination to see that my children escape the degrading shackles of racism. On the other hand, I am a public ofﬁcial, whose job it is to help protect this country’s reputation abroad.”