On May 5, I had the honor of representing the U.S. Department of State at a ceremony naming the airport road in St. Thomas after Ambassador Terence A. Todman, a six-time Ambassador who held the second highest number of ambassadorial appointments in our nation’s history. He reached the highest heights of diplomatic excellence despite Jim Crow and segregation. Over six decades ago, Ambassador Todman traveled from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico for University. He eventually embarked on a career in public service, first as a military officer in Japan during WWII, and later to Washington where he began his journey in diplomacy.
In 1957, when Ambassador Todman arrived at the Foreign Service Institute, he discovered as a Black officer, he couldn’t eat with his colleagues due to segregation laws in Virginia. Rather than stay silent, he spoke up. His principled dissent led to the eventual integration of the Department’s dining facilities. According to his son, Terence Todman, Jr., who spoke on a panel my office recently organized, his father intuitively knew that a more equitable State Department was necessary, not only because it was the morally right thing to do, but because the diversity of thought he – and others who didn’t fit the State Department mold – brought to the table would ultimately make our foreign policy more effective.
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Chris Richardson’s New York Times op-ed in 2020 that I learned of Ambassador Todman’s story and his push for justice. Discovering his story was the first time I felt connected to my institution’s history, particularly because of his moral courage and principled dissent. As a diplomat of color, like me, he had to prove his belonging and “American-ness” time and time again. He was also able to stay true to his ideals, even – and especially – when our institution and our nation fell short. In his 1995 interview with author of Black Diplomacy, Michael Krenn, he discusses the complexity of being a Black diplomat who was offered an ambassadorial appointment to apartheid South Africa. He didn’t just diplomatically decline the opportunity, but gave candid feedback on how the Reagan administration could fix what he believed was a flawed policy. As his close friend and former colleague James Dandridge II said at the airport road naming ceremony: “Ambassador Todman was an exceptional diplomat, who just happened to be Black.” I think this annotation matters – Ambassador Todman was an exceptional American diplomat, period. And he reached greatness in spite of the obstacles he faced due to systemic racism.
Earlier this year, on February 1, the anniversary of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, I had the honor of co-leading an effort, alongside two other women diplomats of color – Sharlina Hussain-Morgan and Yolonda Kerney – to rename the Harry S Truman cafeteria after Ambassador Terence A. Todman. We nicknamed ourselves the “Todman Trio,” and despite the bureaucratic hurdles of hosting an in-person ceremony in an unventilated cafeteria during a once in a century pandemic, we channeled Ambassador Todman’s trademark persistence to hold the event and inspire future generations of diplomats to hold our nation accountable to our founding principles.
I am proud to work in an office, set up last year by Secretary Blinken, to carry forward Ambassador Todman’s unfinished pursuit of equity and justice. Under the leadership of the State Department’s first standalone Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, we are making progress with structural reforms to remove barriers to advancement and career mobility that will benefit all diplomats from all backgrounds. For example, we released a demographic baseline for the first time to the workforce that will use data to hold us accountable and benchmark future progress. We believe that if we address the needs of underrepresented groups, then ultimately we make our institution more equitable for all, so all employees regardless of background can thrive and reach their full potential.
Diplomats of color like Ambassador Todman are rarely portrayed as protagonists, let alone heroes in America’s story of diplomacy. That’s why these efforts to honor ancestors who might otherwise have been forgotten are so important. Through a partnership with the National Museum of American Diplomacy, the State Department recently launched the Facing Diplomacy StoryCorps campaign to capture stories from diverse diplomats of all backgrounds. When stories are uploaded through the StoryCorps platform, they are automatically archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
To build a more complete archive for future historians, we encourage all current and former U.S. diplomats – this includes civil service officers, foreign service professionals, family members, locally employed staff, interns, and more – to become a part of our nation’s story of diplomacy. And I hope that in our effort to remember Ambassador Todman and other courageous ancestors pushing for greater equity and justice, we can inspire more Americans to pursue a career in diplomacy.
About the Author: Maryum Saifee serves as a Senior Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.