A U.S. ambassador to six different countries, Terence Todman died Aug. 13. He left behind an impressive legacy. Well known for his outspokenness on segregation and racism, he was the first black person to head a geographic division of the State Department. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about Terence Todman.
Sources: NYTimes.com, ADST.org, WashingtonPost.com, Virgin Islands Daily News, The Nation
Born on the island of Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands on March 13, 1926, Todman grew up in humble beginnings. His father worked as a clerk at the local grocery store and his mother worked as a laundress.
Before his time with the State Department, Todman was drafted into the Army while attending the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico. He helped organize Japan’s first postwar election following the end of World War II, and returned to university, where he gradated summa cum laude.
Despite U.S. segregation and racism, Todman joined the U.S. State Department in the late 1940s. He quickly became known as an outspoken lobbyist for integration, and worked throughout his career to employ more blacks in diplomatic positions.
Despite passing the State Department test, Todman almost failed anyway due to his accent – the person who interviewed him said that his accent was not “100 percent American,” a factor that would impact his potential candidacy for the job. Todman was offered the job anyway.
Todman was awarded the title of career ambassador — the equivalent of a four-star general in the Army — by the State Department in 1990. Having served as the U.S. ambassador to Chad, Guinea, Costa Rica, Spain, Denmark and Argentina, as well as the Assistant Secretary of State in the Jimmy Carter administration, it’s clear that title was well deserved.
Beyond working against racism and segregation on the home front, Todman also made waves when he criticized the Argentinian government for demanding bribes from businesses and carrying out unjust policies within its economic sector. He accurately pointed out how a country will not be able to have significant foreign investment, a key to economic development, if the safety of those investments cannot be guaranteed.
In the beginning, Todman criticized the State Department for its tendency to send black diplomats to African and Caribbean countries, referring to them as “ghetto” assignments. After serving as ambassador to Chad in the early 1970s, Todman threatened to quit if he was assigned to another African nation. Though he subsequently served as ambassador to Guinea, he later made the move to Costa Rica in 1974, becoming the first black U.S. ambassador to a Latin American country.
Source: The Nation, 1996 interview
Nicknamed the “Jackie Robinson of diplomacy,” Todman was the highest-ranking African American in the Foreign Service during the time he served as the State Department’s chief Latin American strategist during the Carter administration. One of his notable accomplishments in that time was his work helping establish Panama’s ownership of the Panama Canal.
He quickly became known for his willingness to work with officials in Cuba, and helped achieve agreements with Cuba to set up regular diplomatic channels with the United States.
During his time as ambassador to Spain, he served as the first black to head an ambassadorship of Class One status (these were the most important missions), and did not disappoint. After negotiating the use of naval and air bases in Spain, Todman was able to help the U.S. become a member of NATO.
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