By Yolonda Kerney
Terence Todman served as U.S. ambassador to six countries: Argentina, Chad, Costa Rica, Denmark, Guinea, and Spain; he was also the first African American assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA). He spoke Spanish, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, French, Russian, and Danish. Early in his career, he served with the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and in India, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Togo. He was the Department of State’s envoy to Spain and served as a key negotiator as Spain became a member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. During his tenure as WHA’s assistant secretary, he negotiated Panama Canal treaties and became the first U.S. diplomat in 16 years to visit Havana.
Early Black diplomats were routinely marginalized by being assigned at posts in Liberia, Madagascar, and the Azores—which were referred to as “the circuit.” Unlike today’s equitable bidding process, the Department, in the 1950s, relegated Black diplomats to a handful of countries with predominantly Black populations. Todman challenged the status quo at the time, and due to his influence and the vocal advocacy of a small cadre of other pioneering Black diplomats, the Department’s assignment process was forced to evolve. Today, diplomats are no longer pigeonholed into a limited set of assignments based on skin color. Those who now serve in Africa and other majority Black geographic regions do so because of their expertise and qualifications.
Diplomat in Residence for the D.C. Metro Region Yolonda Kerney recalls the moment she first encountered Todman’s trailblazing legacy while reporting for her tour in Conakry, Guinea, in 2005.
“I am an Africanist by interest and academic training, and I was eager to serve in Guinea late in the Lansana Conté regime. On my first day in the embassy, I was scheduled to pay a courtesy call [to] my deputy chief of mission and ambassador,” she said. “As I made my way to the front office I passed the pantheon: photos of former ambassadors to Guinea. It was there I first saw Terence Todman, his was the only brown face among the ambassadors.”
In a 1995 interview series funded by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Todman spoke about his background, on joining the Department in 1952—many years before the Civil Rights Act—when there was only one other Black diplomat besides himself. Despite extraordinary feats in diplomacy throughout his career, Todman’s early years with the Department were met by frustrating policies. In 1957, when he began his Hindi language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), Todman encountered a segregated dining facility. His courage and resolve led him to challenge the Department’s policies of dining segregation—which affected not just Blacks, but also Asian, Latino, and Native Americans. Todman and other Department employees of color were isolated from their white colleagues by custom and by law.
“When I got there, I discovered that the only thing they had for any meal arrangement was a very small coffee shop where you could basically get some coffee cakes and some coffee, tea, or whatever,” said Todman during his 1995 interview. “And at lunchtime, all of the white officers went across the street to a regular Virginia restaurant and had their meals. On my first day, when I went to the coffee shop and saw there were no eating facilities, I asked where I could have lunch. They said they were sorry, this was all they had.”
The diplomatic corps ritualizes the sharing of meals in elaborate ways at envoys’ residences around the world. So important are these meals that the Foreign Affairs Manual provides guidance about food and beverage, official china, and glassware. The diplomatic table is the place where allies, colleagues, and sometimes even adversaries gather to eat communally, of course, but also to persuade, to negotiate, and sometimes, to have difficult conversations.
However in Todman’s day, the Virginia restaurant where white officers ate their hot lunch was legally segregated. The restaurant was privately owned and run, which didn’t allow the Department to enact its own policies over the space. But Todman wouldn’t take the excuses he was being met with. He challenged this unfair policy, which eventually made its way to the desk of the under secretary for management. After much frustration by Todman and many others, the Department decided to lease half of the restaurant in Virginia and install a partition which would allow all Department employees to eat.
“The State Department recognized that it had to make provisions of an equal nature for all its employees,” said Todman. “And eventually, of course, with the changes, then the restaurant gradually became integrated in fact, because people were moving back and forth.”
In recounting his dissent, he noted, “It was a very difficult period, but at least I never took it quietly. And I did manage to bring about both the changes in restaurants in general, but more importantly to me, the change in the policy of the State Department, of the way it treated its employees. I thought it was very important to get that in, because it made quite a difference.”
“In learning about Todman’s experience with segregation in the cafeteria, I recalled my pleasant experiences in that previously segregated space. I consider the cafeteria the heartbeat of Main State,” said Kerney. “It’s much more than a place to have a casual meal. It’s where we decompress with our colleagues, practice the languages we are studying, discuss cables, and debate policy. It’s where we sometimes lobby or interview for jobs, and where we develop and maintain our esprit de corps.”
The Department’s 1950s policies prevented Todman’s white colleagues from exchanging ideas with people like him—a U.S. Army first lieutenant who earned a place in Fort Benning’s Infantry Hall of Fame. Some FSI students learning Japanese may have benefited from Todman’s knowledge of Japanese culture and language as they shared a lunch table and a sandwich. Todman’s resolve to change the Department was incomparable, but had it wavered, he may have taken his prodigious talents elsewhere. Had the Department lost Todman in 1957, it would have forfeited his immeasurable contributions to American statecraft. In examining inequitable practices, it is natural to consider the many ways employees are affected, but it is crucial to also consider the harm to the Department. The Department must decide if it is willing to allow inequities to cost it the contributions of one Terence Todman, or five, or ten.
“During my first tour I helped Embassy Conakry move onto a new embassy compound. I thought it appropriate for some space in that embassy to bear Terence Todman’s name, but I lacked his courage and did not suggest it,” said Kerney.
Fifteen years after Kerney first learned of Todman’s history, conversations with her colleagues Maryum Saifee and Sharlina Hussain-Morgan led to the idea to immortalize his legacy by naming the cafeteria in the Harry S Truman Building after him. Just as several spaces in the building are named for former diplomats, they thought the dining area seemed a fitting tribute to remind future generations to challenge inequitable policies. With the assistance of the Secretary’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, their proposal was accepted. The ceremony took place, Feb. 1, to coincide with the anniversary of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in—a civil rights protest in 1960—and featured Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivering keynote remarks. The audience included other Department principals, Todman’s family members, friends, and former colleagues including former-director general Ambassador Ruth Davis, and DACOR’s President James Dandridge. Earlier that day, the Department hosted an interactive panel which was live streamed across the globe. The panelists discussed Todman’s legacy and its impact on the Department’s efforts to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.
Terence Todman Jr., a former lawyer for the Department said, “[My father’s] focus was not primarily on inclusion for inclusion’s sake, but rather on tapping all available talent and developing and treating them properly to achieve better outcomes. He worked for a more representative, equitable and, therefore, more effective institution.”
Yolonda Kerney is the diplomat in residence for the D.C. Metro Region.