Clifton R. Wharton, Sr.

Aug 11th, 2011 | By | Category: Journalism & Law, Politics
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Clifton R. Wharton, Sr.1899-1990  Clifton Reginald Wharton was the first African American to enter the U.S. Foreign Service under the State Department’s merit system. In 1958, after decades of service in traditionally black posts such as Liberia and the Canary Islands, he broke the department’s color barrier by becoming the first black diplomat to be named ambassador to a European nation.

Diplomatic Ambitions

Wharton was born on May 11, 1899, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Rosalind Griffin and William B. Wharton. Raised in Boston, he was fortunate enough to attend English High School, the nation’s oldest public high school. The school was alma mater to many historical luminaries including the Smithsonian Institution’s secretary and aeronautical pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley and Korean War General Matthew Ridgeway. On graduation from high school, Wharton entered Boston University where he received a bachelor’s of law degree in 1920. The same year, he passed the Massachusetts bar.

Wharton entered into law practice in Boston, and worked toward a master of law degree, which he received from Boston University in 1923. The following year, he bucked both official and tacit federal policy by becoming the first African American to receive an offer of a professional position—law clerk—in the State Department. Then Chairman of the State Department’s personnel board, Joseph Grew, openly and adamantly opposed accepting Blacks into the department’s professional ranks. Wharton, who had a light complexion, initially may have been presumed White by otherwise discriminatory policymakers. Also in 1924, he married Harriet Banks with whom he would have four children.

Despite Wharton’s relative acceptance at the State Department, he was relegated to menial paperwork, and often received cold and silent treatment from his coworkers and upper administrators who had surmised his race. Several major reforms were introduced into the diplomatic corps under the Rogers Act of 1924, which first established the U.S. Foreign Service. The goal of the Rogers Act was to increase professionalism and eliminate a long-standing system of elitism and patronage in diplomatic and consular positions. Among the efforts to achieve this goal was an exam to test aptitude for the position of foreign service officer. Wharton promptly took the test.

Only 20 out of 144 candidates passed the extremely difficult written test for entrance to the Foreign Service, and Wharton was among them. Chairman Grew moved quickly to marginalize his success, however. In a letter that is still preserved, Grew wrote: “Only twenty passed, including one negro who will go at once to Liberia.” Grew announced the Liberia assignment the day after Wharton was accepted into the Foreign Service, and in his haste to get Wharton out of the country, simply excluded him from the officer training that new appointees were required, at least in principle, to receive.

Stymied by Racism

The State Department had a long-standing policy of sending its black diplomats to Liberia—or sometimes Haiti or the Canary Islands—and keeping them there. The policy dated back to Reconstruction when Ebenezer D. Basset was named the first black member of the diplomatic corps. Over the next several years, a considerable number of diplomatic appointments and postings to these countries were assigned to other African Americans. Wharton’s experience half a century later showed that establishment of the Foreign Service and introduction of the merit system had changed little. Three other African Americans who were already consulate employees—William H. Hunt, James G. Carter, and William J. Yerby—found themselves in the same situation as Wharton when they, too, earned positions as Foreign Service officers on the basis of merit in 1925: each was relegated to Liberia, Haiti, or the Canaries.

It was two decades before Wharton was able to break this cycle. From 1925 to 1929, he served as vice consul in Monrovia, Liberia. He then moved on to Las Palmas, the Canaries, holding the position of consul. In 1936, Wharton was sent back to Monrovia, where he remained for two years before returning to Las Palmas. In 1942, he was sent to Antananarivo, Madagascar, and in 1945, found himself in Ponta Delgada, the Azores, two other places considered appropriate for African Americans. Wharton remained in the Azores four years. This head-spinning routine of shuttling African Americans back and forth among these locations was known in the diplomatic corps as the “Negro Circuit.”

President Harry Truman was the driving force in breaking this pattern of discrimination and racism in the State Department. Soon after the end of World War II—a conflict in which segregated African American soldiers compiled a distinguished record in defense of a country in which they were second-class citizens—Truman issued an executive order integrating the U.S. armed forces. Under Truman, in 1949, the State Department finally allowed an African American to break its unofficial color barrier when it appointed Wharton diplomatic consul to Lisbon, Portugal. Having been previously divorced, Wharton celebrated his achievement with his new wife, Evangeline Spears, whom he married in 1949. He served in Lisbon until 1953, at which time he became consul general in Marseille, France. Finally, in 1958, under President Dwight Eisenhower, the last barrier to African American careers in the State Department was breached when Wharton was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Romania. After this initial appointment as full ambassador, Wharton went on to serve in that capacity in Norway, at the behest of President John F. Kennedy. He also was asked to be the U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and to serve as a delegate to the United Nations.

After retiring from the U.S. Foreign Service in 1964, he lived a quiet life in Phoenix, Arizona. He died there, on April 23, 1990, at age 90. Wharton is an iconic figure in diplomatic lore, remembered as one of the first merit-based foreign service officers and as the diplomat who most proved the value of skill over favoritism.


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