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PBS’ “The American Diplomat” spotlights historic African-American ambassadors

The American Diplomat, a one-hour documentary that explores the lives and careers of three pioneering African Americans who served as US ambassadors during the Cold War, will premiere on PBS’ ...
January 14, 2022

The American Diplomat, a one-hour documentary that explores the lives and careers of three pioneering African Americans who served as US ambassadors during the Cold War, will premiere on PBS’ flagship history program ‘American Experience’ on February 15, and will be available for streaming on all PBS digital platforms.

Cameo George is the executive producer for ‘American Experience.’ The doc is directed by Leola Calzolai-Stewart, and narrated by Emmy-winning actor Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street, Brooklyn Nine-Nine).

As the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union heated up shortly after the end of World War II, the USSR branded itself as the true champion of world peace and deployed pointed propaganda about the violent racism and endemic racial inequality that reigned in the “land of the free.”

The American Diplomat shows how the appointment of its three subjects — Edward R. Dudley, Terence Todman and Carl Rowan — to U.S. governmental posts was both a calculated counterpropaganda tactic on the part of the Truman (and later Kennedy and Nixon) administrations, and also an opportunity for these men to battle their homeland’s injustice from within the system.

Dudley, a civil rights lawyer with the NAACP, became the first African American to hold an ambassadorship when Truman appointed him to represent his government in the independent African republic of Liberia. Discovering the circumscribed roles that Black employees were confined to in the U.S. State Department, he set out to break down these barriers by turning the department’s own policies back upon it.

A talented linguist who had been stationed in Japan after the war, Todman entered the U.S. Foreign Service and successfully spearheaded the campaign to desegregate the service’s Virginia dining facilities. Appointed ambassador to Chad by the Nixon administration in 1969, Todman went on to serve in ambassadorial capacities for over 20 years.

A journalist who was initially brought on by the Kennedy administration to help burnish JFK’s foreign policy, Rowan (pictured above, with John F. Kennedy) persevered in the face of the blindingly white and intrinsically racist hierarchy of the State Department to win the role of ambassador to Finland in 1963.

Recalled by Lyndon Johnson after JFK’s assassination, Rowan was appointed to lead the United States Information Agency, the government’s principal Cold War propaganda organ — defending America’s image to the world even as he was all too bitterly aware of the reality beneath that image.

“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,” said Cameo George, executive producer of ‘American Experience.’ “[But] 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.”

Photo by Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

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