Assistant Secretary of State Barbara M. Watson: First Black and Female Pioneer in Consular Affairs
Barbara M. Watson was the first black person and woman to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Security and Consular Affairs. Appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, Watson’s exemplary legacy continues to reflect a deep commitment to public service, self-integrity in light of political and social tribulations, and a distinct dedication to consular functions.
Such acumen and intellect was met with an acute sense of duty and bipartisanship which complemented her strong leadership throughout her career at the State Department. Based on the accounts of her contemporaries as well as her experience as ambassador to Malaysia under President Carter, Watson’s contributions to U.S. foreign policy, especially as an African-American female, demonstrate the important richness of diversity in the diplomatic service and professional workforce.
The late Miss Watson was born in New York City on Nov. 5, 1918 to Jamaican immigrants: Violet Lopez Watson, a founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and New York’s first elected Black judge, James S. Watson. Following her familial calling to service and justice, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1943 from Barnard College and her law degree in 1962 from New York Law School. Upon graduation, she served as an assistant attorney for the New York City Law Department from 1963 through 1964.
By the end of 1964, her new role as the executive director of the New York City Commission for the United Nations from 1964 to 1966 served as her debut into foreign policy. This position led to her first role at the State Department as the Special Assistant to the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Administration and as Deputy and Acting Administrator of the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs from 1966 to 1968. Her appointment to State was uncommon and thus prominent, as the Department employed few female and black Foreign Service Officers—a reflection of the overall state of the American national security apparatus at the time. Despite this, her distinguished work performance in the Bureau of Consular Affairs earned her promotions, thus paving the way for more women and African-Americans to follow suit.
By 1968, President Johnson nominated Watson to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Security and Consular Affairs. She therefore became the first African-American and woman to fill the role until 1974. In 1977, President Carter invited Watson to return to the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State until her appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia in 1980.
In honor of Watson who passed in 1983, the State Department renamed the Consular Officer of the Year Award to the Barbara M. Watson Award for Consular Excellence, annually recognizing distinguished consular officers for their consistent excellence in all aspects of consular work, including leadership in providing the highest-level consular services to U.S. citizens and commitment to mentorship, team resilience, and operational efficiency.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs is responsible for the welfare and protection of U.S. citizens abroad, the issuance of passports and other documentation to citizens and nationals, and the protection of U.S. border security and legitimate travel to the United States. Such a mandate has evolved to meet the needs of U.S. foreign engagement and national security interests since its formalization in the late eighteenth century as an integral component of the Foreign Service.
However, the consular service continues to face the challenge of systemic discrimination concerning the recruitment, retention, and promotion of diverse, qualified workforce members despite attempts of reform during the 1960s through the 1970s. Although the majority of consular posts are led by career members of the Foreign Service, several U.S. embassies in the busier, populated capitals around the globe are headed by political appointees. Some critics of political appointees point to instances of prior career inexperience in U.S. foreign policy as a weakness.
In this regard, as a successful Assistant Secretary of State, Watson proved to be an exception to the traditional detractors of political appointees. Her work not only reinvigorated management and improved the efficiency of the consular service, but also proved Consular Affairs to be a highly capable and significant asset to foreign representation and service to U.S. citizens abroad. Nonetheless, Watson’s appointment as the first black person and woman to serve in this role during the 1970s demonstrates both the progress and ongoing challenge of creating a diplomatic service that is inclusive and representative of the American public.
Drafted by Daisy Saavedra
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Ambassador Robert T. Hennemeyer (Ambassador to Gambia, 1984–1986) was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in February, 1989. Read Ambassador Robert T. Hennemeyer’s full oral history HERE.
“Barbara was a very strong political leader––very charismatic in her desire to make the consular corps believe in itself.”
A Visionary from Debut:
When I first went in, it was Len Walentynowicz, a political appointee from Buffalo, New York, a Republican. Then, with the beginning of the Carter Administration, Barbara Watson came back, because she had held it in the last part of the Johnson Administration. She came back as assistant secretary, and I remained as her deputy.
A lot of my experience had been political, but I also had been a consular officer in Bremen and Bremerhaven. For four years, I had run the consulate general in Düsseldorf. Although it was a high-volume post, as we say, with 50,000 to 70,000 visas a year, the staff wasn’t all that large, and I did get involved a great deal in consular work. But basically, I think by that time what they were looking for was somebody who knew something about consular work, but also had had management experience. I think that’s what they were looking for. Barbara was a very strong political leader––very charismatic in her desire to make the consular corps believe in itself and not keep thinking it was a second-class citizen in those days, and to change the perceptions of the rest of the Service, as well. So, she wanted somebody who would relieve her from some of the management chores, and that essentially was my job.
Len Walentynowicz was an attorney and had been a district attorney in Buffalo. He came with a good legal background, but he didn’t understand very much at all about the Foreign Service and very little about consular work. So I think he found his assignment a very frustrating one. Senior people in the Department who should have consulted with him didn’t. I must say he was treated rather shabbily, so I think he found his time frustrating, and I don’t think he felt that he was really doing anything. Barbara Watson, on the other hand, as a lady of some substance in her own right, as a leader in the black community, was someone that you couldn’t treat that way. So both from the point of view that she had held a job before and, therefore, knew what she was about, and because she was the person that she was, they couldn’t go around her. The result was that Barbara succeeded, I think, in getting the consular work at least some of the high-level attention it should have gotten . . . .
Cornelius D. Scully, III (Director of the Office of Legislation, Regulation, and Advisory Assistance, Bureau of Consular Affairs, 1962–1964) was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in April, 1992. Read Cornelius D. Scully, III’s full oral history HERE.
“When Barbara Watson spoke, people listened, because she was Barbara Watson––period.”
Finding Balance between Policies and Politics:
When I came back in ’68, the director of the Visa Office in those days was a man named George Owen, and the Assistant Secretary was Barbara Watson. Each in his or her own way was an outstanding leader, people who were unique, and working for whom was one of those experiences that stays with you all of your life . . . .
Social and political leader in Harlem. Barbara was politically connected with the Democratic Party, very strongly so, with John Rooney, whom we’ve mentioned earlier. But she was also politically connected with Senator [Jacob] Javits of New York, even though he was a Republican. She knew everyone in the black community and black establishment in this country. She moved easily in every circle of society . . . .
She was a lawyer by training, and she had a brilliant legal mind and an incredible memory. She had the most sensitive political antennae of anybody I have ever encountered. She was absolutely a genius at the politics of a situation.
She used to say, “I’ll go down there to that hearing, and I’ll bat my baby blue eyes at ’em.” We used to go down to those committee hearings of the Immigration Subcommittee, and she would walk into that room, and the first fifteen minutes would be spent with all of the members becoming revoltingly gushing about what a pleasure it was to have her appear and what an honor it was for Miss Watson to appear before them. I mean, it almost made you ill, the way they gushed . . . .
But at the same time, one of the things that was so incredibly impressive about her was that she had the self-confidence to know when to rely on people and how to rely on people. Since she commanded the spotlight merely by her existence, she didn’t have to insist upon it.
Sheer force of her being, her personality, and intellect . . . .
In the best sense of the word. She worked and did more, I think, to enhance, to raise, to dignify the consular service and consular work as a career than anybody in modern times.
A very difficult period, but with great assurance. She had contacts. When Barbara Watson spoke, people listened, because she was Barbara Watson––period.
Ronald K. Somerville (Executive Director, Bureau of Consular Affairs, 1971) was interviewed by William D. Morgan in September, 1999. Read Ronald K. Somerville’s full oral history HERE.
“She broke many, many of the ‘old rules.’”
The Difference between a Rule-breaker and a Game-changer:
She was qualified, and more importantly, she was politically important in that Nixon had to deal with John Rooney on the appropriations side, with Dr. Morgan Utters on the international relations side, and with Carl Mundt and the current conservatives who had found her sufficiently acceptable to confirm her. And lastly, if he opened the position up, he would have grave difficulty getting through the various factions and interests anytime soon to appoint a successor.
There was another element that was not seen and that was that Barbara Watson was the most senior black woman ever in the history of the State Department. First black assistant secretary, first female assistant secretary. She broke many, many of the “old rules.” Politically acceptable to both parties. She could not be penetrated by Frances Knight. Here you have Nixon, for whom she had worked many years before, as a new president reflecting what he knew to be the case in terms of dealing with Frances Knight.
He left Barbara Watson in the position. Strengthened her by recreating the bureau, authorizing the creation of a staff and directed that the staff should manage a bureau entity and that all office directors within the bureau should report only through the administrator for the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs. The visa director at the time was Ray Collum, a strong personality. Frances Knight, a very partisan political person would be managed by a black woman who had good political credentials, was astute, bright, imposing, and seemingly acceptable by the State Department’s Foreign Service . . . .
With Barbara Watson you had a background that experienced discrimination from birth. So, you had very strong drives to equalize and the boot strap to bring a mistreated, in her eyes, abused and unappreciated group, to full equality. Now, she was also active in promoting the EEO agenda, probably more ethnically and racially than sexually, but she was there and very much involved in the processes in the Department and externally that had advanced the cause of EEO.
Richard McCoy (Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, 1980–1983) was interviewed by Bill Morgan in March, 1989. Read Richard McCoy’s full oral history HERE.
“I found her a lady of great dignity and great compassion, and of dedication to the consular function.”
The Transformations at Consular Affairs:
I truly admired Miss Watson. She had literally gone to great lengths to support me during the time that the Jonestown tragedy occurred. I was under very heavy attack by members of the media, initially members of Congress, and people in the Department itself because of purported allegations made against me in terms of my performance prior to the Jonestown tragedy.
So, consequently, I found her a lady of great dignity and great compassion, and of dedication to the consular function. She was aware essentially of what I had done during my tenure in Georgetown, and she knew that obviously you can always do better, but that within the constraints of what I had done, she felt I had done a very good job. Therefore, she was very supportive.
So when I found out that the position of special assistant was opening up that year, I went to her and asked her if I could bid for it, and would I be considered. She was, fortunately, delighted that I wished to work for her, and so that, of course, became a happy event until I found out that she was leaving to go to Malaysia as ambassador. I have to say something here. I almost didn’t go as a special assistant when I heard that!
Coincidentally, at the same time I was called by folks in eastern Europe, and they wanted me to go to Warsaw as a consul general, because the current officer had had a serious medical problem and they had to evacuate him and his family immediately. So consequently, I went up to her to talk about it, and I said, “The new man coming in may decide he wants somebody else as special assistant.” I had this opportunity, and Warsaw was always a dream post, and what about this. She told me who the next man was going to be, and I had known him, not well, but I had known him and he knew me, and she said that she had strongly recommended me, and he would be delighted if I would stay on. So I felt that under the circumstances, I should do that, so I did.
So I did have the opportunity. But I was sad. I mean, I would have loved to have spent more time with Miss Watson.
She had enormous personal prestige, from what I could see. She was well and favorably known up on the Hill and within the Department up to a point. Certainly, she had an excellent relationship with the Secretary and with the Under Secretary for Management, Ben Read. So she used that influence and her own status as a woman of stature within not only the Black American community, but certainly within the American community at large, to develop and to support the consular function. The areas that she was mostly concerned about and was developing were the consular assistance teams, CAT teams, they used to call them. They would go out when we had a specific problem or where she felt that there were some very serious shortcomings in the management of consular sections abroad.
This was in 1980, and we were still having some problems between officers from the old school, as I’ve mentioned previously, in the consular function, and the new officers, very bright, dedicated junior officers, and by this time mid-level officers, who were every bit as competent and good as their other Foreign Service colleagues. But unfortunately, many of the old-line officers were still running sections. We had some very serious management problems over roles, as to what was the proper role of a consular section.
Like I alluded to in Tel Aviv, yes. Also there were issues relating to the new Immigration Reform Act, which was taking shape in the Congress at that time, which later became the Immigration Reform Act of 1986. That was an issue. Consular automation was another area that she was very interested in and concerned about. Of course, the consular packet, which was constantly being refined, that we were using overseas in terms of justifying workloads. Workloads were taking off.
She was most concerned about that, particularly about the future of the consular function because of the exploding workloads that were occurring, particularly in Latin America and in the Far East . . . .
For the three months. She, of course, was constantly prodding people to come up with responses needed to implement and put these things into a form so that legislation could be enacted, and also the reorganization to make the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, so that we would have a much more responsive bureaucracy, if you will, or office, to support American-citizen problems, particularly those cases involving the deaths of American citizens, missing American citizens, and American prisoners. That was the big issue.
I’m not so sure I’d say she knocked heads together. I think what she hoped was that this reorganization, and with the support from the Hill, things would be implemented. I’m not saying she couldn’t be ruthless. I, in my time with her, did not see her actually knock heads together, as you would put it, but she certainly had a way of dealing with those people. In other words, if they couldn’t be removed from the position, she just worked around them.
Michelle E. Truitt (Chief, Office of Operations, U.S. Passport Office, 1978–1982) was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 1997. Read Michelle E. Truitt’s full oral history HERE.
“Barbara Watson kind of shook the tree in the consular world.”
Commitments to Operational Efficiency and Team Resilience:
Barbara Watson kind of shook the tree in the consular world and said: “Let’s get a consular life here. We need a consular perspective.” In fact, I have a wonderful story which I still tell people. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but, even if not, it’s still a wonderful story. The story goes that Barbara Watson was very angry when she heard that in one of our posts in Saudi Arabia a private American citizen came in and needed to send a cable to the U.S. Under the regulations, we had to charge that person for the cable. So we asked a Foreign Service National [FSN] employee working for us to explain in Arabic that we needed this person to pay us $15 to send an interested party cable. We received the money from this person. Walking by at this time when the money was being paid was one of the political officers who just burst out laughing. When asked why he laughed, he said: “Something really funny happened.” So the consular officer went to him later and said: “What was so funny?” The political officer said: “You don’t know what your FSN said?” The consular officer said: “No. I just told this person that he or she would have to pay for the cable.” The political officer said: “That’s not what the FSN said. What he said was: “The consular officer needs a bribe.” So he got the money.
When Barbara Watson heard this story, she said: “We need language training for our consular officers. We cannot have our officers embarrassed in this way.” We knew that we were doing something that was on the published schedule of fees. Barbara Watson was a real major shaker in that regard. It was the first time that anyone had said that we needed language training across the board for consular officers, no matter where they were going. She also began urging Congress to appropriate funds to hold consular conferences […].
Ambassador Hume Horan (Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Consular Affairs, 1978–1980) was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in November, 2000. Read Ambassador Hume Horan’s full oral history HERE.
“She had it all together.”
Corridor Reputation in Washington:
She was wonderful with Congress. Just terrific. She organized special programs for the Hill, held briefing seminars for Congressman and their staffs, invited the AA’s from different offices to consular events . . . .
I recall she once gave a big conference on Capitol Hill which a great number of AA’s attended, plus their staff who did constituency work. Before the conference, she called me and the other DASs in. She said, “Next week we are going to the such-and-such hearing room. It is very fancy. There may be one or two hundred staffers present. Now here is some advice. Take it to heart. First, you’re right up there before the people. They are all watching you. So don’t think you can get away with rolling your eyes—no matter how dumb the question. You’ll lose the audience. Second, do something about your clothes. You all look like clones. Your suits are all some shade of gray, and your ties are indistinguishable. So next week, I want to see some sport jackets. I want to see crazy ties. I want to see some color in the shirts. I don’t want you to look like a bunch of . . . maggots. Maggots from the State Department.”
In the event, it was a motley group from CA that accompanied her to the Hill. She was like the maestra with her baton. She was always good with the Hill. She did her own “H” work. She had a low regard for the spin doctors in H, who’d spray cotton candy in the eyes of Congress people. She said, “Look, Hume, right or wrong, give the Hill a fast, straight answer. At least they will respect you, and they won’t walk frustratedly around, wondering what in the world we’re keeping up our sleeve.”
Barbara was a feminist. . . . She had it all together. Once she and Pat Derian––whom I thought was great––were at the Secretary’s weekly staff meeting. She said to Pat: “Apart from you and me, look who’s sitting around the table. Only Caucasian men.” She liked Vance. She thought Senator Muskie was excellent. She did not much like Warren Christopher. She said, “You know, Hume, I can tell right away when somebody feels uncomfortable around me. And Warren Christopher is one of those people. So when I go to see him, he is sitting on his couch. I plop myself right down on the couch next to him. And I shove my big black face up close to him.” God bless her! I was present once when she and Christopher had a meeting. Christopher seemed almost catatonic, while Barbara animatedly filled the room. Christopher had been a member of a club in San Francisco, where blacks were not admitted.
Leonard F. Walentynowicz (Assistant Secretary of State for Security and Consular Affairs, 1975–1977) was interviewed by William D. Morgan in June, 1992. Read Leonard F. Walentynowicz’s full oral history HERE.
“[She had no] warts or anything on her record.”
A Respected Background:
[…] Barbara Watson came from a very respected Jamaican background. She’s an American, but she had a Jamaican background, liberal ties, woman in New York City, and . . .
[…] she had a good record, but what it amounted to really, was that Jacob Javits had supported her throughout the first Nixon term. Nixon had done this in part, I didn’t say totally, but in part, as an accommodation for Javits and also in part for other reasons. I mean, for example, she was a black woman. It would not profit Nixon too great politically if he would eliminate a black woman […]
[No] Warts or anything else on her record. So, in ’72, after Nixon got elected and so forth, he felt that the political need was no longer there and he was going to move her out, and Javits put a stop to it. Now Javits’ hold would probably have only lasted a short time, because even though there is this tradition, senatorial courtesy, they would put a hold on it. I think that after a couple of months, three or four months, he wouldn’t have had a justification, it would have to have been resolved one way or the other . . . .
Different staff, but his personnel staff was not that significantly changed when he first came on after Nixon. What happened is Ford came from a Michigan district. He was respected and he had no problem with Javits. So, what he did is he resubmitted my name. Nixon leaves, which in effect, kills his submission, but then he (Ford) resubmits my name, and then there is a media event, because Barbara Watson doesn’t resign, she wants to stay on . . . .
So whatever the reason was, she didn’t want to withdraw from office. That may be so, but I think it is more tradition than legal . . .
Well, that, but it was actually framed that each president should have his own appointees. That was the way it was framed. I don’t know whether it was aimed at Barbara, for her point, but maybe from Francis Knight’s point, but not from the rest of it. I didn’t see any real anti-Barbara moves in congress or anything else. The issue was framed only in terms that each president ought to have his own appointees, ok. And, the most notable peak of this media event, was Eric Sevareid, who had a five minute talk. He used to do these talks at the end of the CBS news. He had a five minute talk on this, my nomination and Barbara’s departure on TV, and it was broadcast nationwide. His position was that she should go honorably, with grace, that President has the right for his own appointee. So, it happened, Barbara did resign gracefully, no problem about that. She did resign gracefully. She went, in fact, I don’t think she even resigned. I think she resigned from that post, but then she was given some other post, as I recall . . . .
Right, she got another post. I know she got something. She didn’t just disappear, she got an Ambassador post, and then that opened up […].
Ambassador Mary A. Ryan (Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, 1993–2002) was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in March, 2003. Read Ambassador Mary A. Ryan’s full oral history HERE.
“She made us very proud to be doing consular work.”
An Impressionable Leader:
Barbara Watson was a wonderful, wonderful assistant secretary for consular officers. She made us very proud to be doing consular work. She was just fantastic.