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Clifton Wharton — Diplomat and Pioneer

Clifton Reginald Wharton, Sr. was the first African-American Foreign Service Officer to rise to the rank of ambassador without a political appointment.  In four decades as a career Foreign Service Officer, Wharton held positions in various posts worldwide including in Liberia, the Canary Islands, Madagascar, Portugal, France, Romania, and Norway.

Clifton R. Wharton, Sr. US Postal Service stamp from the Smithsonian collection Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.
Clifton R. Wharton, Sr. US Postal Service stamp from the Smithsonian collection Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.

With the introduction of the Rogers Act in 1924, the U.S. diplomatic corps was reformed to establish the U.S. Foreign Service.  Under the Rogers Act, those wanting to pursue a career as a Foreign Service Officer would need to pass an exam to test aptitude, which was a step in eliminating elitism and patronage in the organization.

Wharton immediately took the Foreign Service exam and was one of the 20 successful candidates.  However, his success was still marginalized as he was excluded from officer training and was put on the “Negro Circuit” for postings – the routine of relegating African American consulate employees to postings in Liberia, Haiti, or the Canary Islands.  Under President Truman’s executive orders in 1949, the State Department finally broke the unofficial color barrier in the Foreign Service.  Wharton was appointed to Lisbon as a Diplomatic Consul in 1949.

In 1953, Wharton was Consul General in Marseilles, France.  In 1958 Wharton was appointed by President Eisenhower to be Minister to Romania, and thus he became the first black career diplomat to head a U.S. delegation in Europe. American relations with Romania during this time period were becoming increasingly strained due to the actions of the Communist government.  President Kennedy then appointed Wharton as the Ambassador to Norway in 1961, a position that he would hold until his retirement in 1964.

Prior to entering the Foreign Service, Wharton received a law degree from Boston University in 1923.  He practiced law in Boston from 1920 to 1923.  In Washington, D.C., Wharton joined the federal government as an examiner in the Veterans Bureau and a law clerk for the State Department.  In 2006, the United States Postal Service took the rare step of issuing a stamp in his honor.

In a personal memoir released in 1996 which is part of ADST’s oral history collection, William B. Dunham discusses the diplomatic skills and abilities that Wharton possessed, the difficulties he had to go through as an African-American,  and laments that 40 years later, the State Department was still dealing with issues of discrimination.  In an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 1991, Richard H. Morefield discusses Wharton’s leadership style in Oslo’s Embassy.  Richard C. Barkley was interviewed by Kennedy in May 2003.

For another perspective, read Ambassador Terence Todman’s experiences of “Being black in a lily white State Department.”

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“I developed the greatest respect for him, both professionally and personally, as a man of the highest qualities”

William B. Dunham
Portuguese and Spanish Affairs from 1945 to 1954

DUNHAM:  On October 12, 1949, the assignment of Clifton R. Wharton to Lisbon as First Secretary and Consul, and, almost a year later on September 25, 1950, his promotion to Consul General marked the lifting of the color bar that had, until then, confined African-American Foreign Service Officers “south of the equator,” so to say. At least that is what we thought at the time. (Photo: Clifford Wharton, Jr.)

Born in Maryland in 1899, Cliff Wharton graduated from Boston University and earned the LL.B. degree in 1920 and the LL.M. degree in 1923. A member of the Massachusetts Bar, he practiced law from 1920 to 1924 when he moved to the Veterans Bureau and later in that year to the State Department as a law clerk.

He was appointed to the Foreign Service on March 20, 1925, and assigned to Monrovia as vice consul and third secretary and then Las Palmas in 1930. He moved between these two posts until 1942 when Tananarive [now known as Antananarivo, Madagascar] became his new post.

In April of 1945, Cliff was transferred to the Azores as the American maritime delegate and consul in Ponta Delgada. In 1946, he was promoted to FSO-4 in May, and to FSO-3 in October, attesting to his superior service. When we began our endeavors in 1947 to find a way to convert our wartime use of military facilities at the Santa Maria airfield in the Azores to peacetime use, we had close at hand the benefit of Cliff’s extensive experience and thorough knowledge of the area.

Cliff and I arrived on the Portuguese scene about the same time, 1945. During the following years, I developed the greatest respect for him, both professionally and personally, as a man of the highest qualities. It was a long time before we had the opportunity to meet, but through letters we had become so well acquainted that our first meeting seemed like just another one of many such meetings.

He was on home leave and came by the office for that visit we both had long been looking forward to. Incidentally, on that occasion he brought along one of his young sons. Unhappily, I can no longer remember which one, but a few of years ago I had to wonder whether it was Clifton, Jr, who became Deputy Secretary of State when Bill Clinton became President in 1992.

Early in 1949 we knew the Consul General in Lisbon would soon be up for transfer. Given Cliff’s extensive experience and long and outstanding career, I thought he would be the ideal person for this post and checked out the idea with Ambassador Mac Veagh. He knew Cliff well, of course, and agreed immediately that he was the man for the job. There was no color bar whatsoever in Portugal and we knew that Cliff, who was highly regarded in Lisbon, would be warmly welcomed and eminently successful as Consul General. So, with no further ado, I put in the request to the Foreign Service Personnel office for Cliff’s transfer to Lisbon as Consul General.

“We don’t need people like him at our posts in Europe”

Then the trouble began. Our request gathered dust for months. Phone calls were not always returned and, when they were, one was fobbed off with all manner of evasive inventions. In those days, the Foreign Service ran their personnel operations and the pre-War Old Guard were still much in evidence. The Ambassador, who had a renowned short fuse, became increasingly annoyed as the date for the presiding Consul General’s departure grew closer.

One day, as I was fulminating about the evident chicanery in the FS personnel office, a colleague in our division (WE [Western Europe]) heard me and offered some advice and a warning. He was one of the Old Guard, too, and told me Cliff’s transfer would never be approved. “We don’t need people like him at our posts in Europe.” Further, he warned me that I was getting into trouble by continuing to insist on Cliff’s assignment to Lisbon and had better back off.

I knew this colleague to be one of that dwindling company of FSOs of a pre-War and waning by-gone era — so unlike contemporaries such as George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, Bob Murphy, and others who had become post-War notables. He often inveighed against the wartime newcomers who had entered the Department and the Foreign Service and there was no way of knowing whether he was an emissary assigned to shut me up or was just making his usual noise. What I did know was that the message was outrageous and totally unacceptable.

I called the personnel people to say that time had run out, the Ambassador was highly annoyed, and any further delays over Cliff’s transfer were bound to bring his wrath down on their heads. In addition, they should know that he and the Secretary were lifelong friends, and that Mac Veagh could easily call on [Dean] Acheson “to lend a hand,” if needs be. Best, therefore, not to rouse those two to action; in that event, they could expect all hell to break loose.

In due time, these considerations proved persuasive and, in the fall of 1949, Cliff’s transfer to Lisbon was approved — but only as First Secretary and Consul. It took almost another year of continuous pressure before he was appointed Consul General.

After that, Cliff’s superior qualities and abilities proved that he was the man for that job and he then proceeded on from one success to another. In 1951 he was promoted to FSO 2; in 1953 he was assigned as Consul General in Marseille. Promoted to FSO 1 in 1956, his highly successful tour in Marseille continued for five years. He was appointed Minister to Rumania in 1958 and finally ended his long and distinguished career as Ambassador to Sweden.

Once the racial road block had been broken with his appointment as Consul General in Lisbon, Cliff’s widely known, admired, and respected personal and professional qualities carried the day thereafter. At the time, we hoped that he had lifted the color bar and broken he trail for succeeding generations of African-Americans in the Foreign Service. But how Cliff’s successors have fared in the Foreign Service since seems a very mixed story indeed.

I was concerned by an article in the May 1994 issue of the Department’s newsletter that reported on a ceremony in honor of Deane R. Hinton on the occasion of his retirement after a 51-year career. He was quoted as saying, that “Representing America requires representative Americans. We can achieve a representative Foreign Service of top quality, if we make an enhanced effort to attract recruits from diverse backgrounds with the requisite moral and intellectual qualities….”

I had hoped that remark did not imply, as it seemed to, that there still exists a color bar that deters qualified minorities from perceiving the Foreign Service as a viable career choice for them.

But, alas, the concern Deane Hinton expressed, and its import for the future, were all too prescient. Forty-seven years after Cliff Wharton had been transferred to Lisbon, The Washington Post carried a front page story on April 5, 1996, Good Friday, under a headline that read: State Department Settles Bias Suit, Black Envoys Get $3.8 Million, 17 Promotions.

The story, written by Thomas W. Lippman with contributions from Toni Locy, reports:

“The State Department has agreed to pay $3.8 million to compensate black Foreign Service officers who alleged they were denied advancement and career opportunities because of their race, and to grant retroactive promotions to 17 of them.

“The agreement was a key part of a negotiated settlement that would end a federal lawsuit that had dragged on since 1986. The case exposed some of the rawest nerves in the diplomatic service as African-American diplomats charged they were pigeonholed in backwater assignments, denied promotions they deserved and unfairly driven out of the service.”

The report, which went on at some length, also quotes the Director General [DG] of the Foreign Service, Anthony Quainton:

“We believe the settlement is a fair one. But more important is the Secretary of State’s commitment and my commitment to a diverse work force….We will be carrying out some really substantial reforms in the personnel system so we can train our supervisors to manage a diverse work force.”

Imagine that! Here we are in 1996 and the DG – and the first one to do so – is only now thinking about training “supervisors to manage a diverse work force.” That should have been done decades ago. At this late date, he should be thinking about hiring supervisors who already have extensive experience in managing a diverse work force!

Meanwhile, the story reports that in 1993 “the Foreign Service consisted of 4,015 officers, of whom 87.6 percent were white and 6.7 percent were black. Only 1.4 percent of the Senior Foreign Service, the diplomatic equivalent of generals and admirals, were black.”

What a wretched, revolting record. Obviously, the hoped-for breakthrough of Cliff Wharton’s transfer to Lisbon in 1949 barely dented the color bar, if at all. How sad — how unforgivable — after almost 50 years. And still we pretend to represent the United States of America. This is the American Foreign Service?

For shame!

“He is proof that you can’t keep talent from rising”

Richard H. Morefield
Embassy Oslo, 1963

MOREFIELD: Then I went to Norway where we had a relatively small mission, in which the Consular section was very closely tied in with the rest of the mission. Partly this was because of the Ambassador, Cliff Wharton, He was the one who gave me the first boost up the ladder, who was willing to pay attention to a junior officer in the consular section.

Cliff Wharton was the first black career ambassador. He spent a majority of his early career bouncing between consular posts in Nigeria and the Azores. He is proof that you can’t keep talent from rising. He got to the top by sheer talent in spite of all of the problems of being a black in the Foreign Service in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

He was an incredible man in many ways. You always learn something from every person you ever work for, but it has been only recently that I have realized how much subconsciously I had tried to copy many of his management skills. They were varied, and many were ahead of the times.

One was his ability to use a staff meeting for a specific purpose. He ran three distinct types of meetings. The first was to distribute information–the kind of “show and tell” that is so common in many staff meetings. The second was to grapple with a specific task, in which all the interested parties were expected to participate fully and not just to represent their special piece of turf. The last was to give his core officers daily marching orders.

There were two things unique about the last:  the composition and the length. Unless augmented for a special reason it was the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] and the heads of the Political, Economic and Consular sections. Each picked up a cup of coffee going in and when the Ambassador had finished his, the meeting was over. Good practice in getting to hear of the matter in a hurry. I have had other principals who used these techniques, but none were as good as Wharton in keeping them separate.

He was the best leader I have ever known in building morale and had a number of techniques. One of the most important was a sincere interest in every one at the post. He was able to win loyalty up the chain of command because it was clear that he freely gave loyalty down the chain of command. Much has been said and written about the loss of values of the “old Foreign Service.” Some changes were inevitable — and even desirable.

But I have always felt that the demise of loyalty downwards in the Service has contributed much to the sense of morale loss in the past 25 years. It may have been one of the inevitable changes, an unfortunate concomitant, if you will, of the unlamented demise of the “old boy” network. But Cliff Wharton demonstrated that he cared. And he worked at it.

“The head of our board interestingly enough was Ambassador Clifton Wharton”

Richard C. Barkley
Entered the Foreign Service in 1962

BARKLEY:  In those days they had three particular elements to the [Foreign Service] exam. There was a fourth that you could voluntarily take which was language, and I took it in German.

Most of the kids did take a language, because most of them were there as language students from the army. I never met any of the kids again and I spent some time talking to them. Then they said we are giving the oral examination this time in Europe, at the Consulate General in Frankfurt, in the summer of 1961.

So I arranged to go up and take my orals in Frankfurt. It was once again serendipitous; I had no idea that this was all going to happen. I thought I would have to somehow go home and take the exam, which would have been financially a burden. So I went up. I stayed with friends of friends who had been in the military, went in, took my Foreign Service exam.

The board consisted of three people. The head of our board interestingly enough was Ambassador Clifton Wharton. Clifton Wharton at that time was our Ambassador to Romania. Why he got roped into this I only found out later of course, when you are expected to do certain little things. He was an extraordinarily charming man, and I think I am not wrong in saying that he was the first career African American ambassador.

Q: Do you recall any of the questions?

BARKLEY: There was a question from Ambassador Wharton, and it turns out there had been a real case where he was called to the Foreign Office and he was accused of defending American aggressive policy towards this socialist country by authorizing an American military flight that had come very close to the borders of Czechoslovakia, which I think is something that in fact happened quite often. And he asked me what should have been the proper response to that.

I gave what I thought was a response, in retrospect, probably not an erroneous one. I said, “I would certainly reject the complaint on behalf of my government. It was clear they knew fully well it was never the intent of American policy as they portrayed it.”

He said, “Well, that was certainly an acceptable answer, but his was that he would take it under protest and inform our government.” Anyway, that is the only portion I do remember. I think somebody asked me about [General] Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers” in the [1846] Mexican War. I don’t remember much more than that.

It was a very friendly kind of chat. It all lasted, I guess, no more than 40-45 minutes, after which, to my great surprise, the Ambassador said, “We are recommending you for an appointment as an FSO class 7 instead of the usual class 8.” I was given the slightly higher start primarily because I had done military service.