Johnny Young – From Abject Poverty to Chief of Mission
Johnny Young, who served in the Foreign Service from 1967 to 2005, was born into abject poverty in the Deep South. His family moved North in search of a better life, only to discover that the problems of racial inequality and prejudice were not much better. As a student in high school he was dissuaded from continuing his education as “no college in its right mind will take a look at you.” He eventually studied accounting and it was only because of a trip to Beirut for a YMCA conference that he realized that perhaps he could do something in foreign affairs.
Entering into the Foreign Service during a period of racial polarization, Young initially worked as a Budget and Fiscal Officer in Madagascar, where only one other African-American Foreign Service Officer was stationed (the Ambassador there often confused the two). He later served in Guinea, Kenya, Qatar, and Barbados before returning to Washington, where he worked in the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Inspector General. He eventually became Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Togo, Bahrain, and Slovenia, and in 2004 was promoted to Career Ambassador, the Foreign Service equivalent of a four-star general, in a ceremony presided over by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
In his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2005, Ambassador Young recounts his childhood; how he thought his career was finished before it even started during his first tour; the time he was thrown in jail in Guinea; and the various positions he held throughout his career. You can also read about how he dealt with Togo’s dictator and Ambassador Terence Todman’s experiences of being Black in a “lily-white State Department.”
“Take these children North because there’s no opportunity for them in the South”
YOUNG: I was born in Savannah, Georgia on February 6th, 1940…Both of my parents were poor folks. They had nothing. We lived in an extended family relationship with my grandmother and my mother and father and some other uncles and their children. We lived in one big house, cramped in a couple or several rooms… Shortly after my birth my mother became ill and realized later on that she was terminally ill. She had heart problems, being a black woman in the South, 27 years old at that time, she didn’t have access to good medical care and good doctors so that was a factor. I mean we realize it now in retrospect.
In any case she turned to my sister-in-law, my father’s sister, one of the sisters. The oldest sister and she asked her if she would take me upon her death and raise me and that’s exactly what happened when I was 11 months old. My mother died and this aunt took me, her name was Lucille, Lucille Pressey….
She took me and she took my sister, Loretta… and she raised the two of us… This aunt raised me and she was the only mother that I knew. My father was with us, but he was a sometimes father. He was here, he was there. He had his friends and his life and what have you so I didn’t have the kind of fatherly support that I would have liked….
We stayed in Savannah until I was seven years old. I was baptized as a Catholic. My sister and I were baptized as Catholics in Savannah. There’s a story to that as well. This aunt, the one who raised me, found herself at a low point in her life in the ‘30s when things were pretty bad economically and she was hired as a domestic by the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia and she began cleaning the Cathedral and the rectory for the priests there. They took a liking to her and they asked her if she could cook and she said yes, so she became their cook and in the process they converted her to Catholicism and she in turn converted a number of her brothers to Catholicism. By the time I came along it was just natural that I would be baptized a Catholic, so that’s how I became Catholic….
One day in July of 1947 my mother, my Aunt Lucille, came to us and said we’re going north. I learned later that the nuns at the cathedral and at Saint Benedict’s Church had given her money. It was a nun, the Mother Superior and her name was Mother Blondena. She gave my mother the money and said, “Take these children North because there’s no opportunity for them in the South.” That was in 1947 in June, early July.
On July 3rd, 1947 we took a train called the Silver Meteor which still runs to this day. We boarded it in Savannah and we carried with us our little shoe boxes of fried chicken and biscuits and I don’t know what else we had in there. I thought this was the most exciting thing that I had ever done in my life. I had never been on a train and to think that I was going to go for such a long, long ride. I was just mesmerized by the whole thing, seeing the passing images of buildings and factories and things like that. This was really quite something for a boy who had come out of really nothing. We had nothing. We were as poor as can be.
Then we were on our way North and with it to a new life. I would like to go back for a moment to say that those early years in the South, as poor as we were, were happy years for me. I knew we didn’t have any money and there were times when we had absolutely nothing to eat, I mean nothing except a piece of bread and we had water which we would put sugar in. We called it tea so we had bread and tea and that was all that we had, but we were still very happy.
“We had these sessions with the Ku Klux Klan when they would burn a cross in the middle of our street”
We had times during that period when we had difficulty with the Ku Klux Klan and they would come to our street and absolutely terrorize us. I remember my mother would hold us close to her with her hand over our mouths so that we wouldn’t make a sound so that they wouldn’t hear that there was anyone in a particular house so that they would then target that particular house for more mischief making.
So, I still remember those things. My overall memory is one of happiness and contentment during that time in the South.
We were in a totally black neighborhood except for our grocer and his family. There was a grocer there by the name of Mr. O’Brien and Mr. O’Brien had a son my age. I remember him to this day. It’s like I can still see him. He had red, red hair and we became just the best friends and never for a moment can I ever think of anytime when he referred to my color or I referred to his color. We played together with the other kids in the neighborhood and that was life. We never gave it a thought.
The only time we were aware of our race and being targeted because of our race was when we had these sessions with the Ku Klux Klan when they would burn a cross in the middle of our street….
We went from Savannah directly to Philadelphia. We arrived in Philadelphia on the 4th of July, 1947 and we were met by my Aunt Bertha who was the other sister, my father’s other sister. She took us into her home. We lived in a project in Philadelphia called the Shipyard Naval Homes. She had five children. Those five children slept in one room and she and her husband slept in another room and they took us in so then that made seven children in one little room and then my aunt, my mother, got a room across the street in the home of another woman in the project. That’s where we lived for a short time, a very short period and then we moved to Wilmington, Delaware. ….
“’Are you kidding? No college in its right mind will take a look at you’”
Before I graduated I went to the high school counselor and I asked her about what I should do next and she said, “Get a job as a carpenter.”
I said, “What about going to college?”
She said, “Are you kidding? No college in its right mind will take a look at you.” That’s what she told almost all of the black kids in the school, Mrs. Muir. I remember her to this day as well and not with great fondness.
Then I graduated and I did attempt to get a job as a carpenter, but then the unions were segregated and you couldn’t get into the union. It was a useless exercise. I mean I could have, I guess, sort of been a day laborer or something like that, but I didn’t want that. I continued working at the store. I then began to work full time at this store, My Lady’s Specialty Shop.
I then took the college entrance examination, the SAT and didn’t do well at all on them. Didn’t get a good score at all. Didn’t have good preparation to tell you the truth. In any case, I got from Mr. Berenholtz and his family and what have you a sense of the value of education. I heard them talking to their friends and relatives about this one going to university and that one going to university and how important it is and on and on and they suggested that it’s something I should keep in mind. I didn’t have money to go to college at all. Didn’t have any money at all.
I went to Temple University and got a catalog and asked about going to school at night and I found out that I could go to school at night. It wasn’t too expensive; I could afford it. It was $18 a credit, can you imagine? It was $18 a credit and I didn’t know what to take. I knew I was going to take something in business because I liked working in that shop. I had aspirations of maybe owning a shop of my own….
I began to go to school at night and I took accounting and found out to my surprise that I had an aptitude for accounting. I had never done anything in accounting in my life, but I just had an ability for it and that was in, I think I started in ’58. At the time Temple University had a certificate in accounting program…
In 1960 I was laid off from the shop because business was so bad I couldn’t continue on there. I was at loose ends, didn’t know what to do, tried all kinds of different possibilities, none of them worked out, that’s again a time when race came into play. I began to realize that I’d be called in for jobs and the minute I walked in the door I knew that it was because of my color that I wasn’t going to get the job.
I then went to the city of Philadelphia and looked at their announcement of openings and saw there was a position for junior accountant. The requirements were a Bachelor’s degree or a certificate in proficiency in accounting and you could take the exam. I was very close to getting my certificate and I worked and worked and got my certificate in 1960. I sat for the junior accountant exam for the city of Philadelphia and I passed it at the top and was offered a position in 1960.
I started working for the city of Philadelphia. I worked as a census enumerator which was interesting. That took me into parts of Philadelphia that I wouldn’t think of going into today. When I look back on where I went and those doors I knocked on and the people I encountered and what have you, there’s no way in the world that I would do that today. I was fearless. I just didn’t think about it. I mean it was literally the worst crime ridden area of Philadelphia at that time. Anyway, I think it was September of 1960 I began working as a junior accountant for the city of Philadelphia and that was a major step in my life because it was the beginning of my entrée to the middle class….
“The U.S. had not changed enough for that to happen”
Then in 1965 I was asked by the YMCA, to be a U.S. delegate to an international conference to be held jointly by the YMCA and the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) in Beirut, Lebanon at the American University in Beirut (AUB). I was terribly excited by this prospect. I had not been overseas at all except for a trip to Puerto Rico for about a month or so and for a trip to Canada….
That trip was a transforming experience for me. I had never met so many people from so many different cultures and to hear their stories about their countries and their cultures and their traditions and what have you was fascinating to me. I say to this day that was my conversion on the road to Damascus except mine occurred in Beirut at AUB. It was at that moment that I said I have got to do something in the international sphere. I was going to graduate the next year in 1966 and I said I’ve got to find something that will put me in that kind of arena.
I began to apply to a number of American companies. I wanted to work in the international division of an American company and I wanted to do that abroad and I thought in 1965, ’66 the United States had changed enough to make that possible. I learned later on that it was not possible, that it wasn’t going to happen.
I was called for a number of interviews. I remember going to New York and going into Citibank and going into insurance companies in different companies for interviews and they were very charming and very nice and they’d say, “Oh, Mr. Young, you have a really impressive resume and you have a superb academic record.”
But the minute they would say, “Let’s go to the executive dining room” and the minute those doors opened and I looked inside and saw what was there and realized that I was the only spot in the place and I wasn’t going to be the spot to change things — I knew that it wasn’t going to happen.
They gave all kinds of excuses and what have you, but the fact is the U.S. had not changed enough for that to happen.
Then I began to look to the Federal government and I began taking every exam that I could think of and finally succeeded in 1967 in getting into the Foreign Service….
You have to keep in mind that when I came in in ’67, you could count on one hand –not even two — the number of Black officers in the Service. I mean very few. I went to Madagascar. I was the only one and then later on another African-American officer came and the Ambassador could not distinguish between the two of us. This second officer’s name was Irving Williamson and the Ambassador used to call Irving Johnny and he used to call me Irving….
The few who made ambassador at that time almost all as I recall back in the late ‘60s, they almost all came from USIA [United States Information Agency] and not from the State Department. I think maybe the only one that I can recall at that time might have been Terry Todman and there might have been one other or so, but almost all were from USIA….
“I thought, “Oh my God, this is the end of my career. It hadn’t even gotten off the ground yet.”
I was in Madagascar from 1967 to 1969, but I was also accredited to Mauritius. I have to tell you about one of the first things that happened to me on that first assignment. It was in 1968, the students in Paris were rioting.
They were rioting and they had a major impact on airline service and the students in Madagascar identified with the students in France and they, too, were rioting and sort of stirring up things.
Well, one of the problems was we couldn’t have usual pouch service between Mauritius and the rest of the world. I had gone to Mauritius to help on the administrative arrangements to get the post set up for its independence in 1968. I went to buy furniture and help set up offices and check the books and all kinds of things like that. My wife went with me and when our work was done which was I guess about a week or two, we prepared to return to Madagascar and I was asked to serve as a non-pro courier. I think this occurred in about April or May, something like that.
I was to be the non-pro courier taking these pouches back to Madagascar and then from Madagascar I think they would then be put on Air Madagascar and sent to France. That’s how we would get things from Mauritius to the rest of the world. I had five pouches and when I got to the airport I was told to check them in. I checked them in, these are classified pouches. I got the courier letter, the works.
When we arrived in Madagascar we went to claim the pouches and there was one, there was two, there were three, there were four, but there was no five and panic struck. My wife and I, we looked in every corner in the whole of that airplane. We couldn’t find that fifth pouch. I was getting frantic.
Before we had set out on our first assignment I had been ill and I’d been in the hospital in Washington for internal bleeding. They didn’t know what the reason was. I never reported it to the State Department. I just took off on my assignment and my wife was worried that I was going to get sick again. We looked and we looked and we said, “Well, we have no choice but to call the embassy.”
I called the embassy and explained what happened. They said come in right away. I went in with the four pouches. They took the four. They contacted Mauritius right away, explained what happened. Mauritius found the fifth pouch, said there was no evidence that it had been compromised in any way, telegrams flew back and forth.
The country team [with representatives from the key offices and agencies represented at post] was assembled. I thought, “Oh my God, this is the end of my career. It hadn’t even gotten off the ground yet.“ We arrived in late October, so we’d only been at post about five months. I thought that’s it, my career hasn’t even gotten started, finished. The communicator who took me to the airport said that he accepted responsibility because he never briefed me on how I should handle a pouch as a non-professional courier.
Everyone said to me, “Oh, they certainly took care of that in orientation class.” They surely told me. No one ever mentioned anything about how you behave as a non-professional courier. I didn’t have a clue. He accepted responsibility for that and I thought that was a very big thing on his part. It really was. It’s amazing what goes around, comes around.
Now, we had become friendly with this communicator and he was a very bright fellow and we remained in touch with him. He was not a high school graduate. He was very clever though and we told him, his name was Theodore Boyd, Ted Boyd and we told him, “Ted, you know, you’re a very bright man. Why don’t you finish your GED (General Educational Development) and why don’t you take the Foreign Service exam?”
He took the Foreign Service exam and passed it with one of the highest scores recorded at that time. Succeeded in passing the oral as well. He was brought into the Service and he became a U.S. Information Agency officer. USIS put him to school. He did his bachelor’s degree, did his master’s degree and worked toward his Ph.D.
Some decades later he ended up as my public affairs officer when I was in Togo.
“I mean they were determined to teach that country a lesson and they did”
Then I returned to the States and I got a tentative assignment of GSO in Conakry, Guinea preceded by a huge chunk of training. This was 1970…
It was clear to me as I looked around that everything was shabby and fallen down and broken down and I could see very readily what had happened when the French pulled out in the late ‘50s and literally ravaged that country. They were going to teach them a lesson because Guinea was the only country of the then Francophone countries that said it didn’t want to be a part of the Francophone set-up. That it wanted to go it on its own and France was furious.
They pulled out all of their people. They ripped out the electrical wires for the street lighting, for the apartment buildings and offices, broke the generators of the local hospital, tore up the streets, I mean everything you can think of, they did. It was horrible.
The broke the elevator to the one skyscraper, which was just mean and vicious, and it was ugly and the country had not been able to overcome that. It was readily apparent. I mean holes in the streets, broken down lights. You couldn’t get electricity on any kind of continuous basis so it was just a dreadful situation in terms of the infrastructure. They broke things and the cranes … I mean you just name it, they broke it. I mean they were determined to teach that country a lesson and they did…
“I’ll never forget seeing the hanged bodies of people we knew”
I was home in bed on the evening of November 22nd , which is a fateful in Guinean history. I was stirred out of my sleep by what sounded like cannon sounds. We had made a huge investment in food that we had shipped to the post and we had it in a storeroom at the end of one of the hallways in the house. I kept saying to myself, who’s trying to get into my storeroom? All I could think of was the value of all that food we had in the storeroom. I kept getting up and going to check the storeroom and everything was fine.
I kept hearing boom, boom, rat-a-tat-tat, boom. I couldn’t figure it out. The next morning, I got up to go to mass. I was standing outside of the gate waiting for the person to pick me up to take me to church and it was the admin officer who came by and he says, “Johnny, you can’t stay here.” I lived in an area that was close to what they called the village ministerial, which was near where a lot of the ministers lived.
He said, “Last night there was an attempted coup. There’s still trouble in the air. We’re all meeting over at the DCM’s residence.” The DCM at that time was a fellow named Don Norland. So, we all gathered over at Don Norland’s house. We gathered all of the Peace Corps volunteers, as many as we could. We all went to Don Norland’s house and that’s where we stayed for literally several days until we could return to our respective homes.
On the night of the 23rd things were still uncertain so we stayed at Don’s house. Suddenly I guess as dark descended the fire started again, the cannon fire started again and we could see the tracers through the trees and I remember Don screaming to all of us to get down on the floor and we all got down on the floor and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the night, down on the floor as these bullets and cannons and what have you sailed through the trees.
The Guinean forces were challenging rebel forces that were attempting to come in from the sea and Don’s house was right on the coast. We could see, we knew what was going on. That went on all night long. On the 24th we didn’t have that at night and by the 25th we could return to our houses.
Things were pretty bad after that. Sekou Toure turned on his own people he suspected of being involved in the plot to overthrow him. He turned on a number of people in the foreign community he thought were involved in the plot….
I’ll never forget a couple of days after that, going to work one morning and going under an overpass and before coming out of that overpass seeing the hanged bodies of people we knew, including the Director of the Electricity Department, whom I had dealt with just a few days before in an effort to get electricity to several of our houses. We saw people who were strung up in the public square for everyone to see. It was a very tense time.
Now, this witch hunt that Toure had embarked on stretched out over a number of months and a number of people we knew were involved including a number of Guinean officials. It was really pretty grim and many of them were never heard from again. They were killed and murdered and never heard from again. This was a time when we were concerned about human rights, but frankly couldn’t do very much about it….
“They had a machine gun with a bayonet and they put that in my back and said, ‘You will go with us’”
The apartment building we lived in at the time was under surveillance by the government of Guinea police. From time to time they would have one of their policeman sit outside of this building in a chair. I arrived. My wife went home with our baby….
We were sitting in the apartment building having a Coke when there was a knock on the door. We opened the door and in marched I think about four Guinean policeman and they wanted to know who let these people [his colleagues] in this building. I said, “I let them in this building. Why are you here?”
They said, “We are part of the government of Guinea and we are the authority here and we have a right to be in this building.”
I said, “You have no right to be in this building. This is U.S. government territory and you should leave immediately.”
They said, “No, you will leave immediately.”
I said, “I will not.”
They said, “You have no right to have allowed these people in this building. This building is under surveillance and you have to get out.” I said, “I’m not going out.” They said, “Yes, you are.”
So, we got into a little back and forth there. They then took a bayonet, they had a machine gun with a bayonet and they put that in my back and they said, “You will go with us.” I said okay and I went with them….
As I descended the steps I passed the Ambassador’s secretary, a woman by the name of Marcella Wheeler. She had her door cracked and she was looking out the door. I said, “Marcella, be sure you tell the Ambassador what has happened to me.” She said, “I will.” They marched me out.
They put me in the back of a little Jeep and then they took me to jail. I got to jail. They sat me in a cell and they gave me a piece of paper and a pen and they said, “You will now write your deposition which is your confession.”
I said, “I will not.”
They said, “Yes, you will.”
I said, “I will not write any deposition.” They said, “You will or you will stay here.”
I said, “I’ll just stay.” I remained there in the cell and the policeman who was outside of the cell would occasionally answer the phone when it rang and each time the phone rang I would say, “Is that my Ambassador?”
He would say to me, “No” in very clear terms. He said, “Are you ready now to do your deposition?”
I said no. So, we went back and forth on that for a while. Each time the phone would ring I would say, “Is that my Ambassador?” “No.” This went on for several hours.
Finally, at one point, we said to them, “You will not receive a single further shipment of food from the United States government.”…I learned later from a friend of mine who was in the White House, Fred Rondon, and Fred said, “I was in the Situation Room and this cable came through that you had been arrested and you were in jail….” It was that leverage of no further shipment of food that persuaded President Sekou Toure to act to get me out of jail….
Now, after the attempted coup and difficulties in the ensuing months, I remember the Ambassador called the staff together and said, “This has been a really rough time for us. Some of you may want to leave and if any of you want to go, I will do everything I can to see that you get good onward assignments, but you don’t have to stay on here if you don’t want to. Just let me know if you want to do it and I will do it for you.”
Not a single person at the mission took the Ambassador up on that offer because they had such great respect and admiration for him. They were prepared to undergo whatever the hardships were at that time in order to continue their work with him at that mission. I’ll never forget him….
“ I was prepared to be used as a symbol”
On December 19, 1997 we arrived in Bahrain. Bahrain’s national day is on the 15th. The town was festooned with red and white lights, which are the national colors of Bahrain. I remember my wife saying, “Oh, Johnny, look at all of these lights. Isn’t it wonderful they have decorated for Christmas?” I had to say, “Honey; this is not for Christmas. These are the national colors of Bahrain.” All of the buildings, red and white lights trimmed in the buildings and they were decked out in the streets and what have you.…
That was quite an assignment for me. Bahrain had never had a Black ambassador from the U.S. It had never had a Black in any senior position frankly in the mission. I learned later they were all curious as to what I was going to be like and how many heads I had and that sort of thing.
Q: Did you carry a spear?
YOUNG: Exactly. There was a lot of watching and observing and seeing what was I going to be like and what was I going to say and how supportive I was going to be. They learned very quickly that they had in me a very good friend impressing on the U.S. what a good friend we had in Bahrain as well. It worked both ways….
I had been promoted to Career Minister [in the Senior Foreign Service] and hadn’t been assigned really as a Career Minister to a new assignment. I made a case once again to the central personnel system that, number one there weren’t that many Blacks at my level in the Service. In fact there was only one other at that point, and that was George Moose. George was already assigned and I said I’m interested and I think the Department wanted to do something with me. They didn’t want to throw me to the wolves at that point.
I was a symbol that they could use frankly. I was prepared to be used as a symbol. I had no problems with that at all, but I did have my limitations. I said I did not want to serve in Africa, that I had done my time in Africa, that I thought it was time once again for the Service to demonstrate that it could assign minority ambassadors to regions other than the traditional places than in Africa.
I had put in my wish list and my wish list consisted of 10 different countries and I remember the order of them very well. Number one on the list was the Netherlands. Number two was Sweden. Number three was Jordan and number four was Slovenia and then I had a whole lot of other ones down the line.
I knew that the Netherlands would go political. I knew that Sweden would go political. Jordan I thought could have been a possibility and Slovenia I frankly thought, well, you never know. It was in Europe, a lovely country, a country doing a lot of things right. A beautiful, nicely situated place so I thought, why not. That’s a possibility….
I got a call that the D [Deputies] Committee had selected me for Slovenia and I was very pleased about that….This was in 2000 that the Committee made its selection….Well, that didn’t go anywhere because all of those selections made by the Committee died because of the [presidential] elections and then they resurfaced again. Some of them had changes in them at that point when they resurfaced and I was lucky that my name was selected when it was resubmitted the second time under the Bush administration. That’s how I got to Slovenia…