Dudley, Edward R.

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Edward R. Dudley


Civil rights activist, diplomat, judge

The first African American to serve as a U.S. ambassador, Edward R. Dudley enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist, lawyer, and judge. A member of the diplomatic corps to Liberia, he became ambassador in 1949 after being nominated by President Harry S. Truman. Returning to the United States in 1953, Dudley worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and went on to build a successful political career in New York City.

Though his 1962 campaign to be elected attorney general of New York did not succeed, Dudley did win his 1964 bid for a vacant seat on the New York Supreme Court. He served as an administrative judge in Criminal Court of the City of New York and in the State Supreme Court for Manhattan and the Bronx until his retirement in 1985. A resident of Harlem, he died in 2005 and is remembered as a devoted public servant.

Worked His Way through College

Dudley was born in 1911, in South Boston, Virginia, and grew up in Roanoke. Originally intending to follow his father's career and become a dentist, he worked his way through Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a waiter in a city hotel. Between his junior and senior year he worked in Shoreham, Long Island, as a manager at a club for executives' families. His experience in the North showed him what it was like to be treated "like a man" for the first time in his life, he explained in a New York Times article quoted in Notable Black American Men. Though he returned to North Carolina to finish his degree, earning a bachelor's degree in 1932, Dudley determined that he would eventually leave the South for good.

Few career opportunities presented themselves to a young black college graduate in the Depression-era South. For two years Dudley taught first through seventh grades in a one-room schoolhouse for $60 per month, earning an additional $10 for driving the school bus. In 1934 he received a scholarship to dental school at Howard University. Though he excelled at his dental studies, financial difficulties forced him to withdraw after only one year. Soon afterward he moved to New York City to be near his uncle, Edward A. Johnson, a politician and real estate broker.

Through the early 1930s Dudley took odd jobs as a waiter and a bellhop. He also became involved with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Theater project, which aimed to provide work for unemployed actors, playwrights, directors, stage designers, and other theater professionals. Dudley served as stage manager for director Orson Welles, who was then at the beginning of his career and went on to achieve fame for several films, most notably Citizen Kane (1941). Though Dudley enjoyed the theater, he decided to follow a different career path after the WPA project ended in 1938, and enrolled in law school in Jamaica, New York.

Enjoyed Distinguished Career as Diplomat

Dudley received his law degree from St. John's University in 1941 and was admitted to the New York state bar that year. He then entered private practice. On the advice of his uncle, he began working as a grass-roots political organizer in Harlem, going door-to-door to obtain votes for the Democratic Party. In 1942 he was sponsored to fill a vacant position in the office of the New York attorney general; this position ended ten months later, however, when a Republican governor took office. During that same year, Dudley married Rae Oley, a schoolteacher. Their son, Edward Richard III, was born in 1943. Like his father, he went on to become a lawyer.

After a brief job in sales at Pepsi-Cola, which required him to peddle the new soft drink at U.S. Army bases across the country, Dudley was invited by Thurgood Marshall, chief lawyer for the NAACP, to join that organization's legal department. (Marshall was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.) Dudley took a leave of absence from this position in 1945 when he was appointed as legal aide to Charles Harwood, governor of the Virgin Islands. It was a favorable time to begin a diplomatic career, for the U.S. government was under increasing pressure to integrate jobs that had previously gone exclusively to whites. The diplomatic corps, which had not been officially segregated, became one of the first federal bureaucracies to provide professional careers to significant numbers of African Americans.

Dudley retained his post in the Virgin Islands under its next governor, William Hastie, but returned to his position at the NAACP in 1948 after Hastie was appointed to a federal judgeship. The next year, however, President Truman gave Dudley another diplomatic assignment, naming him minister to Liberia. When Truman was reelected later that year, he upgraded the status of the U.S. delegation to Liberia, making it an embassy and nominating Dudley as ambassador in 1949. A U.S. Senate subcommittee unanimously approved the nomination, which passed the full Senate later that year, making Dudley the first African American to serve as a U.S. ambassador.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Liberia, a country on Africa's west coast, was struggling to develop its economy. One of Dudley's chief goals was implementation of Truman's Point Four Program, which outlined proposed foreign aid for Africa, including technical assistance, agricultural and industrial equipment, and skills training. To familiarize himself with Liberia's particular economic needs Dudley toured the country with its president, William V.S. Tubman, visiting remote tribes and learning about local customs. At a ceremony in 1994 honoring his leadership and reported by Jet, Dudley told members of the Association of Black American Ambassadors that he hoped he had paved the way for future black diplomats, noting that "It was not easy to lead the way back in those days."

Established Political Career in New York City

In 1953 Dudley left his post as ambassador to Liberia and returned once again to the NAACP, where he joined its "Fight for Freedom" fundraising project. He left this position in October of 1955 when New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. assigned him to a position on the domestic relations court bench. Despite the National Urban League's protests at the assignment, which alleged that Wagner had brought in Dudley to replace a black judge who held left-wing views, Dudley served on the domestic relations court until 1961.

At a Glance …

Born on March 11, 1911, in South Boston, VA; died on February 8, 2005; married Rae Oley, 1942; children: Edward Richard III. Education: Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, NC, BS, 1932; Howard University, Washington, DC, 1934–1935; St. John's University School of Law, Jamaica, NY, LLB, 1941.

Career: New York, NY, lawyer in private practice, 1941–1942; Carver Democratic Club, Harlem, NY, precinct activist, 1942; New York attorney general's office, staff counsel, 1942–1043; Pepsi-Cola Company, sales representative, 1942–1943; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, assistant special counsel, 1943–1945, special assistant for "Fight for Freedom" project, 1953; executive assistant to the governor of the Virgin Islands, 1945–1947; Liberia, diplomat, later US ambassador, 1948–1953; New York state domestic relations court, judge, 1955–1961; Manhattan borough president, 1961–1965; New York Supreme Court, judge, 1965–1985.

Memberships: NAACP.

Awards: Honorary LL.D.s from several institutions, including University of Liberia, Morgan State College, and Johnson C. Smith University.

That year Wagner nominated Dudley to complete the term of Manhattan borough president Hulan E. Jack, an African American forced to resign after a conflict-of-interest scandal. When Dudley won by a two-thirds margin in the special election, Wagner considered the election a personal victory in his campaign to end Democratic party corruption in the city. Dudley's term ran for approximately a year, during which he supported urban renewal projects in Manhattan that would preserve affordable housing for middle-income residents. After completing his first term, Dudley entered the regular election for borough president in 1962, winning 14 of 16 districts. He served as borough president through January 1, 1965. He also became the first black chairman of the New York County Democratic Committee.

Despite Dudley's major political successes, his bid in 1962 to become New York's first black attorney general failed. Though Dudley led the votes in New York City by a substantial margin, he could not garner sufficient support outside the city to beat the Republican incumbent. Undeterred, he launched a campaign in 1964 to seek election to the state Supreme Court, and easily won one of the five vacancies on the First District Court for Manhattan and the Bronx. He was sworn into office in January of 1965.

During his many years on the bench Dudley served in various positions as an administrative judge. In 1966 he was assigned to the New York City criminal court—a step down in his career—to reorganize its administration. Accepting the job on the assumption that it would be a brief interruption from his other duties, Dudley remained in this post for five years, frustrated that lack of funding prohibited his ability to make positive changes. In 1970 he requested reassignment, and was named an administrative judge in the New York State Supreme Court for Manhattan and the Bronx. He began his duties there in January of 1971.

Weathered Accusations of "Upward Failure"

Dudley's tenure on the bench prompted some significant criticism. In 1972, a writer for New York magazine included him as one of "The Ten Worst Judges in New York." The article described Dudley as an "upward failure" who had received promotions for which he was not competent. The New York City Bar Association appointed a committee to investigate these charges. When it appeared in 1974 their report exonerated Dudley and two other judges, deeming the article to be inaccurate and unfair in its charges regarding Dudley. At the same time, though, the committee noted that much informed opinion suggested that Dudley had been ineffective as an administrator.

Meanwhile Dudley had requested reassignment, becoming presiding justice of the Appellate Term of the Supreme Court for the First Department. Relieved to be rid of administrative tasks, he went on to win reelection to the bench in 1978, receiving more votes than any other candidate. Dudley retired as a judge in 1985. He lived the remaining years of his life in Harlem. He died on February 8, 2005, at age 93, of prostate cancer.

A long term resident of Harlem, Dudley enjoyed many social activities. An athlete from his college days, he enjoyed tennis, golf, and swimming, and also took pleasure in his many friendships. In the 1970s he became a trustee of the Fund of the City of New York. He was awarded honorary degrees from several institutions, including the University of Liberia, Morgan State College, and Johnson C. Smith University.



Notable Black American Men, Thomson Gale, 1998.


Jet, June 20, 1994, p. 36.

New York Times, February 11, 2005.


"The African-American Heritage: A Historical Perspective," U.S. Department of State Careers Newsletter. www.careers.state.gov/newsletters/Mar-Apr2006/page3.html (July 10, 2006).