Wharton, Clifton Reginald Sr. 1899–1990
Clifton Reginald Wharton, Sr. 1899–1990
American diplomat Clifton Wharton’s career was dotted by a number of firsts. He was the first African American to take the Foreign Service exam, becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in 1925. Over the next forty years he would become the first black officer to serve in a European embassy, the first black career officer appointed minister to Romania, and the first black ambassador in Europe when he was appointed to the embassy in Norway. His career was also notable in that he was the first African American to attain these roles the old-fashioned way—through the rank and file. Though there had been black FSOs before him, they had been appointed to their positions without regard to rank. In many cases blacks had been assigned to positions in Africa and in smaller, underdeveloped nations because white officers did not want these jobs. Also, in the case of nations with a majority black population, African Americans were appointed because it was felt they could better serve the interests of the United States in these countries.
Wharton was different. He was a dedicated diplomat who worked hard during his four decades of foreign service, and deserved each promotion that he got. In fact, in the case of his Romanian appointment, Wharton publicly stated he would refuse the position if it were given to him for any reason other than merit. Dr. Horace Dawson, a former ambassador and historian of black diplomats, described Wharton to Jet as “a man who refused to allow color to interfere with the quality of his service.”
Clifton Wharton was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 11, 1899, and was raised in Boston. Upon graduating from English High School he went on to earn a degree in law from Boston University. He worked as a lawyer in Boston for the next three years and also served in the Massachusetts National Guard. In 1923, upon receiving his master’s degree in law from Boston University, he moved to Washington, D.C. He initially took a job as an examiner in the Veterans Bureau before accepting a position as a law clerk with the State Department. According to Notable U.S. Ambassadors Since 1775, “The circumstances surrounding this appointment are not entirely clear. Wharton was never formally interviewed for the position, and whether or not the Department of State even knew that he was black is not evident. In any event, his appointment was certainly significant, for
At a Glance…
Born on May 11, 1899 in Baltimore, MD, raised in Boston, MA; married first wife Henrietta Banks; second wife, Evangeline Spears; children: Clifton Jr., William, Richard, H. Mary Sampson. Education: Boston University, LL.B, 1920, LL.M, 1923.
Career: Lawyer, Boston, MA, 1920-23; Veterans Bureau, Washington DC, examiner; State Department, Washington DC, law clerk, 1924-25; Foreign Service Officer: Monrovia, Liberia, 1925-30, 1936-37, 1937-38, 1941-42; Las Palmas, Canary Islands, 1930-36, 1937, 1938-41; Tananarive, Madagascar, 1942-45; Ponta Delgada, the Azores, 1945-49; First Secretary, Consul General, Lisbon, Portugal, 1949-52; Consul General, Marseilles, France, 1952-57; U.S. Minister to Romania, 1958-61; Ambassador to Norway, 1961-64.
Awards: Honorary doctorate of law, Boston University, 1963.
Wharton was the only black to hold a professional position in the department in 1924; the other blacks in the department were messengers or cleaning staff.”
Those first few months were difficult. He was ignored by his white coworkers and given menial jobs to complete. Despite these hardships, including the State Department’s long reputation as a bastion for white males, Wharton decided to pursue a career in diplomacy. He knew this decision would be an uphill battle, but he was determined. In 1924 he found the opportunity he needed to move ahead. The government passed the Rogers Act, establishing the U.S. Foreign Service. Wharton took and passed the first Foreign Service examination and on March 20, 1925, he became a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) of the lowest rank. He would remain the only black FSO until 1945. The following day he was promptly assigned to a post in Monrovia, Liberia.
It was an undesirable post, but one that Wharton expected. At that time, all African Americans in the Foreign Service were sent to posts in Africa and tropical nations such as Haiti. What Wharton was not expecting, however, was to be treated disrespectfully. Unlike other FSOs, Wharton was denied mandatory training at the Foreign Service school. His superiors explained this away by claiming that Wharton was needed to report to his post immediately—there was no time for him to attend training. Wharton ruefully accepted this; however, he would not accept the next indignity. He discovered that he and his wife, Henrietta, had been booked on a second-class cargo ship for the long journey to Africa. He rightfully protested and new travel accommodations were made.
Over the next 25 years, Wharton moved between four posts: Liberia, Madagascar, Canary Islands, and the Azores. Though he steadily moved up through the ranks in the Foreign Service, he was still relegated to fairly low-level jobs. According to an article on the State Government website, “Wharton credited persistence, stamina and faith for helping him overcome racial hurdles to forge a successful Foreign Service career.” His skill as a diplomat also helped. He was called on to serve four separate times in Liberia because the U.S. minister assigned there was often absent. The department relied on Wharton to keep the Liberian mission running smoothly.
Later, in Madagascar from 1942 to 1945, Wharton proved his skill during World War II, drawing praise from both American and British officials. Because of this and the senior rank he had achieved by 1946, Wharton was able to break through the geographical ceiling imposed by the Foreign Service on black FSOs. In 1949 he became the first African-American officer to hold a senior post in Europe, when he was appointed first secretary and consul general at the U.S. embassy in Lisbon, Portugal. He soon received another promotion and in 1952 was named consul general at the U.S. consulate in Marseilles, France. He served there until 1957, rising in rank to the highest category of officer.
On February 8, 1958, Wharton achieved the highest honor to date in his career when he was appointed U.S. minister to Romania. This appointment made him the first African American to head a U.S. mission outside of Africa. It also made him the first African-American career diplomat to rise through the ranks to attain a ministership.
It was with this second fact that Wharton was most concerned. Before accepting this appointment, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with State Department officials to ensure that his appointment was the result of his skill and experience, not his skin color. That meeting was recounted by Loy Henderson, then Deputy Undersecretary of State, in a letter to Wharton quoted on the State Government website: “One of the most unforgettable moments of my Foreign Service life was my conversation with you when you flew from Marseilles to Washington in order to make sure that your appointment as minister of Romania was based on merit and qualification—not on racial considerations.” Loy continued, “You made it clear to me that if the matter of race had been one of the criteria, you would not be able to accept the appointment. I was deeply touched and glad to tell you that race had not been a factor.”
Wharton accepted Loy’s assurances and reported to Romania. However, considering the political climate of the time, it is likely that Wharton’s skin color did have some bearing on his appointment. The civil rights movement was under way and the rest of the world bore witness as the United States struggled with segregation and racism and their shameful offsprings—lynchings, beatings, and battles at schoolhouse doors. Abroad, the Cold War was raging and the Communists in particular were critical of the racial problems in the United States. At the time, U.S. News and World Report wrote, “[Romania] like all other countries behind the Iron Curtain, has been sharply critical of the U.S. for ‘suppressing’ Negroes. And Mr. Wharton is a Negro.”
Despite this atmosphere, there was no denying Wharton’s ability to do the job. When he arrived in Romania, relations between the Communist nation and the United States were strained. Romanian assets in American banks had been frozen and the United States was demanding reparations for losses sustained when the Communist government took over. Though both hoped to establish economic relations, there were many accusations between the two nations. The United States claimed Romania violated human rights. Romania accused the United States of espionage. It was a dire situation, yet one from which Wharton did not shrink. He was the key figure in the intense negotiations that finally ended in a settlement in 1960. For his work he was awarded the title of Career Minister.
In 1961 President Kennedy’s administration came to power and according to Notable Ambassadors Since 1775, “was interested in the recruitment and promotion of black Americans for U.S. diplomatic service. In looking about for some high-profile appointments immediately after his election, Kennedy quickly hit upon Wharton. With a ministerial appointment already under his belt, there could be no denying Wharton the ultimate award of an ambassadorship.” In March of that year, Wharton achieved the highest office in Foreign Service when Kennedy named him Ambassador to Norway. His appointment was hailed across the board by the press, the public, and civil rights activists. An editorial in the Washington Post reflected the general consensus: “The post goes to Mr. Wharton because he deserves it, not because he happens to be a Negro.” Nonetheless, in becoming the first African-American ambassador to serve outside of Africa, his appointment was a victory for all African-Americans, especially those who were to follow with careers in Foreign Service.
Wharton served with distinction in Norway. During his tenure he also attended a ministerial meeting of NATO, was a delegate to the United Nations, and sat on a testing board for the Foreign Service Exam. The New York Times quoted a letter written by the Secretary of State upon Wharton’s 1964 retirement, “Yours has been an outstanding career, and I am sure you take pride in the fine reputation you have earned.”
Wharton retired to Arizona with his second wife, Evangeline, where he died in Phoenix of a heart attack on April 23, 1990. He was survived by four children, Clifton Jr., William, Richard, and Mary. As the global community continues to expand, American men and women of all ethnic backgrounds will be following in Wharton’s distinguished footsteps.
Nolan, Cathal, editor, Notable U.S. Ambassadors Since 1775: A Biographical Dictionary, Praeger, 1997, pp. 365-69.
Jet, May 14, 1990, p. 16; February 11, 2002, p. 26.
New York Times, April 25, 1990.
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