Diversifying Diplomacy tells the story of Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas, a young black woman who beat the odds and challenged the status quo. Inspired by the strong women in her life, she followed in the footsteps of the few women who had gone before her in her effort to make the Foreign Service reflect the diverse faces of the United States. The youngest child of parents who left the segregated Old South to raise their family in Massachusetts, Elam-Thomas distinguished herself with a diplomatic career at a time when few colleagues looked like her.
Elam-Thomas’s memoir is a firsthand account of her decades-long career in the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service, recounting her experiences of making U.S. foreign policy, culture, and values understood abroad. Elam-Thomas served as a United States ambassador to Senegal (2000–2002) and retired with the rank of career minister after forty-two years as a diplomat. Diversifying Diplomacy presents the journey of this successful woman, who not only found herself confronted by some of the world’s heftier problems but also helped ensure that new shepherds of honesty and authenticity would follow in her international footsteps for generations to come.
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About the Author
Harriet Lee Elam-Thomasis a diplomat and professor who held numerous posts abroad over the course of her forty-two-year career, including positions in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, France, Belgium, Mali, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast. She retired in 2005 from the U.S. State Department as a senior foreign-service officer with the rank of career minister and currently directs the University of Central Florida Diplomacy Program. Jim Robison is a retired newspaper reporter, columnist, and editor and is the author of eleven books on Central Florida history, lore, and legends.
Read an Excerpt
What a Family!
I was born under the sign of the phoenix [the symbol of Atlanta]. I grew up under the sign of the phoenix. I always believed that from ashes you could make beautiful things, from chaos you could make peace, and from despair you could bring happiness.
— Ruth A. Davis, in 2003 the highest-ranking African American woman in the State Department
Some African societies separate family into two groups, the sasha, for the living and recently deceased, and the zamani, those revered people from past generations who lived during a time before anyone alive today. My life's story cannot be told without honoring the memories of my sasha family and the legacies of my family's venerated zamani.
And what a family!
In January 2000, Wilfred, my husband of three months, and I arrived in Senegal's capital city of Dakar at the southern point of the rocky, triangle-shaped Cap Vert Peninsula, the westernmost tip of Africa. Within a few days, Wilfred and I walked out of the ambassador's residence in Fann, the suburban area of Dakar where most of the ministers and diplomats lived. A chauffeur-driven, four-door black limousine awaited to whisk us to Senegal's palace, where I would present my credentials to President Abdou Diouf. Our driver took us along the palm-lined boulevard that fronts the white sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast, past stunning ocean-front residences of nationals, American expatriates, and other international families, and then along the Corniche, where Senegalese carpenters, furniture makers, and artists displayed their wares. The car drove by the multistoried ministry buildings to the Palais de la République in the Plateau district at the peninsula's eastern coastline.
Due east of the palace is Senegal's reminder of the West African role in the Atlantic slave trade, the island of Gorée, with its Door of No Return, where in June 2013 President Barack Obama stood in wordless contemplation. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, too, had visited Gorée during their terms in office.
Security cleared traffic as we traveled along the Route de la Corniche Ouest, normally a heavily traveled thoroughfare of this busy metropolitan city, with 2.5 million diverse residents and one of the largest seaports and industrial centers of West Africa. Dakar is the cultured French-speaking capital of West Africa, with an international feel, highlighted by its Avenue des Ambassadeurs for its many diplomatic missions.
On this day, I was holding up traffic. I thought to myself that the other drivers caught in gridlock must "love" waiting for my entourage to pass. I had been briefed that cross-city driving, even on good days, was one of the most frustrating facts of life in this city that shares more than its language with the chaotic drivers of Paris. Adding to the clogged roads was the intense heat just prior to the beginning of the mid-January rainy season in Dakar. After what seemed like an eternity, the driver turned onto Boulevard de la République and the final few blocks of the modern, high-rise city, to Avenue du Pr. L. Sédar Senghor and the Palais Présidentiel. I had been silent for the twenty-minute drive. My husband turned and faced me, commenting that he had never seen me so quiet. I pointed out the window to the outriders, in their red and black uniforms, on their motorcycles on each side of us. And on each side of the hood, flags waved, the Stars and Stripes on the right fender and, on the left fender, the dark blue flag with thirteen white stars circling the eagle coat of arms of the ambassadorial standard.
Somewhere along that drive it hit me: in just a few moments I would enter the Palais Présidentiel to present my letter of credence, signed by President Bill Clinton. How incredible. Oh my heavens, I really had left that little Boston girl behind! I never imaged this would happen. Sure, I had given an alumni speech at Simmons College a long time ago, in 1977, when I said someday I would like to be an ambassador, never, ever thinking I might achieve it.
What would Blanche and Robert Elam think if they were alive on this day? Their youngest child is going to see the head of a West African nation to represent the president of the United States of America. Just the realization of that moment overwhelmed me with a sense of history and the reassuring warmth of my place in my family's legacy.
Back in Boston, some seven decades before, Mrs. Theresa Dempsey, one of my parents' close friends, had called me "the flower of the flock." Of course, this did not please my sister (almost seventeen when I was born), for, until my late arrival, she was the "apple of my father's eye."
My brothers and sister used to put a sign on the carriage whenever one of them had to take me out for a stroll. It read, "This is my baby sister!" Back in those days, teenagers, male or female, seen pushing a stroller with a baby who might have been theirs might as well have been wearing a scarlet letter. My siblings said they did this to prevent the inevitable community gossip concerning the origin of this new addition to the Elam family.
Born September 15, 1941, I was the youngest of five children, all born in or near Boston, Massachusetts. My three brothers were born between 1920 and 1923. My sister came along in 1925. My parents were from the South. My great-grandparents on both sides of the family, and perhaps my grandparents, were slaves or first-generation freedmen and freedwomen in Virginia and South Carolina. My father, Robert Harry Elam, was born in Chase City, Virginia; my mother, Blanche Delnora Lee, was from Aiken, South Carolina.
Even now, more than sixty years since the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which ended legal segregation, it is easy to see why the legacy of Jim Crow persuaded my family and others to move to the North to raise their children.
My grandfather on my father's side was named Greeg Elam, born in the 1860s. He followed the tradition of the times to use the family name of the white plantation owner. Virginia and other southern states had long treated blacks as property. Births were part of a plantation's business records, which were often incomplete and vague and many of which have been lost to history. No family Bible that might have listed his birth has survived. He lived and worked in the tobacco-farming area of south central Virginia near the spot where Mecklenburg, Lunenburg, and Charlotte Counties come together. The farmland where he lived was in Mecklenburg County on Virginia's southern border with North Carolina. The nearest town would become Chase City, some eighty miles southwest of Richmond. Chase City, incorporated by northerners in 1873, was named for the politically ambitious abolitionist Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, secretary of the treasury in Abraham Lincoln's cabinet and later chief justice of the Supreme Court. Beginning as a colony for United Presbyterians following the Civil War, Chase City's origins are firmly planted in the Reconstruction Era.
My grandfather married a woman known to us only as Lucy. They had five children, including my father, Robert Harry Elam, born on August 6, 1891. (For most of my dad's life, he thought his birthday was August 4. When my parents applied for their passports to visit me in Paris, we learned that the birth date recorded was two days later. We continued to celebrate his birthday on the fourth, for at that stage in his life it did not make sense to change.) My grandparents lived their entire lives in Chase City, near the south fork of the Meherrin River, which today divides Mecklenburg County from Lunenburg County.
Founded on February 26, 1763, Mecklenburg County was named for the German principality of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the homeland of King George III's wife, Queen Charlotte. (I smile when I wonder if those early colonial plantation owners had any idea that the namesake of Charlotte and Mecklenburg Counties is said to have been of African and Moorish descent.)
Chase City, when it was known as Christiansville, was settled by the king's colonists from other regions of Virginia as well as from Pennsylvania and Maryland. The slaveholding Elam family of Mecklenburg County traces its heritage back through the generations to Brodsworth Parish, Yorkshire, England, in the 1500s. Martin Elam, born in England in 1635, married Frances Perrin in 1675 in Henrico County, Virginia. One of Martin Elam's grandsons, Joel Elam, owned seventy-one acres on the upper middle section of Bluestone Creek, which flows into the Roanoke River. The Elams would later add additional land at Buffalo Springs, south of the Roanoke River, which flows into North Carolina.
Property and estate records and wills from the antebellum era as well as census records for the Reconstruction years following the Civil War list many slaves and former slaves identified with the Elam family name. The 1870 census for Bluestone Township lists fifteen Elam family members identified as black or mulatto, including children, farmhands, and housekeepers.
Tobacco made Mecklenburg County, where the rolling hills of the Piedmont settle into the Tidewater, one of the wealthiest counties in the Virginia commonwealth. The Prest would plantation in Clarksville and the 1790s Boyd Tavern in Boydton remain popular tourist stops. South Hill offers the Tobacco Farm Life Museum of Virginia, with its focus on the family farm heritage of 1935–50, not the legacy of the slave economy of the Old South.
When I was in my midtwenties or early thirties, I joined my brothers Harry and Clarence to travel south to Chase City for an Elam family reunion. As we drove around, we saw a sign reading "Elam Jewelry Store," so we went in. My brothers and I talked to the owners, who sure didn't look like us, but they were gracious. I got up the nerve to say we could be related, and they responded, "We certainly could be." That was a pleasant surprise. It helped me move away from my built-in prejudices about white people with southern accents. It was a good thing for me to experience, and a good lesson for someone who did not want to go below the Mason-Dixon line.
My grandfather on my mother's side, Sherman Justin Lee, was from Aiken, South Carolina, but the names of his parents as well as the place and date of his birth are not known. The same is true for my grandmother on my mother's side, Henrietta Frazier Lee. She died in 1926, long before my birth, when my brother Harry Justin Elam was only about four years old. Yet he would later recall looking up at his grandmother's casket in the parlor of the family home at 194 Western Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts, as family and friends gathered in the days just before her burial. He writes that the word other family members would use in describing her was "regal," despite blindness late in life and the loss of one leg, amputated as the result of diabetes.
Grandpa Lee earned a living as a chauffeur for a well-to-do Brookline family. When he wasn't driving their family someplace, he was busy polishing the big black limousine in his driveway. He seemed to take great pride in always keeping the vehicle in tip-top condition. Grandpa Lee was the breadwinner, but our grandmother was "the principal person of authority in the Lee household whom everyone held in high regard," Harry wrote in his history of the family.
Their decision to leave South Carolina to resettle in Cambridge was a familiar one for many African American families of that era.
South Carolina, especially Aiken County and Edgefield County on its northern border, was not a safe place to raise a family in the early 1900s. It had not been a safe place for generations. There are some places where it is still not safe. During the writing of this book, a twenty-one-year-old hate-filled white man intending to start a race war shot and killed the pastor and eight members of the historic Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. At the man's first court appearance, surviving family members, in an act of faith and following their Christian tradition, expressed forgiveness to the man who had taken the lives of their relatives. Their powerful, heartbreaking message prompted South Carolina lawmakers to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capital.
Aiken County is South Carolina's only county created during Reconstruction. Neighboring Edgefield County's legacy is one of violence. The county often is singled out as one of the most savage counties in the South. The Edgefield District, which later became Edgefield and Aiken Counties, "was the 10th wealthiest county in the nation in 1850 and a jurisdiction known for hot-blooded adventurers such as William Travis, the martyred leader of the Alamo," reporter Jim Nesbitt wrote in a February 6, 2004, article for the Augusta Chronicle, "A Story Left Untold." The two counties are across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia. Edgefield also would be a "seat of power for ardent secessionists such as Gov. Francis Pickens," Nesbitt wrote.
As South Carolina's governor, Pickens "helped to ignite the Civil War by ordering his militia to seize federal property in Charleston," according to Fox Butterfield in his generational study All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence.
In the decades of the South's slave economy before the Civil War, South Carolina's politics were solidly in the control of an entrenched landed aristocracy modeled after the elite of England's landed gentry. "Nowhere else in America did the wealthy class so successfully conspire to keep power away from the common man," writes William W. Freehling in his 1965 book Prelude to Civil War.
Founded on December 19, 1835, the city of Aiken was named after Irish immigrant William Aiken, the president of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad, who died in 1831 at his Charleston home. His railroad was founded in 1827 at his King Street house, now a historical site. His son, William Aiken Jr., would become the state's governor, serving from 1844 to 1846. He also served in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress, running unsuccessfully for Speaker of the House in 1856.
The western terminus of the rail line to the Savannah River was at Hamburg, South Carolina, linking the upcountry cotton plantations with the port and markets at Charleston. Hamburg had been founded in 1821 by Henry Schultz, a German immigrant who had a black wife.
Some sixty thousand bales of cotton a year were shipped out of Hamburg by rail in the 1830s and 1840s. However, expanded rail lines through the region in the 1850s made Hamburg a ghost town in the years before the Civil War. Hamburg became a haven for freedmen after the war.
Southerners would begin to describe the war as their "Lost Cause." Sherman's "March to the Sea" snaked through Aiken County. Slaves fled plantations to follow Sherman's army, and white families faced hard times. With the war's end, the defeated Confederacy saw "the bottom rail was put on top," as one bankrupted and politically marginalized planter's family worded it. Freedmen gained the vote, a right denied many poor whites. Black suffrage helped "Radical Republicans" take over state and local government. Congress revoked Sherman's promise of forty acres and a mule for freedmen, but Grant's Freedmen's Bureau set up schools and helped former slaves negotiate farm leases and sharecropping and labor contracts. Aiken's cotton yield topped Edgefield's.
A leading member of the Lee family was one of the founders of Aiken County. A courthouse stone-and-bronze marker celebrating Aiken County's 125th anniversary lists the name Samuel J. Lee, a freedman who owned a farm outside of Hamburg. Lee (1827–95) was born a slave on the cotton plantation of his father, Samuel McGowan of Abbeville County, upriver from what once was the Edgefield District. McGowan, a Confederate general, took along his mulatto son as his servant during the war. Wounded twice as a Confederate soldier, Lee later became a leader of a black militia unit during the federal occupation of the South. He won election to the state legislature, serving as the first black Speaker of the House. He would be the first black man admitted to the South Carolina bar.
Aiken County historian Owen Clary, in the Nesbitt article, points to "spite" as the key motivation to create the county. Radical Republicans decided to punish Edgefield County by slicing off a new Aiken County, where black voters would be in the majority.
Excerpted from "Diversifying Diplomacy"
Copyright © 2017 Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Foreword by Allen E. Goodman
Preface by John Bersia
Introduction: America’s Approach Is Not the Planet’s Only Game
1. What a Family!
2. My Name Is Harriet
3. Do You Know How to Type?
4. Young, Black, Female, and . . . from the White House
5. Harriet, How Is Your Greek?
6. The Desk Officer Who Was Never in Her Office
7. Well, It’s the Truth!
8. This Was Our “Aha” Moment
9. Off to Dakar
10. I Was Ready to Retire . . . I Thought
Epilogue: Coming Full Circle, Cuba Face-to-Face