Foreign Diplomats and Domestic Discrimination

By David Langbart

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the establishment of numerous newly independent nations in Africa and Asia.  This led to an influx of foreign diplomats from countries not previously represented in Washington.  At that time, the Nation’s Capital was still very much a Southern city and the non-Caucasian diplomats assigned there, and in other U.S. cities, did not always receive a friendly welcome.  Such treatment of African and Asian diplomats presented a serious obstacle to improving relations with those countries, especially as the so-called Third World became a focus of Cold War competition.

One instance of this was brought home to U.S. officials in September 1960, during a visit by W. Averell Harriman, former Governor of New York, to Nigeria.  During the visit, American Consul General John K. Emerson hosted a formal dinner in Harriman’s honor.  In his official report on the event, Emerson noted that Nigerian Federal Minister of Information T. O. S. Benson “told Governor Harriman with considerable fervor of the humiliation” experienced by Nigerian officials in New York City and Washington, DC.  In a subsequent informal letter to his counterpart in the Department of State, Emerson noted that “Benson apparently spoke rather violently” to Harriman.  Furthermore, Emerson noted that Benson seemed un-American, the clear implication being that this was because of the poor treatment experienced by Nigerian officials in the U.S.

In late January 1961, less than two weeks after assuming his position as Secretary of State in the new administration of President John F. Kennedy, Dean Rusk personally drafted the following letter about the issue of discrimination faced by foreign diplomats and sent it to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.  He also sent a copy to Ralph Dungan, a Special Assistant to the President.

Rusk enclosed a six-page memorandum entitled “Housing for African Diplomats” prepared under the previous administration.  That document described the obstacles faced by African nations in locating chancery and ambassadorial residences as well as staff housing.  It ascribed part of the difficulty to a general reluctance by the real estate industry to deal with diplomats because of diplomatic immunity when dealing with issues of damage or destruction of property, but also described in great detail clear examples of straight-up racial discrimination.  The memorandum also described efforts by the Department to deal with the issue by working with the local real estate industry, albeit not always successfully.  It concluded that the Department’s actions had created an awareness of the issue and a desire by the DC government, the real estate industry, community groups, and individuals to make African diplomats welcome.  While the memorandum described the issue specifically in terms of representatives from Africa, its author noted, “We should however keep in mind that the diplomatic representatives of most Asian and some Western Hemisphere countries face similar difficulties, although perhaps to a lesser degree.”  While the original letter and the copy sent to Ralph Dungan are in the files of the Kennedy White House now in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, no answer by Kennedy has been located.

As described in his memoir As I Saw It, Rusk dealt with the issue throughout his eight years as Secretary of State.  Diplomats were asked to report their difficulties to Chief of Protocol Angier Biddle Duke.  Duke and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs G. Mennen Williams then called on the embassies of affected diplomats to listen to their complaints.  Departmental officials also met with local business men and women to press the case.  The Department of State, led by Dean Rusk, recognized that the issue was larger than just the impact on foreign diplomats; the changes needed to be extended to U.S. citizens, too.  Rusk, therefore, put the full weight of the Department of State behind efforts such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (NAID 299891) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (NAID 299909).  Nevertheless, the issue persisted throughout Rusk’s tenure as Secretary of State, especially in the area of housing.


  • Consulate General Lagos to Department of State, September 7, 1960, Despatch 133, file 811.411/9-750, 1960-63 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59
  • John K. Emerson to Theo C. Adams, September 16, 1960, file 811.411/9-1660, 1960-63 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59
  • Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, January 31, 1961, file 601.0011/1-3161, 1960-63 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59
  • Also see: Papers of John F. Kennedy: Presidential Papers: White House Central Files HU 2/FG 216 (District of Columbia): Executive and Papers of John F. Kennedy: Presidential Papers: White House Staff Files of Harris Wofford: Alphabetical File, 1956-1962: Civil Rights Miscellaneous, 1960-January 1961.

I greatly appreciate the assistance of my colleagues Cate Brennan and Michael Desmond, Stacey Chandler, and Karen Abramson of the John F. Kennedy Library.

4 thoughts on “Foreign Diplomats and Domestic Discrimination

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