This post was contributed by Jezza Syed, GlobalConnect Programs and Data Management Fellow. It is a part of a blog series highlighting and acknowledging the work and contributions of Black diplomats during Black History Month.
Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit, MI, on August 7, 1904. At a very young age, both his parents passed away, leaving Bunche and his two sisters with their grandmother to live in Los Angeles. He felt it was his responsibility to support his family’s finances by working and finding all sorts of odd jobs. Growing up, Bunche believed that the trials and tribulations of supporting his family and navigating in a time of racial injustice in the U.S. would eventually pay off. His fervor to prove himself and make his Nana proud contributes to the many future successes he would achieve later in his diplomatic career, like becoming the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
From a young age, he felt that his intellect would be a vehicle powerful enough to leave a mark on our world. Bunche won several History and English prizes in grade school and advanced to become the valedictorian of his high school. He attended the University of California (UCLA) and graduated summa cum laude and valedictorian in 1927 with a degree in international relations. He later had the opportunity to further his studies by pursuing a master’s degree and a doctorate at Harvard University through a scholarship funded by the Black community in Los Angeles. As proof of his determination and drive, Bunche simultaneously completed his doctorate from Harvard while also teaching international relations at Howard University from 1928 to 1950.
The start of his diplomatic career stemmed from his work when he studied in South Africa and traveled to French West Africa studying French Togoland administrations and institutions. He documented his travel experiences in his book An African American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche. He then served in the U.S. War Department during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the State Department. Bunche became an integral part of creating the United Nations Conferences of 1945 and 1947 and became the UN Secretariat. In this role, he led the initiative to draw territories in the Middle East and negotiated a notorious peace-keeping Armistice Agreement between the new state of Israel and surrounding Arab nations, leading him to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Bunche continued his impactful role in diplomacy as the UN Undersecretary-General for Special Affairs and was awarded by President John F. Kennedy the highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom.
As a known activist for the civil rights movement and advancing peacekeeping efforts internationally in the Middle East and Africa, Bunche has left a legacy to inspire decades of future diplomats. He once said upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace-negotiations between Palestine and Israel, “The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honorable recourse in the effort to save the peace.” He died on December 9, 1971. Today his work is showcased in the National Museum of American Diplomacy and the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York, which holds artifacts of his UN work and his 1949 Egyptian-Israeli General Armistice Agreement.