This post was written by Urwah Ahmad, Global Communications Fellow at Meridian International Center. This post is a part of a series highlighting and acknowledging the work and contributions of Black diplomats during Black History Month.
Born in Lost Creek, IN, on November 11, 1928, Cynthia Shepard Perry knew from an early age that she had dreams of using language and communication to transcend borders and create lasting connections. During her years at Otter Creek High School, she won various writing contests. In her 1998 memoir All Things Being Equal: One Woman’s Journey, she reflected on this time period as the catalyst for her interest in diplomacy and her goal of becoming an ambassador.
In pursuit of this dream, Shepard Perry attended Indiana State University where she graduated with a degree in political science and foreign language. She later received her Doctorate of Education from the University of Massachusetts. While attending school Perry was also working, serving with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Teacher Corps and the International Business Machine (IBM) Teacher/Peace Corps.
Then just Cynthia Shepard, she married James Perry and the two moved to Kenya for his post with UNESCO. (Although she had originally been offered the post, Shepard Perry convinced them to offer it to her husband so they could go together). While there, she worked on her language skills and trained Peace Corps volunteers. She continued her foreign service work, serving as Director of the Teacher/Peace Corps for Crossroads-Africa (1971-73); a member of diplomatic delegations to Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia (1974); and a consultant to U.S. Information Services in Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia (1973-1976).
Shepard Perry’s diplomatic career began in 1982 when she was appointed as Chief of Education and Human Resources of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Four years later, President Ronald Reagan named her Ambassador to Sierra Leone. In 1989 President George H.W. Bush appointed her Ambassador to Burundi, where she served until 1993. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed her as U.S. Executive Director of the African Development Bank in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and Tunis, Tunisia, where she promoted micro-lending, especially for women, analyzing loan requests for public works projects and projects to reduce poverty. Her laudable diplomatic career spans 25 years of altruistic and action–oriented service.
During her two terms serving as Ambassador in African countries, Shepard Perry was vocal about gender discrimination as her work’s greatest challenge. “I worked around it by simply doing it,” she said at an event at Indiana State University in 2015. “I would say what had to be said.” This ardent commitment to equity and diplomacy helped advance diplomatic initiatives and strengthen cross-cultural relationships between the U.S. and Africa.
“Every man, every woman is born for a purpose,” she said, and she upholds the statement with her work. Shepard Perry continues to serve as an Honorary Council General of Rwanda, Chairman of the Board of Houston’s International Festival for South African Cultures and Regent of Texas Woman’s University. She maintains her love for writing and the arts through personal projects like painting and will be releasing another book with some of her artwork.