U.S. Ambassador Terence Todman: Breaking the Barriers of Bias

Photograph of Ambassador from NY Times.


This post was written by Nic Cervantes, Program Officer, Meridian’s Center for Global Leadership. It is a part of a blog series highlighting and acknowledging the work and contributions of Black diplomats during Black History Month.

Implicit bias can take on many forms as it exists throughout society. While it can be as seemingly harmless as taking your Uncle Giovanni to your favorite Italian restaurant every time he visits from Italy, these indiscretions can have much larger unintended consequences. The results contradict Meridian’s core value of strengthening bonds between people of varied backgrounds.

Ambassador Terence Todman faced these challenges with a much more nefarious outcome. Throughout his more than 40-year career in the foreign service, Todman broke through many barriers that helped pave the way for those who would come after him.  A shortlist of his accomplishments includes becoming the first Black ambassador of a Spanish-speaking country (1974) and the first to hold a major European ambassadorship (1978). However, his early obstacles took place in the lunchroom.

In 1957, Todman was taking courses at the Foreign Service Institute in Rosslyn, VA. The Institute did not have its own dining facility, so the white officers would go to a nearby restaurant for their meals. At the time, Virginia state law forbids Blacks and whites to eat together. In the end, the State Department had to lease half of the restaurant and include a partition so that black employees would be able to have a warm lunch.

The obstacles did not stop there. Todman’s academic background was in Arab culture and society, so it was always his desire to work in that region of the world. However, his first ambassadorial appointment was to Chad in Africa. Todman would later state, “It has been and remains that if you’re Black you have to be associated with Africa.” The issues within the State Department ran systemically deeper. There were documents up until the 1960s that stated where Black Americans could serve abroad given the country’s “practices.” Todman asserted that this was absurd, “I am prepared to say that that business about not being able to send Blacks was purely concocted within the State Department.”

Regardless, Todman did not believe this was born from hate. “Exclusion isn’t because you hate one group or that you don’t want them; it’s often because you want some others, and that effectively keeps out the other side,” he said. Todman asserted his position as a troublemaker trying to break through these barriers. In 1974, he was appointed Ambassador to Costa Rica, becoming the first Black diplomat to hold the position in Latin America. In 1977, he became the first Black man to ever head a geographical division when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. Later, he would take positions in Spain and Denmark. His foreign service career concluded in 1993 when he retired with the distinguished rank of career ambassador.

Mr. Todman’s storied career reflects the role of a fighter who resented being pigeonholed in certain assignments due to the color of his skin. Much can be learned from his experience when reflecting on one’s own unintentional biases. As Meridian strives to build the foundation for a global community that works together to address shared challenges, it is imperative to ensure people from disparate walks of life are brought together to contribute their experiences.