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Mary Pearl Dougherty Biography

american washington foreign department

1915-2003

U.S. Foreign Service employee

Mary Pearl Dougherty had few African-American contemporaries, and fewer still who were women, when she began her career with the United States Foreign Service in the 1940s. She was not an ambassador but a secretary, and histories of the U.S. State Department and diplomatic corps have little to say about her. But her knowledge of the diplomatic world was deep, and she lived on after her retirement in the memories of younger African-American Foreign Service officers, who looked to her as a mentor and fondly referred to her as "Mother Pearl." Although her training was of an indirect sort, she may be numbered among a generation of influential African Americans who were shaped by the pioneering historian Carter G. Woodson, "the father of black history."

Dougherty was born in Alabama in 1915. Her early years were spent partly in Cleveland, Ohio, where she attended a business college and trained to be a secretary. In the 1930s she moved to Washington, D.C. and studied psychology at American University. But times were difficult for black Washingtonians in the later years of the Great Depression, and Dougherty jumped at the chance to take a prestigious secretarial job with Carter G. Woodson, the scholar and former Howard University professor who pioneered the whole field of black history.

"Dr. Woodson was a disciplinarian," Dougherty told American Visions. "You were to be at your desk, your coat off and ready to work, at 9 a.m. sharp." Local young commercial school graduates who had heard of his reputation looked for jobs elsewhere. "But I was very well trained at the leading commercial school in Ohio, so it didn't bother me," Dougherty recalled. "Besides, back in the '30s, you needed a damn job." She started out as a typist in the fall of 1938, mailing out membership materials for Woodson's Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASNLH). But she caught Woodson's attention, and six months later she became the great scholar's personal assistant.

She had never heard of Woodson before coming to Washington, and nothing in Dougherty's education in Cleveland had given her any idea of the riches of African-American history. But she learned a great deal. She got an education in precise speech and grammar as well, one that laid important groundwork for her career in the diplomatic world. Woodson would dictate entire chapters of his books, without even looking at notes. "Then, when I would show him the transcript, he would say, 'Mrs. D., you split an infinitive!'" she told American Visions.

In the first years of World War II Dougherty worked as a real estate secretary and did a stint at the U.S. War Department (now the Department of Defense). In 1944 she joined the Foreign Service. At the time, black State Department employees were a small minority, and those working in the overseas offices of the Foreign Service were even scarcer. By 1953, nine years after Dougherty began her career, only 55 of the State Department's 8,231 overseas employees were African American, and many of those were sent, by tradition, to black-ruled countries such as Liberia and Haiti. The situation didn't begin to change substantially until the civil rights reforms of the 1960s.

Dougherty's talents broke color barriers. She held posts in African nations: Liberia, the Central African Republic, and Zaire. But later she was assigned as well to South Vietnam and to European countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain: France, Germany, and Romania. Nominally she was a secretary, but she was one of those secretaries who grease the wheels for the smooth functioning of important events, and who shepherd the careers of those they choose to aid. She traveled around Europe and the world, and she became familiar with the ways of people from many different cultures.

In her later years with the agency, Dougherty was a role model and confidant for young black Foreign Service officers; they in turn bestowed upon her the sobriquets of "Aunt Mary," "Ms. D," and "Mother Pearl." She could be counted on for advice on anything from homesickness to the proper glasses in which to serve different drinks at an embassy dinner party. After Dougherty retired from the Foreign Service in 1974, the State Department continued to make unofficial use of her knowledge; she escorted, on a volunteer basis, high-ranking guests from countries such as South Africa, Egypt, Korea, the Ivory Coast, and India as they visited the United States and traveled around the country.

Dougherty never really retired. She worked as an assistant to Howard University vice president Lorraine Williams in the 1970s, and in 1977, working as a consultant to the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs, she resumed her international travels, assembling and leading a delegation that visited the West African countries of Senegal, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, and Malawi. She kept in touch with State Department doings as a member (and co-founder) of the department's Thursday Luncheon Group, and she served as vice president of Washington's Phyllis Wheatley YWCA and as president of the African-American Women's Association. For over 50 years she was a member of Washington's Shiloh Baptist Church, close to Woodson's home, and she was pained to see the building's decay toward the twentieth century's end.

Honors that came to Dougherty at the end of her life were of a personal rather than an official kind. In 1990 she was the subject of a surprise "roast" at a suburban Washington restaurant, organized by friends and fellow Foreign Service veterans and attended by more than 100 people. "Mary deserved it," future U.S. ambassador to Senegal Harriet Elam told the Washington Post. "She worked over half a century helping other people." Elam herself had first met Dougherty in Paris in the 1960s and was one of many young diplomats who benefited from her advice early in their careers. Dougherty, who left no closely related survivors at her death, lived in the Washington neighborhood of Cleveland Park in her retirement. She was diagnosed with cancer and died at age 88 on November 13, 2003, at Washington's Methodist Home.

At a Glance …

Born in 1915 in Alabama; raise in Cleveland, OH; died on November 13, 2003, in Washington, DC. Education: Attended business college in Cleveland, OH; attended American University, Washington, DC. Religion: Baptist.

Career: Personal secretary to historian Carter G. Woodson, 1938-41; real estate secretary; U.S. Department of War, early 1940s; secretary, U.S. Foreign Service, 1944-74; volunteer escort, U.S. Foreign Service, 1974-79; personal assistant to vice president for academic affairs, Howard University, 1970s; consultant, National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs.

Memberships: Phyllis Wheatley YMCA (vice president); African American Women's Association (president); Thursday Luncheon Group, U.S. State Department.

Sources

Periodicals

American Visions, February/March 2000, p. 45. Jet, December 15, 2003, p. 18.

Washington Post, July 5, 1990, p. J3; November 18, 2003, p. B5.

Sun Reporter (San Francisco, CA), September 14, 1978, p. 20.

—James M. Manheim

Ellen Douglas Biography [next]

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