Terence A. Todman Biography
Set Sights on Diplomatic Career, Became Ambassador in Africa, Advanced to Highest Diplomatic Rank
During a diplomatic career that spanned four decades, Terence A. Todman served in nearly a dozen countries—six as a United States ambassador. Along the way he rose to the rank of career ambassador, the state department's highest position. Todman achieved this at a time when few African Americans could break into the American diplomatic ranks. "Of the less than two percent non Whites in foreign service, this man was the cream of the crop—the standout," a diplomatic insider told Jet. "He was the Jackie Robinson of diplomacy."
Set Sights on Diplomatic Career
Terence Alphonso Todman was born on March 13, 1926, in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, to Rachel Callwood and Alphonso Todman. One of 13 siblings, Todman attended public school and in 1944 graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas. Todman went straight into college at Puerto Rico's Inter-American University, but dropped out within a year to serve as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. He was sent to Japan, which had just surrendered in World War II following the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During four years in Japan, Todman became a first lieutenant. Years later his service overseas earned him a place in the Infantry Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In 1949 Todman returned to Inter-American University and received a degree in political science two years later. His experiences in Japan and in Puerto Rico fueled an interest in international relations and Todman decided to pursue a diplomatic career. He began by earning a master's in public administration from New York's Syracuse University in 1953. While a student, Todman worked for the State Department as an international relations officer in the Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs department. After graduating, Todman moved to Washington, D.C., and enrolled in post-graduate political science courses at American University, a private school well known for its emphasis on public service careers. During this time he married Doris Weston, also of St. Thomas. The pair went on to have four children.
From 1954 to 1957, Todman served on the State Department's delegation to the United Nations (UN). He held a variety of officer and advisory positions with the UN, particularly in the area of rural and economic development. He also helped develop timetables for the independence of former colonial areas in Africa. However, a foreign officer's career is marked by overseas service, and Todman was no exception. His first post was in 1957 as a political officer in the U.S. embassy in Delhi, India. After two years in Delhi, he began an intensive training program in Arabic. During a congressional tribute to Todman in 1990, Congressman Charles B. Rangel noted that for Todman, "languages come as easily as walking." In addition to Arabic, he became fluent in Spanish, French, and Russian.
Became Ambassador in Africa
Todman held political officer positions in the American embassies in Lebanon and Tunisia between 1959 and 1964. He was then promoted to Chief of Mission and sent to the U.S. embassy in Togo, a small West African nation. In 1968 he returned to Washington, D.C., where he served as the officer for East African affairs, covering Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Seychelles Islands. Todman accepted his first ambassadorship in 1969 when he became the ambassador of the American embassy in the Republic of Chad, a central African nation whose main languages are Arabic and French. Todman left Chad in 1972 to become the American ambassador in Guinea, located in northwest Africa.
When Todman arrived in Guinea, there was growing frustration with the United States. Guinea's then-president, Sekou Toure, was accustomed to making vocal, public attacks against American policies. Rangel quoted Todman discussing the situation with Ebony magazine. "I moved into that situation of really great tension and managed to establish communications and trust with Sekou Toure. He knew that I wouldn't lie to him. I said, 'Look, I'll make a pledge to you. Don't go on the air with things that make you look smaller and take away from your stature. If you hear that we have done anything, call me day or night, and if I have an answer I will give it to you. If I don't have an answer, give me 24 hours and I'll get one for you and I will tell you the truth.' That put an end to the public attacks."
Despite his success in Guinea, Todman—like most black foreign service workers—was relegated to remote African posts. The historical make-up of the American Foreign Service was white, male, and Ivy-League educated. "Getting out of Africa was impossible if you were black," Todman told The Nation. In the same article he recalled that throughout his early career he was repeatedly told that his accent was not American enough. Todman ignored the comments and refused to submit to the department's institutionalized racism. "[After Guinea] I kept reminding them that I was qualified to serve anywhere. I will not go back to Africa. If that meant finding a new job, so be it," he recalled to The Nation.
Advanced to Highest Diplomatic Rank
Todman's stance paid off in 1975 when he was appointed ambassador to Costa Rica, the first African American to serve in such a position in Latin America. After two years as ambassador, Todman became assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. In that role he helped broker the Panama Canal Treaty, and worked with Cuba to develop U.S. interests and maritime and fishing agreements. In 1978 Todman moved into the upper echelon of diplomatic assignments when he was named ambassador to Spain by President Jimmy Carter. In 1983 Todman was asked to serve as ambassador to South Africa. He refused on the grounds that he could not support President Ronald Reagan's stance on apartheid, the South African political policy of racial segregation. Instead, Todman accepted an ambassadorship to Denmark, a position he held for six years.
In 1989 Todman returned to the United States where President George H. W. Bush named him a career ambassador. Equivalent to the military's four-star general, career ambassador is the state department's highest rank. Following the appointment, Todman moved directly into his last diplomatic assignment as ambassador to Argentina, a post he held until 1993. During his time in Argentina, Todman worked extensively on promoting American business interests there. "While there he masterminded an increase in U.S. trade and investment and was recognized by American businessmen for his effective work," noted Jet.
Todman retired from the state department in August of 1993. However, he was not ready to quit working. "I'm willing and able if an opportunity presents itself," he told Jet. Like many ex-diplomats, Todman established an international consultancy business, Todman and Associates. Todman also served as advisor to governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and as a consultant to U.S. and Argentinean companies. In 2003 Todman returned to the diplomatic arena when he was named a special envoy by the Organization of American States (OAS) to promote democracy in Haiti. Despite the failure of that mission, Todman remained active in international affairs, well into 2005. As he told Jet upon his retirement, "I don't want to stand still." That was good news for American interests abroad.
Business America, March 9, 1992.
Jet, February 7, 1994; December 23, 1996.
Miami Herald, August 20, 2003.
Nation, February 12, 1996.
"Todman, Terence Alphonso," Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders, http://220.127.116.11/MLS_WebSite/Profiles/Todman.htm (September 15, 2005).
Rangel, Charles B., "Tribute to Ambassador Terence A. Todman, Sr.," Congressional Record, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r101:E07MR0-42: (September 15, 2005).
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