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Edward J. Perkins (1928–2020), first Black U.S. ambassador to South Africa

by Linnea Crowther

Edward J. Perkins was a diplomat who became the first Black U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

Career in Foreign Service

A veteran of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps, Perkins began his diplomatic career as the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, appointed in 1985. The following year, Perkins was appointed U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. It was a challenging post, made when apartheid was still the law in South Africa. Despite the disrespect Perkins received from South Africa’s leaders, he worked to maintain a peaceful relationship between the countries and even played a role in the dismantling of apartheid. He met with both Black and white South Africans, sometimes arranging to bring them together at his receptions despite the country’s official segregation policy. Perkins held the position for three years before being appointed the first Black director general of the Foreign Service, where he worked to recruit more minorities and people with disabilities to U.S. diplomatic ranks. In later years, he served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and as U.S. Ambassador to Australia.

Perkins on meeting the South African president

“President Botha was standing one step above me. I suspect that the ceremony was choreographed so that he would tower over me and I would look up at him, but he is a short man and we stood looking one another straight in the eye. I was determined not to avert my gaze until he did.” —from Perkins’ 2006 memoir, “Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace”

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Tributes to Edward J. Perkins

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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