Colbert I. King
Colbert I. King
Opinion Writer

Black leaders who missed the spotlight

Think of them as the quietly courageous generation: African American men and women who embarked in the last century on the difficult trails that life laid before them. Think of them as the generation that took on the challenges, endured the slights and overcame the roadblocks, yet never stooped to whining and complaining. Think of them as the generation that succeeded with confidence, honor and their dignity intact.

They represent a face of Washington that the country, let alone this city, hardly acknowledges, if that face is seen at all.

Colbert I. King

King writes a column -- sometimes about D.C., sometimes about politics -- that runs on Saturdays.

Archive

Representatives of that generation recently surfaced with little fanfare at the State Department in Foggy Bottom. Another member was memorialized last month at the historic Asbury United Methodist Church on K Street NW.

At a June event, the State Department recognized the 40th anniversary of the Thursday Luncheon Group, an innocent-enough-sounding name for an organized, quarterly meeting of African Americans who work at State and other foreign affairs agencies.

In its four decades the group has grown from a gathering of its two founders to more than 300, counting among its ranks ambassadors, career ministers, Foreign Service officers and senior civil service staff.

They represent a sea change in U.S. diplomacy from the period in the 1930s when an all-white U.S. Marine band serenaded the president of Haiti, who was embarking on a trip, with “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

The group members are pioneers in a tough and demanding undertaking: representing and showcasing the United States throughout the world. To say it has been a tough slog for African Americans in the Foreign Service is, perhaps, to state the obvious. I learned that during my six years with State at home and abroad. If you want to know what it was like, look no further than “Being Black in a ‘Lily White’ State Department,” the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training’s 1995 interview with career ambassador Terence Todman.

So the achievements of diplomats such as Todman — who was honored at the 40th-anniversary event — are all the more remarkable.

Also present and lauded were Edward J. Perkins, who was the first African American to serve as director general of the Foreign Service and who also served as the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, and Aurelia Brazeal, the first female African American Foreign Service officer to rise from the entry level to the senior ranks, including stints as ambassador to Micronesia, Kenya and Ethi­o­pia.

Little does this country — or, for that matter, the world — know of their contribution to diplomacy and international development. And if left to the Washington media, it would remain that way.

Nonetheless, that generation of strivers has paved the way with courage and quiet determination that a younger generation should adopt.

To the Thursday Luncheon Group’s credit, many of its members are reaching back and reaching out to bring other young African Americans into the foreign policy arena through the use of scholarships and mentoring programs.

All done with little fanfare.

So, too, was a life well lived by Charles A. Hines, a D.C. native, Dunbar High School and Howard University graduate who rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army to achieve the rank of major general. He died July 4.

Hines, my college classmate, reached the pinnacle of all that he took on. Academic pursuit: two masters degrees and a PhD from Johns Hopkins; educational achievement: president of Prairie View A&M University.

He was the first African American to command a military establishment in the South: Fort McClellan, starting in July 1989. Before that, Hines was head of the officer personnel office at the Pentagon.

A decorated Vietnam veteran, he was awarded the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and the Parachutist Badge.

I followed Chuck Hines’s path to Dunbar and Howard, but I never caught up.

My military career ended with me having the distinction of being one of America’s oldest first lieutenants. Chuck retired with two stars on his shoulders.

I went to Fort McClellan in 1963 for an experimental program in the selection of future commissioned officers. Chuck arrived 26 years later to run the whole show. He even surpassed me in the parenthood department: his seven children to my three, his 12 grandchildren to my seven.

He excelled at everything and bragged about nothing. He led by example, demanded and expected the best in others and himself, and was everything that the critics of black people say we are not.

Chuck Hines, members of the Thursday Luncheon Group and a host of unsung 20th-century African American achievers in other walks of life — scientists, lawyers, judges, professors, physicians, teachers, engineers, military leaders, clergy, architects, journalists, corporate executives — lacked a scandalous background, a history of buffoonery or pathological flaws. Hence they have gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media.

But Hines, the Thursday Luncheon group and others like thembelong to that quietly courageous and accomplished generation of African Americans who have overcome the odds. They are, and forevermore will be, truly worthy of the nation’s honor and respect.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

 
Read what others are saying