Jason Vorderstrasse was carpooling to work with other Foreign Service officers in Hong Kong when he heard about the grave. A colleague mentioned visiting a nearby military cemetery and being surprised to find the headstone of a U.S. diplomat.
That was in 2007. Fourteen years later, Vorderstrasse’s quest to get Engdahl’s name inscribed has grown into something much bigger. On Friday, the State Department and the professional association and union representing Foreign Service officers unveiled 71 more names after an exhaustive search through the archives to find forgotten or overlooked people who qualify. Included are three envoys who died of yellow fever in the Republic of Texas, then an independent country; a Black diplomat who was born enslaved and died an ambassador to Liberia; and Engdahl, who died in an accidental fall while he was a Japanese prisoner of war.
“I am deeply proud to be a part of a community that honors its past in this way and is so relentless about making sure that no one is erased from our history,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech at a virtual ceremony.
Though the plaques are displayed in the State Department’s main lobby, they are managed by the American Foreign Service Association and were funded by contributions from its members.
When the first plaque went up in 1933, the State Department was still headquartered in the Executive Office Building. An effort was made at the time to include historical names, but “there was no Internet then,” said John Naland, a retired Foreign Service officer and vice president of AFSA, who has been involved in the project. Inspired by Vorderstrasse’s find, more Foreign Service officers began digging through archives in their spare time.
Foreign Service officers Lindsay Henderson and Kelly Landry went through more than 6,500 consular cards — the paper cards used until the 1960s to track consular officers and diplomats — searching for any who died overseas. Then they looked up the names on Newspapers.com to try to determine the circumstances of their deaths.
Combined with the efforts of others in the Foreign Service community, the list grew and grew. The honorees fall into two general categories: 58 died overseas before 1933 and had been forgotten, and 13 died overseas between 1938 and 1971 and had been previously overlooked or excluded.
The “forgotten” group includes Moses A. Hopkins, a Black man who was born enslaved in Virginia in 1846. He escaped during the Civil War and served as a cook in Union Army camps, where he learned how to read and write. By 1877, he had two degrees and was the first Black graduate of Auburn Theological Seminary. Settling in North Carolina, he founded a school, a church and, with his wife, a Black newspaper. In 1885, President Grover Cleveland appointed him to head up the embassy in Monrovia, Liberia — the African country founded by formerly enslaved Americans. Tragically, Hopkins died of a tropical illness less than a year later at only 39 years old.
Another “forgotten” diplomat is Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, whose naval victory against the British at Lake Erie was a turning point in the War of 1812. In 1819, he was appointed as a diplomatic agent to negotiate an anti-piracy agreement with Venezuela. He died of yellow fever aboard a ship on the way to the negotiations.
The “overlooked” group of 13 names is more complicated. Though it didn’t start out this way, for much of the 20th century AFSA only inscribed those in the Foreign Service who died overseas “heroically,” such as in a terrorist bombing or assassination. In recent decades, the culture and the policy have changed back to the original mission — recognizing anyone who died overseas while performing their duties in the Foreign Service. This change means four diplomatic couriers who died in plane crashes between 1945 and 1963 will now be honored.
“In honoring them we honor all of the men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service who serve their country in, at times, very difficult circumstances and conditions and give of themselves in the true tradition of public service,” said Ambassador Eric Rubin, the current president of AFSA.
Those who died overseas by suicide, natural causes or while doing something illegal are still not eligible, Naland said, and anyone in the Foreign Service who died overseas of the coronavirus would not be eligible since it is a worldwide pandemic.
The most recent historical name to be inscribed is that of Donald Leahy, a Foreign Service officer who was killed by his superior, Alfred Erdos, in 1971. The two men were the only ones posted to Santa Isabel (now Malabo), Equatorial Guinea, when Erdos stabbed Leahy to death. At a trial in the United States, Erdos pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. He was cleared of murder charges but found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. He served three years of a 10-year sentence.
For decades, the incident had only been whispered about in the diplomatic community, according to former ambassador Lewis Hoffacker, who recounted it in 2013 for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. That’s because there was evidence Leahy had been in a “homosexual act” shortly before his death. It is possible this was nonconsensual, and he was therefore a victim of a sexual assault. But at the time, bigoted views about homosexuality dominated, and the prosecutor in Erdos’s trial claimed Erdos had killed Leahy in a “lover’s quarrel.” And since homosexuality was still largely illegal, AFSA decided Leahy would not be honored on the Memorial Plaques, Naland said.
When asked if adding Leahy’s name was righting a wrong, Rubin, the AFSA president, did not directly address Leahy’s case but said, “Anyone who served their country and died while in service to their country should be honored on this memorial, and that includes the people whose names we are adding today.”
Ordinarily when a new name is inscribed there is a formal ceremony with members of Congress, foreign ambassadors and family members of the fallen officer or officers. AFSA has not yet attempted to find living family members of the 71 new honorees, Naland said, but after the pandemic, any descendants would be welcome to visit.
So, do they think they have now found all of forgotten and overlooked people in U.S. history?
“Not at all,” Naland said. “Since we closed [the list] and they had to start chiseling on granite, we’ve found two additional ones.”
For now, those two will go on a “virtual plaque” online. But there is room on the granite ones for about 50 more.
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