Johnny Young, who overcame the grinding poverty of his youth to become a high-ranking U.S. diplomat, serving as top envoy to Sierra Leone, Togo, Bahrain and Slovenia and becoming one of the few African Americans of his generation to reach the rank of career ambassador, died July 24 at his home in Kensington, Md. He was 81.

The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Angelena Young.

Raised by an aunt after his mother’s death, Mr. Young moved from Georgia to Philadelphia and was on a path toward vocational training when he met the man whom he described as his intellectual mentor and surrogate father. Sol Berenholz, a Holocaust survivor, hired Mr. Young at 14 to work in his ladies’ clothing shop and instilled in him the importance of education and engagement with the world.

Under Berenholz’s tutelage, Mr. Young became increasingly aware of international affairs. One day in the mid-1950s, when a high school teacher asked who in the class could name the African country that was about to become independent, Mr. Young raised his hand and, beaming with pride, correctly answered Ghana (then part of the British colony known as the Gold Coast).

But when considering his post-graduation options, Mr. Young’s guidance counselor advised him to pursue carpentry and declared that “no college in its right mind will take a look at you” because of his low standardized test scores.

“That’s what she told almost all of the Black kids in the school,” he recounted in an oral history with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. “I remember her to this day as well and not with great fondness.” (He said her advice was even more useless because the local carpenters union did not accept Blacks.)

After receiving his high school diploma in 1957, Mr. Young took night classes in accounting and Spanish at Temple University while also working as a junior accountant for the city of Philadelphia. He was active with the YMCA and traveled to Beirut in the mid-1960s as a U.S. delegate to an international conference. He described the trip as a “transforming experience.”

Determined to work oversees, he completed his degree at Temple in 1966. He applied for jobs with the international divisions of major banks and insurance companies but ultimately joined the Foreign Service — becoming one of a handful of Black professionals — after passing its notoriously difficult entrance exam.

In 1967, Mr. Young was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Madagascar as a budget and fiscal officer. He later became fluent in French and held assignments as a supervisory general services officer in Conakry, Guinea, and in Nairobi. During a posting in Doha, Qatar, from 1974 to 1977, the ambassador entrusted Mr. Young with the role of de facto chief of mission, elevating his profile in Washington.

A few years later, he was accepted into a prestigious leadership-development program in the State Department. But he told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he could not believe it when his name was proposed soon after for an ambassadorship. “People from my area of specialization, administration, don’t get many opportunities” for envoy jobs, he said, adding that he saw the possibility as a “metaphor of hope for the underclass in the United States.”

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush named Mr. Young ambassador to Sierra Leone, where he spent part of his three-year stint helping coordinate humanitarian assistance during the civil war and refugee crisis in neighboring Liberia.

From 1994 to 1997, under the Clinton administration, Mr. Young served as ambassador to Togo. He said his chief mission was to maintain relations with the aging autocrat Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had been in power since 1967. His brutal rule was tolerated by many Western governments, Mr. Young said, because Eyadema was viewed as “someone they could use as an entrée to get to other African leaders because of the virtue of his position.”

When he returned from the assignment, he was promoted to career minister and was one of the few Blacks with that prominent rank.

“I made my case to the department,” he recalled in the oral history, “and I said, now, if you’re serious about wanting to try and encourage some Black officers about advancement in the Foreign Service, or even entering the Foreign Service and being able to advance to the top and being able to serve in places other than Africa, I said, I’m your man.”

He said he was “absolutely thrilled” when he was chosen for Bahrain, making him the only Black ambassador in the Near East and one of the few outside Africa.

He served as ambassador from 1997 to 2001 to oil-rich Bahrain, a major ally and home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, strategically located to safeguard U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. In his final diplomatic assignment, under President George W. Bush, he was ambassador to Slovenia from 2001 to 2004, helping steer the country’s progress toward membership in the NATO alliance.

He retired soon after from the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General, having attained the rank of career ambassador in recognition of distinguished service over a sustained period.

Johnny Young, the son of a laborer, was born in Savannah, Ga., on Feb. 6, 1940. He was 11 months old when his mother died, and he was raised by one of his father’s sisters. He recalled spending his early childhood in a ramshackle house with a corrugated tin roof in a Black neighborhood on the edge of the city, where Klansmen once burned a cross in the middle of the street. Mr. Young left Georgia at 7 and settled in Philadelphia.

In addition to his wife of 54 years, the former Angelena Clark, survivors include two children, David Young of Washington and Michelle Young of Brooklyn; and a grandson.

After his federal retirement, Mr. Young was executive director of migration and refugee services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He also taught English-language and U.S. citizenship classes, served on boards of organizations including the Council on International Educational Exchange, and was a member of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington.