Vice President Walter F. Mondale, left, with former U.S. ambassador John E. Reinhardt in 1978. (Charles Harrity/AP)

John E. Reinhardt, who in 1971 became the first black U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and in 1977 the first career diplomat to lead the U.S. Information Agency, died Feb. 18 at a retirement community in Silver Spring, Md. He was 95.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said a grandson, John Lancefield.

Mr. Reinhardt was a product of segregated schools in Tennessee, served as an Army officer during World War II, obtained a doctorate in American literature from the University of Wisconsin and taught at a historically black college in Virginia before joining the U.S. Information Agency in 1956 as one of a handful of black Foreign Service officers.

He rose through the ranks, serving as USIA assistant director for Africa and the Far East before being tapped for the ambassadorial assignment in Nigeria under President Richard M. Nixon.

During his four-year tour, one of his most challenging assignments, he recalled, was explaining to the Nigerian government that the United States would resume the purchase of industrially vital chrome from the white separatist regime in Rhodesia, the country now known as Zimbabwe.

“We knew there was nothing that would persuade the Nigerians, or other Africans, that we should import chrome from Rhodesia of all places,” he recalled. But “we carried out our instructions” as diplomats are asked to do. “It was a low point,” he said.

From 1975 to 1977, under President Gerald R. Ford, he was assistant secretary of state for public affairs and was considered one of Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger’s closest advisers on Africa policy, joining the negotiating team that helped Rhodesia eventually make the complicated shift to black majority rule.

Elevated by President Jimmy Carter to head the USIA, Mr. Reinhardt led a transition for the organization, which had been renamed the International Communication Agency and included Voice of America broadcasts in addition to public-diplomacy outreach programs.

He vowed that the agency would do more than preach or lecture. “USIA’s focus was always fundamentally one-way,” he said upon taking office. “Its mission was to tell others about our society.”

“In contrast, the International Communication Agency has two-way communication as a fundamental principle,” he added. “Our activities and programs as a whole should be designed to learn as well as to inform, and to inform as well as to learn.”

Richard T. Arndt wrote in “The First Resort of Kings,” a book about U.S. cultural diplomacy, that Mr. Reinhardt was “the real thing, a genuine practicing cultural diplomat.”

He had come to the field of diplomacy by chance.

John Edward Reinhardt was born in Glade Spring, southwestern Virginia, on March 8, 1920. He grew up in Knoxville and graduated in 1939 from the historically black Knoxville College. His father worked for the postal service, among his jobs.

During World War II, Mr. Reinhardt enlisted in the Army and trained as an infantry officer. The war was largely over by the time he was sent to the Dutch East Indies in preparation for an invasion of Japan’s main islands that never occurred.

After his discharge in 1946, he pursued graduate study at Wisconsin on the GI Bill. He received his doctorate in 1950, writing his thesis on James Russell Lowell, the 19th-century American poet and critic who also was a diplomat. He then joined the faculty at Virginia State College (now university), in Petersburg, Va.

When a State Department recruiter visited the campus in the early 1950s, “he was looking for students,” Mr. Reinhardt recalled in an oral history interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

The recruiter lured not a single student, but the applications and materials left behind intrigued Mr. Reinhardt.

At the time, he said, his prospects were dim. His college wages were low, and political leaders in Virginia were orchestrating a campaign of “massive resistance” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that outlawed racially segregated public education.

When his interest took him to Washington, he said, he was sent not to the State Department but to “some agency called the United States Information Agency that I had never heard of.”

State, he said, “was not looking for many black people in those days.” The department had black officers, “but a handful . . . like five.”

Early on with the USIA, he was a cultural officer stationed in Japan, the Philippines and Iran.

After stepping down in 1980, he spent a few years as acting administrator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art and then as the Smithsonian’s acting assistant secretary for history and art. A resident for decades of Bethesda, Md., and with a second home in Shelburne, Vt., he also served on advisory boards and taught political science at the University of Vermont.

Survivors include his wife, Carolyn Daves, whom he married in 1947, of Silver Spring; three daughters, Sharman Lancefield of Jersey City, Nicole Reinhardt of Washington and Cecile Fenstermaker of Naples, Fla.; four grandsons; and two great-grandsons.

As a diplomat, Mr. Reinhardt heard many points of view and received many requests, faithfully conveying them to his superiors in Washington.

While he was serving in Nigeria during the Watergate investigation, an eminent Ni­ger­ian jurist visited his home at 2 a.m. to say that President Nixon was being pressed “too hard” and that “they should let up” on him.

There were many ways of responding. Mr. Reinhardt was ever the gracious diplomat.

“I notified the government,” Mr. Reinhardt said. “Of course.”