Rupert Lloyd Jr., Class of 1930, blazed a trail as the first Black foreign service officer ever to serve in Europe.
When Rupert Lloyd Jr., Class of 1930, arrived in Monrovia, Liberia, in March 1941, it was nearing the hottest time of year there. The dry, dusty “Harmattan” winds would have been blowing in from the Sahara Desert, and the sun was likely baking everything in sight. The wide, bustling, tree-lined streets of the West African port city would have been buzzing with the news of the completion of the new American Legation building, similar to an embassy but lower in rank.
Lloyd was 33 years old and a newly minted clerk for the U.S. Department of State. The slight, bespectacled man, photographed in a light-colored suit and striped tie, would have been among the first members of the diplomatic corps to set foot in the building where he would work for the next eight years. Liberia, which welcomed about 16,000 African Americans throughout the 19th century and was governed by Black leadership, was poised to play a pivotal role in global politics—and Lloyd had a front-row seat.
In fact, throughout his 23 years in diplomatic service, Lloyd seemed to have a knack for being where important events were happening, and he was well prepared for being at those crossroads of history. He was one of the first African American foreign service officers to serve in places other than Africa, entering a field in which Black officers to this day make up only 6% of the corps.
RUPERT ALSTYNE LLOYD JR. was born in Manassas, Va., in 1907, the son of a physician and a homemaker. He had three brothers—Earl, Blanchard and Sterling. Rupert’s niece (and Sterling’s daughter) Marilyn Lloyd Price recalls hearing stories from her mother about Rupert as a young man. He liked to poke fun at his mother, a devoted churchgoer, about her requirement that everyone at the dinner table recite a Bible verse before eating. His choice invariably referenced “wine, women or song,” Lloyd Price recalls. “My grandmother would glare at him with daggers in her eyes, and he would just broaden his smile and say, ‘It’s in the Bible, Mother.’”
Lloyd played chess and violin and became a ham radio operator. He was outgoing and self-confident but didn’t insist on being the center of attention, says Lloyd Price. Education was highly valued in the Lloyd household, and Rupert and two of his brothers left their small town of Phoebus, Va., for Washington, D.C., to attend Dunbar High School, the first public high school in the U.S. for Black students. Dunbar was prized for its high academic standards, and many graduates went on to prestigious colleges and universities. Both Rupert and Sterling went to Williams; Sterling, who followed his father into medicine, graduated in 1934. Rupert’s nephew Sterling Lloyd Jr. ’68 and great-niece Lauren Price ’93—daughter of Marilyn Lloyd Price—are also Williams alums.
Rupert Lloyd Jr. was active with the college orchestra, the radio club, the Classical Society and the Outing Club. He majored in the classics and graduated valedictorian and Phi Beta Kappa. He earned a master’s degree in classical philology from Harvard in 1931 and went on to the University of Bordeaux in southwestern France. After returning to the U.S. in 1932, Lloyd taught French for several years at three historically Black colleges: Miner Teachers College, Morehouse College and Morgan State University. Between teaching at Morehouse and Morgan State, he spent a year studying French language and literature at the Sorbonne. Lloyd pursued a doctorate in French, but a declaration of war interrupted his studies.
No one knows exactly why Lloyd turned to a career in foreign service, but it was likely for several reasons, according to Michael Krenn, professor of history at Appalachian State University and author of Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 1945-1969 and The Color of Empire: Race and American Foreign Relations. Many of the former diplomats of color Krenn has interviewed over the decades have talked about service, patriotism and progress as motivators for joining the diplomatic corps. “The people who went into [foreign service] were people who had a genuine interest in international relations,” he says. “They had a genuine interest in diplomacy. This was the work they wanted to do.” That mission was often more complicated for people of color. “The racial discrimination of the State Department was pretty well known,” Krenn says. “African American newspapers referred to it as the ‘lily white’ club.” The number of people of color pursuing careers in the foreign service was extremely low—just a handful at the time Lloyd began—and those who did so were siloed into a few locations and largely overlooked for advancement.
“Nearly every African American foreign service officer (FSO) was sent to Monrovia as their first posting,” Krenn says. “And then they got trapped in what was referred to at the time as the ‘Negro circuit.’” That meant postings in Liberia, the Azores, Madagascar and the Canary Islands, where many would remain for their entire careers while their so-called “pale, male, from Yale” counterparts saw the world. Still, Krenn says, the pull to serve outweighed the obstacles.
Soon after arriving in Monrovia, Lloyd was promoted to vice consul. He likely spent his time reviewing and verifying visa applications, responding to inquiries regarding consular activities, maintaining good relationships with officials of Liberia and other nations, being a touchstone for Americans in-country, reporting back to Washington, D.C., and helping to develop policy proposals. He also would have represented the U.S. at official functions and assisted with visits from high-level officials.
One such visitor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arrived in January 1943. Liberia’s significance had begun to rise after the onset of World War II; in 1942, the U.S. signed a defense agreement with the country, leading to an influx of American troops, mainly Black soldiers, to build roads, a deepwater harbor and an international airport. Liberia was seen as a gateway to Africa worthy of safeguarding, and its plantations were one of the Allies’ only sources of natural rubber, which was critical to military success. On his trip to Liberia, FDR rode in a jeep alongside Liberia’s president and greeted U.S. troops and workers at Firestone’s rubber plantation. Liberia declared war on Germany and Japan in 1944. Not long after, Lloyd took the career foreign service officer’s exam. He achieved one of the three highest marks and was the first African American to become an FSO in the prior 20 years—one of only a handful in U.S. history up to that point. Despite his various achievements and State Department policy to reposition diplomats every few years to different parts of the globe, Lloyd remained in place. Real change was coming, says Krenn, “and Lloyd was one of the people who helped break that down, but it certainly took some time.”
“I see no reason in the world why a Negro should not be able to serve competently in any consular or diplomatic post to which he may be sent.”
—RUPERT LLOYD JR., CLASS OF 1930, AS QUOTED BY HIS BIOGRAPHER
In 1947, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People submitted to the United Nations the paper “An Appeal to the World” asking the body to address human right violations committed by the U.S. against its Black citizens. The effort was led by W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote, “It is not Russia that threatens the United States so much as Mississippi. Internal injustice done to one’s brothers is far more dangerous than the aggression of strangers from abroad.”
Amid that powerful rhetoric, Black FSOs began to make real progress in 1948, when Edward R. Dudley was appointed first U.S. minister to Liberia and, in 1949, promoted to ambassador—the first African American to serve in that role. Almost immediately upon arriving in Monrovia, Krenn says Lloyd and his colleagues told Dudley, “‘No matter how good we do, no matter how well we perform, no matter what we say, what we accomplish, we’re trapped in this Negro circuit until we retire.’”
Dudley and the others knew that racism was the Achilles heel of the U.S. at home and on the global stage (and that President Harry S. Truman was actively trying to court the African American vote). A May 1949 Ebony editorial drove home the point: “If America’s self-assumed role as No. 1 champion of world democracy is to be accepted by other nations, it is time that America demonstrated in its foreign service that it practices what it preaches.”
Dudley was aghast at revelations about the Negro circuit and worked with Lloyd and others to document the systemic discrimination. They sent a damning memorandum to Washington, D.C., about the assignment and transfer of personnel of color in the foreign service. When Krenn interviewed Dudley in 1995, the former ambassador called Lloyd “brilliant” and said, “These fellows knew how to push and what to push and what buttons to push.” Dudley gave credit to Lloyd and others for breaking down the Negro circuit and told Krenn he believed they could be a “living, breathing example of America’s commitment to civil rights.”
Six months after the memo, transfers began to come through, and Rupert Lloyd moved on to a prestigious post in Paris. It was the first time an African American FSO had ever served in Europe. Lloyd was routinely promoted over the next four years and held many diplomatic positions in France. During that time, he shared an office with Seymour “Max” Finger, who later served as ambassador in the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
In his memoir Inside the World of Diplomacy: The U.S. Foreign Service in a Changing World, Finger reflected: “Rupert’s assignment to Paris was a sign that [the Negro circuit] was finally being terminated. He was a superb choice. He was completely fluent in French, well steeped in French culture. Understandably, he was very popular with the French. He also had a delicious sense of humor and a marvelous belly laugh.” Finger said the two became friends and, during that time, he learned that “there was a somber side to Rupert. He had felt many lashes of race prejudice in his native Virginia. When his father, a physician, developed an illness that proved to be terminal, the local hospital would not admit him because of his color.”
Lloyd was sent to Budapest in mid-1953, just six months after the death of Joseph Stalin, chief architect of Soviet totalitarianism. At that moment, the West was keen to liberate the region from Soviet control, and mass protests and uprisings fueled that hope. Lloyd was again living history—both as the first African American ever posted to Hungary and as a representative of freedom and democracy at a pivotal moment. Journalist Kati Morton, in a book about her family’s persecution and ultimate escape to the U.S. from Hungary, wrote about her parents crossing paths with Lloyd: “As first secretary and then counselor, he quickly established himself as a respected member of Budapest’s diplomatic community. No doubt Lloyd’s high-profile presence was a source of annoyance to the regime’s propaganda office.”
In 1954, Lloyd was transferred to Karachi, Pakistan, as a supervisory intelligence research specialist. His three years there coincided with a time when the U.S. was working to maintain and strengthen the stability of the non-communist regime and to deny the nation’s resources to Soviet bloc countries. (Communist activity had been on the rise since the USSR established its embassy in Pakistan a few years earlier.) From Karachi, Lloyd was posted in Washington, D.C., as chief of the Western European Branch in the Division of Research for Western Europe.
Lloyd returned to West Africa in 1960, this time to Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), just two months after the country had gained independence from France. A seasoned foreign service officer by then, he became deputy chief of mission alongside Ambassador R. Borden Reams. Lloyd, then 53, lived in the capital Abidjan, where new roads and buildings were cropping up along the banks of the Ébrié Lagoon.
Of the more than 3,700 FSOs at the time, Lloyd was one of just 17 Black officers, according to his direct report Brandon Grove, who wrote the book Behind Embassy Walls: The Life and Times of an American Diplomat. Grove went on to serve as acting U.S. ambassador to East Germany, and he and Lloyd often discussed racism within and beyond the U.S. diplomatic corps: “He was subjected to racial segregation whenever he returned home and spoke bitterly to me of these experiences,” Grove wrote. “One evening on my terrace above the lagoon, we talked over brandy about our lives and how he felt about his career. As we spoke and watched the dark shapes of logs floating downstream to the mill, any tensions between us melted. I understood Lloyd’s feelings of uniqueness that sometimes made him prickly. He never complained about his situation as an African American, wanting to be thought of as no different from anyone else.”
During the Ivory Coast’s first independence celebration, Lloyd served as an interpreter for Robert F. Kennedy, recently appointed U.S. attorney general. A photo in the Aug. 24, 1961, issue of Jet shows Lloyd seated beside Kennedy at a press conference. A correspondent for the magazine wrote that during the event, the attorney general was asked frank questions about African Americans “not being able to ride buses and eat in restaurants” in some parts of the U.S. Kennedy answered, “The important thing, in fact the most important thing, is that the United States government and the vast majority of people are trying to do something about the [race] problem.”
In February 1962, Lloyd returned to Paris for six months of intensive study in the economic, military, social and political history and status of NATO member countries at the NATO Defense College. That same year, a U.S. House of Representatives labor subcommittee held hearings concerning the “whiteness” of the Department of State. Reading the writing on the wall—the intensifying U.S. civil rights movement and the Soviet Union’s backing of national liberation movements in Africa—the foreign service corps began actively encouraging African Americans and women to sign up.
That October, an Ebony article accompanied by a photograph of Lloyd stated: “While the foreign service may now be democratic at home and abroad, it still must seek the cream of the crop.” Citing criticism that the test was biased toward white men, the piece noted that 5% to 6% of the 119 African American candidates taking the FSO exam at the time were expected to pass it (compared to a third of whites). Despite the State Department’s recruitment push, not a single African American would enter the foreign service for the next two decades.
Lloyd finished his coursework and was posted as consul in Lyon, France—a role he enjoyed immensely, according to his niece: “It was the highlight of his career, in a country that he truly loved.”
Just two years later, in 1964, Lloyd retired from the foreign service and moved to Argelès-sur-Mer, roughly 10 miles from the Franco-Spanish border, known for its long, sandy beach and seaside promenade. He continued to express his belief that Black people could and should pursue careers in the foreign service. In the 1966 volume Negroes in Public Affairs and Government, Lloyd told his biographer, “I see no reason in the world why a Negro should not be able to serve competently in any consular or diplomatic post to which he may be sent.”
Yet, in 1970, the year before Lloyd’s death at age 63, the FSO corps was only 1% Black (34 out of 3,084), and Black officers were still disproportionately being dispatched to Africa and Latin America. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 and several State Department fellowships aimed to break down those walls over time, but the needle barely moved. Among roughly 8,000 FSOs in 2022, African American representation remains at 6%. Recently, several prominent figures have called on President Joe Biden’s administration to improve equity in diplomatic ranks. In an important step in early 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken named Ambassador (ret.) Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as the department’s first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer.
The move gives Krenn hope that the boundary-breaking work begun by Rupert Lloyd and his colleagues in Liberia many years ago will bring lasting change: “You now have what one would hope would be a permanent office that is going to deal with this,” Krenn says.
That’s in part why Lloyd’s niece, Marilyn Lloyd Price, thinks it’s important to tell stories like his at this moment in time: “It’s still a struggle to get young people interested in the foreign service,” she says. “And it’s important that young people, in particular, learn about those who have had careers like Uncle Rupert’s and had some success in them.”
From left: Rupert Lloyd Jr., Class of 1930, with U.S. Attorney Gen. Robert Kennedy during the Ivory Coast’s first independence celebration in August 1961.