Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988

By Brenda Gayle Plummer | Go to book overview

The Unwelcome Mat
African Diplomats in
Washington, D.C., during
the Kennedy Years
MICHAEL KRENN

Anyone who picked up a copy of the late 1960 edition of Trends in Housing, published by the National Committee against Discrimination in Housing (NCDH), would have been surprised to learn that many African diplomats characterized Washington, D.C., as a “hardship post.” A front-page story suggested that America's housing problem extended into the international arena, noting, “African Diplomats Hit Race Barriers; Housing Problem Acute.” The report that followed recounted a litany of complaints from African diplomats in Washington who faced constant discrimination and, in particular, problems in securing decent and affordable housing. The same publication boasted another front-page story that linked race and housing. A banner headline announced “Kennedy Committed to End Govt. Housing Bias; Executive Order Anticipated.” The president-elect had pledged to abolish discrimination in federal housing “by a stroke of a pen.” NCDH chairman of the board Algernon D. Black happily anticipated “a new frontier in housing.” 1

Neither the seriousness of the situation concerning African diplomats in Washington nor the relationship between that situation and the larger issues of domestic racial discrimination and housing problems was lost on the new Kennedy administration. According to historian Thomas Noer, Kennedy viewed Africa as “an arena of significant Cold War rivalry.” In addition, African nations were coming to play a much more significant role in the United Nations. In 1945 there were only four African countries in the UN; five more joined during the 1950s. Between 1960 and the end of 1963, however, twentyfour new African nations became members of the UN; fifteen of those had joined in 1960, just a year before Kennedy came into office. 2

Instances of racial discrimination against African diplomats in Washington would hardly win the United States allies or UN votes. At home, Kennedy had vigorously courted the black vote in the 1960 election, an election that he won by the narrowest of margins. Part of his success in securing the black vote was due to promises such as that dealing with discrimination in housing. 3

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