Reference Entry

Wharton, Clifton Reginald

Nina Davis Davis

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Wharton, Clifton Reginald

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Foreign Service officer, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of William B. Wharton and Rosalind Griffin. He received an LLB cum laude from the Boston University School of Law in 1920 and an LLM in 1923 from the same institution. Wharton was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1920 and practiced law in Boston until 1924. In August 1924 he received a telegram appointing him as a law clerk in the Department of State. In 1924 he married Harriette Banks; they had four children before divorcing.In January 1925 Wharton became the first black to take the new Foreign Service examination established by the 1924 Rogers Act, which had created a career Foreign Service based on competitive examinations and merit promotion. Only twenty candidates passed both the written and the oral parts of the examination. In March 1925 Undersecretary of State Joseph Grew wrote to a colleague that the twenty included “one negro, who will go at once to Liberia” (Calkin, Women, 72). Wharton later recalled that when he decided to take the Foreign Service exam, his prospective associates were not enthusiastic.The lack of enthusiasm Wharton sensed also existed at the highest levels of the department. Following passage of the Rogers Act, the Executive Committee of the Foreign Service Personnel Board prepared a memorandum on how to avoid appointing women or blacks. One alternative suggested was an executive order stating that persons in those groups were not eligible to take the examination. Another was to rate such candidates so low that they could not achieve a passing mark. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, however, emphatically rejected both alternatives.Wharton was appointed a Foreign Service officer on 20 March 1925, and on 21 March he was assigned to Monrovia, Liberia. Blacks had been receiving diplomatic appointments since 1869, but such appointments were almost always to Liberia, Haiti, or small consular posts in tropical countries. Wharton was the first black in the new career Foreign Service, and his career followed the same pattern for more than half of his forty years in the Department of State.Wharton was not sent to the new Foreign Service School for instruction as were the other new appointees. Department officials later informed him that this was because he was needed so urgently at his new post. Despite this urgency, however, they initially planned to send him and his wife to Liberia on a cargo ship. When Wharton said that he did not need the job that badly, the department officials relented and arranged for passage on an ocean liner and a passenger ship.Wharton served as third secretary and vice consul in Liberia until December 1929. In June 1930 he became consul in Las Palmas in the Spanish Canary Islands. In July 1936 he returned to Monrovia on the first of three temporary assignments. He served alternately in Monrovia and Las Palmas until April 1942, when he was appointed consul in Antananarivo in the French island colony of Madagascar, where he also represented the wartime interests of Great Britain and Belgium.In April 1945 Wharton was appointed a member of the U.S. maritime delegation at Ponta Delgada in the Portuguese Azores. In July of that year he became consul at Ponta Delgada, where he served for the next four years. In 1949 he married Evangeline L. Spears; they had no children. In October 1949 Wharton's career took a new path when he was named first secretary and consul in Lisbon, Portugal. In 1950 he became consul general at that post. From 1953 to 1957 he served as consul general in Marseilles, France.When President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered him appointment as minister to Romania in February 1958, Wharton flew to Washington to talk to Deputy Undersecretary for Administration Loy Henderson to make sure that the appointment was based on merit, saying that if race were one of the criteria, he would not accept the appointment. Henderson wrote later that he had been glad to tell Wharton that “race had not been a factor” (Calkin, “A Reminiscence,” 28). As minister to Romania, Wharton became the first black career Foreign Service officer to serve as chief of mission and the first black to serve as chief of mission in Europe. In 1959 he was promoted to career minister, once again the first black to achieve that honor.Wharton became the first black ambassador to a European country when President John F. Kennedy appointed him ambassador to Norway on 2 March 1961. Democratic majority leader Mike Mansfield praised Wharton to the Senate as a “highly skillful, understanding and tactful diplomat” and quoted a Washington Post editorial looking forward to “a day when the appointment of a Negro so well qualified as Mr. Wharton will have ceased to be a novelty” (Calkin, “A Reminiscence”). While ambassador to Norway, Wharton also served as a delegate to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Ministerial Council meeting and as an alternate delegate to the sixteenth session of the U.N. General Assembly.Wharton was a genuine pioneer, and his career was full of “firsts,” including the first black to pass the Foreign Service exam, the first black chief of mission to a European country, the first black career minister, and the first black ambassador to a European country. Such achievements took not only superior ability but also great patience, tolerance, and persistence in the face of what was often blatant racial discrimination. For most of his career, Wharton had to fight against such discrimination alone. By the time he retired in October 1964, however, a sea change had occurred. Thanks partly to his achievements, Wharton inspired and helped to pave the way for professional careers in diplomacy for other blacks, who began to enter the Foreign Service in ever increasing numbers during the 1960s. Wharton died in Phoenix, Arizona.

Reference Entry.  1046 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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