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PBS spotlights Black diplomats abroad during a time of social upheaval at home

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The State Department recently renamed its cafeteria after pioneering Black diplomat Terence Todman. Now there's a new film about him and two other African American diplomats who represented the U.S. overseas at a time of social upheaval at home. "The American Diplomat" premiered last night on PBS. NPR's Michele Kelemen caught up with the filmmaker to talk about why their stories resonate today.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In her documentary "The American Diplomat," Leola Calzolai-Stewart zeroes in on one turbulent period in world history.

LEOLA CALZOLAI-STEWART: The American civil rights movement was happening at home. It was the early Cold War period. Countries around the world were on the verge of independence. So it was just a really interesting time frame to be exploring, I think, from the lens of a Black diplomat during that time period.

KELEMEN: She dove into photo, video and audio archives to tell the stories of three men.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE AMERICAN DIPLOMAT")

EDWARD DUDLEY: I became the first ambassador of color from the United States.

KELEMEN: Edward Dudley was a civil rights lawyer who represented the U.S. in Liberia, becoming ambassador in 1949. Realizing that Black diplomats only rotated through a few embassies in Africa or island nations, he led the fight for more equal treatment in assignments. The film, available on PBS's "American Experience," also tells the story of Carl Rowan, a prominent Black journalist-turned-diplomat who ran the U.S. Information Agency in the mid-1960s. Then there was Terence Todman, who was just recently honored by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: He was an extraordinary diplomat. But because he was a Black diplomat, he was routinely forced to prove himself worthy to serve the country that he loved.

KELEMEN: Todman was a six-time ambassador. Early on in his career, when he was studying at the Foreign Service Institute, he wasn't able to eat at a nearby restaurant because of Virginia's segregation laws, a story told in the new documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE AMERICAN DIPLOMAT")

TERENCE TODMAN: So I went to the State Department and said, this can't go. State Department said, these are Virginia laws. A lot of people have come here and haven't said anything about it. And I said, well, I'm not other people, and you're doing something that's not right.

KELEMEN: Todman convinced the State Department to rent half the restaurant. And as the documentary points out, this was all happening while the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in a battle of ideas. Director Calzolai-Stewart says that resonates today while the Biden administration talks about a struggle between democracies and autocracies, and Americans faced a racial reckoning at home.

CALZOLAI-STEWART: One of the lines in the film that I thought was very powerful was Ambassador Todman's wife, Doris Todman, who said, you know, we're showing what America could be, and that's important, too. And I think a lot of diplomats feel that way.

KELEMEN: Calzolai-Stewart is herself married to a U.S. diplomat and wants young people to learn the history and understand that the State Department has come a long way from the days when it was viewed as, quote, "pale, male and Yale."

CALZOLAI-STEWART: And to see that it's not a profession for a privileged few, but for all Americans, and that here are some people that helped pave the way for people like my husband, for other Black diplomats, for diplomats of color. They helped create space for us to have a voice in how our country is represented overseas.

KELEMEN: Leola Calzolai-Stewart hopes to start working soon on a follow-up documentary to focus on women in the foreign service.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUGUST WILHELMSSON'S "DEPARTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.