American National Biography Online
Wharton, Clifton Reginald (11 May 1899-23 Apr. 1990), Foreign
Service officer, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of
William B. Wharton and Rosalind Griffin. He received an LL.B.
cum laude from the Boston University School of Law in 1920 and
an LL.M. 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 Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew wrote to a colleague
that the twenty included "one negro, who will go at once to Liberia"
(Calkin, Women, p. 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 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 Under Secretary 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,"
p. 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" (quoted in 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 UN 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.
Wharton left no papers or autobiography. The primary source
of information concerning his career is Homer L. Calkin, "A Reminiscence:
Being Black in the Foreign Service," Department of State Newsletter
no. 198 (Feb. 1978): 25-28, which is based on an interview with
Wharton. Calkin, Women in the Department of State: Their Role
in American Foreign Affairs (1978), contains useful information
about discrimination against women and blacks in the early years
of the Foreign Service. David Trask, A Short History of the U.S.
Department of State, 1781-1981 (1981), provides context with
a historical overview of the organization within which Wharton
spent his career. Basic facts concerning Wharton's career are
in the Department of State's annual Biographic Registers published
during the years of his service. An obituary is in the New York
Times, 25 Apr. 1990.
Nina Davis Howland
Nina Davis Howland. "Wharton, Clifton Reginald";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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