Edward J. Perkins, 92, Dies; First Black U.S. Envoy to South Africa


When Edward J. Perkins was a student at a segregated school in Pine Bluff, Ark., his history teacher taught the class about the brutal racial oppression in South Africa. It was even worse, the students were told, than what they as Black people were experiencing in the American South.

The teacher urged her students to donate what little change they had to the African National Congress, in support of its struggle against white minority rule.

Dr. Perkins recalled that lesson often when he became the United States’ first Black ambassador to South Africa, serving during the last bitter decade of the system that had come to be called apartheid.

“We were Black teenagers in the middle of Arkansas, young people discriminated against ourselves, Black boys and girls who could barely find South Africa on a map,” he recalled in a memoir, “Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace,” written with Connie Cronley and published in 2006.

“But,” he added, “we contributed our pennies and nickels for this noble fight.”

Ambassador Perkins died on Nov. 7 at a hospital in Washington. He was 92. His daughter Katherine Perkins said the cause was complications of a stroke.

Dr. Perkins, whose grandparents had been born into slavery, rose to the upper reaches of the State Department.

In addition to his ambassadorial postings, which also included Liberia and Australia, he became director general of the Foreign Service and helped recruit young officers from beyond the Ivy League. He became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and in 1992 served as U.S. representative to the United Nations Security Council.

After he retired from the Foreign Service in 1996, he spent a dozen years at the University of Oklahoma, directing its International Programs Center and teaching geopolitics.

“We just lost a giant of diplomacy,” Susan Rice, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter after Dr. Perkins’s death. “Pioneer among African Americans, champion of a diverse Foreign Service.”

“Apartheid South Africa was on fire around me,” he wrote in his memoir.

When he presented his credentials to President Botha, the two instantly engaged in a test of wills.

“President Botha was standing one step above me,” Dr. Perkins, an imposing 6-foot-3 figure, wrote.

“I suspect that the ceremony was choreographed so that he would tower over me and I would look up at him,” he added, “but he is a short man and we stood looking one another straight in the eye. I was determined not to avert my gaze until he did.”

As the ambassador handed over his credentials, Mr. Botha had to look down, at which point he lost the staring contest.

Their relationship remained icy for the duration of Ambassador Perkins’s tour. He had made it clear that he intended to visit South African townships, attend church services and meet both white and Black people. Mr. Botha regarded this as interference.

“He stuck his finger in my face,” Dr. Perkins recalled of one meeting, which he said “was like putting his finger in Reagan’s face.” Mr. Botha “ranted on,” Dr. Perkins said, before storming out of the room. Despite Mr. Botha’s objections, the ambassador met with Black and white South Africans and even held integrated receptions.

He stayed in South Africa until 1989, by which time cracks were beginning to show in the country’s repressive regime. Nelson Mandela was released from prison the next year, and in 1994 he was elected the nation’s first Black president, bringing the curtain down on apartheid.

Edward Joseph Perkins Jr. was born on June 8, 1928, in Sterlington, La. His father was an evangelical minister who traveled from church to church to lead revivals. His mother, Tiny Estelle (Noble) Perkins, was a schoolteacher.

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