The Black Diplomats Who Broke the Color Barrier

Filmmaker and Fletcher alumna Leola Calzolai-Stewart highlights trailblazers in the U.S. Foreign Service

Who gets to represent the United States to the world? That’s both a personal and professional question for Leola Calzolai-Stewart, F00, the wife of a career diplomat and the creator of an eye-opening documentary that delves into stories of the Black pioneers who broke through the “pale, male, and Yale” stranglehold on the U.S. Foreign Service, starting in the 1940s.

“It’s a history that not many people know,” said Calzolai-Stewart. “I wanted people, especially younger viewers, to see Black diplomats in action, to see the pathways they created, and hopefully inspire Black and brown audiences to consider international public service as a possibility for their own lives.”

Portrait of Leola Calzolai-Stewart

Leola Calzolai-Stewart Photo: Doug Sanford

Her film, The American Diplomat, highlights the journeys and legacies of three African American ambassadors who became some of the first to break racial barriers at the State Department, beginning in the 1940s: Edward R. Dudley, Terence Todman, and Carl Rowan.

“They were all compelling individuals in their own ways,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “Dudley was a lawyer, who believed in using institutions or systems to bring about change. Todman was the only one of the three who was a career diplomat, who saw it as a lifelong commitment, and used every bully pulpit to champion the cause of diversifying the Foreign Service. And Carl Rowan was the most well-known of the three—a true Cold War warrior. He was ultimately proud of his work, but disappointed by the systems that kept Black and brown people out of the Foreign Service.”

They paved a path for people like Calzolai-Stewart’s husband, Daniel Stewart, F00, a Black Foreign Service officer who has represented the United States in countries such Mali, Belgium, Brazil, and now Canada. As a filmmaker, Calzolai-Stewart has had the flexibility to accompany him on his postings, gaining unique insight.

“We’ve been a Foreign Service family for a little over 20 years now, and we’ve had many discussions about what it means to be a Black diplomat,” she said. “As a spouse, I’ve been asked difficult questions on issues of race. My responses to those questions come from personal experiences as a Black American woman. That’s what makes diversity in diplomacy important.”

She and Stewart met as undergraduates, then attended the Fletcher School together, where they prepared for careers in international affairs. But after graduating, she found herself drawn back to film, a direction she had contemplated before college. When she and Stewart arrived in Pretoria, South Africa for his second posting abroad, she enrolled in a local film school and got her start in the industry.

“The great thing about Fletcher is you meet Fletcher people in every walk of life. We connect with them in the foreign service all the time, but I remember I did a fellowship program two years ago with Firelight Media,” which offers funding and support for filmmakers of color, Calzolai-Stewart said. “My mentor, Adriana Bosch, F83, was a Fletcher Ph.D. alum. It was funny to me that even when life takes you on a different path from what you thought it would be, you still come across Fletcher grads.” 

"It was the first time I’ve seen diplomats of color portrayed not just as protagonists in America’s history, but as heroes representing the very best of America and the very best of diplomacy."

Maryum Saifee, a career Foreign Service Officer, of “The American Diplomat”

Revealing “The Very Best of America”

Calzolai-Stewart first became interested in the idea of highlighting Black trailblazers in the Foreign Service when her husband read the book, Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 1945-69 by Michael Krenn, whom she interviewed for the documentary. But she wanted to translate those stories to a visual medium, to better show the stark contrast of these Black men in rooms full of white officials.

As she did her research, she discovered early examples of discrimination that she hadn’t previously known (for example, standardized written and oral exams, implemented in 1924 through the Rogers Act, that were meant to create a more merit-based system). “But in reality, these were just other tools to keep the ‘pale, male, and Yale’ character, and to keep Black, brown, and Jewish Americans and women out of the service,” she said.

Calzolai-Stewart had the opportunity to interview a number of family members of the men featured, including Doris Todman, Terence Todman’s wife.

“I really connected to her story as a Foreign Service spouse,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “She was the wife of an ambassador, so that’s even greater pressure for her. The idea of being just as scrutinized as your spouse—it was almost a job for her as well. It’s never just the diplomat. The family is also part of the project.”

After the film was released in spring 2022 on PBS as part of its American Experience series, Calzolai-Stewart braced herself for feedback.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be from the State Department, because the film dives into sensitive history. But the reaction was 100 percent support,” she said. “I was really moved by that.” Over the past year, the documentary has been screened at more than 80 embassies and consulates throughout the world, a clip was shown at a ceremony honoring Ambassador Todman, and several diplomats even offered reflections on the film in the Foreign Service Journal.

Maryum Saifee, a career Foreign Service Officer, wrote: “It was the first time I’ve seen diplomats of color portrayed not just as protagonists in America’s history, but as heroes representing the very best of America and the very best of diplomacy.”

Calzolai-Stewart is now working on a historical documentary focused on the Cold War era, but plans to return to telling stories of the Foreign Service, including female pioneers.

She hopes to inspire those traditionally underrepresented in the diplomatic corps to consider that career, to help transform the United States’ image around the world.

“These are just three of the many individuals who helped create those pathways,” she said of Dudley, Todman, and Rowan. “We have a history there. We have the right to represent our country overseas.”

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