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Keith, Kenton Wesley (1939- )

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On May 26, 1992, career diplomat Kenton Wesley Keith was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as U.S. ambassador to Qatar.  After U.S. Senate confirmation, Keith arrived in Ad-Dawhah (Doha), the capital of Qatar and presented his credentials on September 2, 1992.  He served until July 17, 1995 and in doing so, became the first African American ambassador on the Arabian Peninsula.

Kenton Wesley Keith was born on November 12, 1939 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Jimmy and Gertrude Keith, a jazz musician and singer/civil servant, respectively.  He attended racially segregated Lincoln High School in Kansas City. His interest in international politics began with his watching the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. 

Attending the University of Kansas (KU) intensified that interest as he came in contact for the first time with numerous international students.  Keith was inspired to get a B.A. degree in International Relations and French in 1961. He also successfully completed KU’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program and upon graduation became a Lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Navy.

Keith served in the Navy from 1961 to 1965 and was briefly stationed as an advisor in South Vietnam. In 1965 he resigned his Navy commission and joined the United States Information Agency (USIA). His first assignment (1965-1966) was Beirut, Lebanon where he learned Arabic.  He was subsequently stationed in Iraq, 1966-1967, and Saudi Arabia, 1967-1968.  By this point Keith was considered a specialist in the Middle East and was assigned as the USIA Public Affairs/Cultural Affairs Officer in Turkey, Morocco, and Syria between 1968 and 1977.

Returning to the United States in 1977, the year USIA transferred most of its cultural affairs responsibilities to the U.S. State Department, Keith transferred to the State Department.  From 1977 to 1980 and again from 1983 to 1985 he reported directly to the Deputy Director for Middle East Affairs. Between 1983 and 1985 he was again overseas serving as Deputy Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, Brazil.

In 1985, Keith became a Senior Foreign Affairs Officer and began a three-year appointment as Senior Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France. Inspired by African American writers and intellectuals such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin who lived and wrote for extended periods in Paris, Keith led cultural and educational exchanges that emphasized the lives and ideas of these men and women while they were in France.  His work earned him the Chevalier in the French Order of Arts and Letters from the French government.

In 1988, Keith returned to the Middle East when he was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt.  His assignment there coincided with the first Iraqi War, 1990-1991, which was prompted by Iraq’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait. During this tour Keith participated in briefings by U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker during his 14 visits to the Middle East.  This led to Keith participating in the Madrid Spain Peace Conference in 1991 which was designed to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.      

As ambassador to Qatar, Keith successfully avoided a war with neighboring Saudi Arabia following a border dispute in which Qataris died. He accomplished this by befriending Qatar Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and persuading him to enter into peace negotiations with King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.  He also helped negotiate oil and gas deals between U.S. companies and the Qatar government. 

After Qatar, Ambassador Keith returned to serve two years as USIA Director in Washington, D.C. In 1997, he retired with the rank of Career Minister-Counselor. In retirement, Ambassador Keith lectures extensively on international diplomacy and Middle East Affairs.  In 2001, he temporarily re-entered the USIA as Special Envoy to Islamabad to establish a Coalition Information Center in Pakistan.

Ambassador Keith and his wife Mireille G. Luc-Keith, have two children, Vincent, and Pamela Keith who is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat from Florida. 

Sources:
Sherry Lee Mueller and Mark Overmann, Working World, Second Edition: Careers in International Education, Exchange and Development (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2104); Charles Stuart Kennedy, “The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project: Ambassador Kenton Wesley Keith,” http://www.adst.org/OH TOCs/Keith, Kenton W.toc.pdf.

Contributor:

Syracuse University

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