Edward Joseph Perkins, Jr. (1928-2020)

Edward J. Perkins (second from left) and South African President P.W. Botha (second from right), Pretoria, 1986
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Edward Perkins served as U.S. Ambassador on four occasions; more than all but two other African Americans. He was born Edward Joseph Perkins, Jr. on June 8, 1928 in Sterlington, Louisiana to Edward Perkins, Sr. and Tiny Estella Noble. After moving to Portland, Oregon and graduating from high school, Perkins served in the U.S. military with three years service in the Army and four in the U.S. Marines.

In 1958, after completing his military service, Perkins continued working overseas as a civilian, with the U.S. Army and Air Force Exchange Services until 1966. Following marriage and children, he decided to return to school, which led to an internship at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and an assignment at the U.S. Operations Mission in Thailand.

In 1972, at age 44, Perkins became a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (FSO), and began working in the State Department’s Office of the Director General. Later, from 1972 to 1974 he would serve in the Bureau of Personnel, followed by the Bureau of Far East and South Asian Affairs (1974-1975), and then the Office of Management Operations (1975-1978). His served overseas in Accra, Ghana, as Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy (1978-1981), followed by Monrovia, Liberia as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy (1981-1983).  Perkins would then return state-side to serve as Director of the Office of West African Affairs (1983-1985).

In 1985, just 13 years after becoming an FSO, Perkins was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia. He served just briefly in Liberia before being called for a posting which would have lasting regional and global implications: South Africa. President Reagan appointed Perkins to serve as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa in 1986 and despite protests against an African American serving in this country where a racist regime brutally protected its system of apartheid, Perkins accepted the challenge.

After South Africa, he returned state-side and became the first African American appointed as Director General of the Foreign Service (1989-1992). He was next tapped by President George H.W. Bush as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations with the rank of Ambassador (1992-1993), and then by President Bill Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to Australia (1993-1996).

Ambassador Perkins retired from the Foreign Service, and became the William J. Crowe Chair and Executive Director of the International Programs Center at the University of Oklahoma.  His was also a member of many organizations, including Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., the Epsilon Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, the Foreign Policy Association, the American Academy of Diplomacy, the American Legion, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He was on the Advisory Council of the State Department’s Thursday Luncheon Group, dedicated to increasing the participation of African Americans and other people of color in U.S. foreign policy.  He was also President of the Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA).

Ambassador Perkins received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and his Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Public Administration from the University of Southern California. He was married to the former Lucy Cheng-mei Liu, and they had two daughters, and four grandchildren. Ambassador Perkins passed away in Washington DC on November 7, 2020.