Edward J. Perkins, a career diplomat who was born on June 8, 1928, grew up in segregated Louisiana, became the first African American ambassador to apartheid South Africa and opened the ranks of the Foreign Service to minorities as its director general. He was married for 47 years to Lucy Liu Perkins and had two daughters (Katherine and Sarah) and four grandchildren. He died Nov. 7, 2020 at a hospital in Washington. He was 92.
Ed Perkins served with USAID in multiple overseas roles: during the Vietnam War period, in Bangkok as an R-5 Assistant GSO (1966), moving to an R-4 status in USAID Bangkok (1969), a management officer (8/70) and followed by an Executive Officer (10/71-01/72). In early February, he moved from USAID to the State Department, serving as an R-4 Personnel Officer until August 1972. Dr. Perkins received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Maryland in 1967, and later studied public administration at the University of Southern California, where he received a master’s degree in 1972 and a PhD in 1978.
After serving abroad in the Army and the Marines and working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Dr. Perkins joined the US Foreign Service in 1972 and rose, despite what he described as ingrained prejudice in the organization, to the rank of career minister. Under President Ronald Reagan, Dr. Perkins served as Ambassador to Liberia before his posting in South Africa from 1986 to 1989. From 1989 to 1992, as director general of the Foreign Service, Dr. Perkins sought to recruit FS officers from underrepresented areas of the country (including Appalachia) as well as more African Americans and other minorities. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush named him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bush’s successor, President Bill Clinton, appointed Dr. Perkins ambassador to Australia, a posting he held from 1993 until his retirement in 1996.