To distant lands

Students attend a summer lecture by James Gadsden at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

This time the homecoming takes on special significance.

James Irvin Gadsden, born and raised in Charleston, will appear at the church he attended as a youth to deliver a keynote address and receive the Harvey Gantt Triumph Award for his contributions to civil and human rights.

Gadsden, a career diplomat and educator, rose to the highest levels of the State Department, holding a variety of posts, including ambassador to Iceland.

He will be the special guest at the 43rd Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tri-County Ecumenical Service, held at 4 p.m. Jan. 18 at Morris Street Baptist Church.

The ecumenical service, which features scripture readings by pastors, speeches by civic leaders, music by the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church Choir and more, is a cornerstone event of the annual MLK celebrations.

In a recent telephone interview, Gadsden shared his early experiences, discussed the importance of education and provided insights into his long career in the Foreign Service. It all began in the segregated schools of Charleston.

He attended Courtenay Elementary, Simonton Middle and then, from 1962 to 1964, Charles A. Brown High School before finishing his secondary education in New York City.

During his years at C.A. Brown, Gadsden participated in civil rights demonstrations, church meetings and marches, but he left for the north before his friends and fellow students, including Millicent Brown, managed to integrate the public school system, he said.

At C.A. Brown, his teachers and supervisors were dedicated to the students, "maneuvering in the absence of integration" to provide them with a high-quality education as well as important life lessons. Principal Nathaniel Manigault was especially adept at promoting a progressive agenda that prepared students for success, Gadsden said.

Manigault singled out students who showed special talents and pushed them to take advantage of an education exchange program with New York City schools administered by the Quaker organization The American Friends Service Committee.

The late Jack McCray, a former jazz advocate and Post and Courier writer, was sent to the Brooklyn Friends School; Gadsden enrolled at Elizabeth Irwin High School. To convince Gadsden's parents that this was a great opportunity for their son, Manigault visited the house every night for two weeks, Gadsden said. Eventually, the elder James Gadsden, who worked as a janitor, and Hazel Gaines Gadsden, a maid and housewife, agreed.

Other C.A. Brown students went on to do great things, too. Ralph Dawson attended Yale, was roommates with Howard Dean and went on to practice labor law in New York City. Charles Foster integrated The Citadel in 1966 and went on to run an employment agency. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn was a history teacher at the school.

Clyburn said Gadsden was a student who stood out.

"Gadsden was a very special student and someone I enjoyed getting to know during my teaching career, and we developed a friendship that still continues," Clyburn said in a statement provided to The Post and Courier. "His homecoming symbolizes the importance of education to our nation's youth."

Gadsden expressed some ambivalence and nostalgia about those days. Segregation was clearly immoral and had to be ended, he said, "but South Carolina's unique circumstances made it hard to implement the principals (of integration) in good faith." What was lost was a uniquely intensive and progressive learning experience that catered to achievers in the black community, a small network of local schools forced to adapt to Jim Crow-era inequality.

At Elizabeth Irwin High, Gadsden excelled, especially at French, math and physics, he said. He took an interest in literature and music. His SAT French subject test score was 685, so high it exempted him from language requirements at college.

One day, his guidance counselor asked him where he wanted to go. Howard University, or City College of New York, came the reply.

"No, you're going to Harvard."

At Harvard, Gadsden majored in economics, studied politics and took a course in music appreciation. He was seeking a rounded education, new experiences, he said. "I developed an interest in world affairs rooted in the course that Clyburn taught."

Then his life took a turn southward. Some friends were doing social outreach work in Peru, where local families would host volunteers. Gadsden went, became close to his host family and began to experience the nuances of another culture. He found a certain atonal music irritating, even if everyone else enjoyed it, he said. Then it dawned on him: "I realized they weren't the problem, I was the problem."

It was a fantastic leap of enlightenment, he said. He understood his education was too rooted in Western thought and perception; he began to question the standard euro-centric historical narrative.

He graduated from Harvard in 1970 with a degree in economics, then pursued a master's in Chinese studies at Stanford University, thinking that at some point it might become useful. The trick to a successful life, he said, was to "figure out what the game is, then get ahead of it."

In 1972, he finished at Stanford and joined the Foreign Service, just four months after President Richard Nixon's trip to China. His degree was useful. He went to Taiwan. His diplomatic career was underway.

Soon he shifted to European affairs, helping advance "single market" initiatives that would better unify the continent economically. He also worked on trade and market research programs. By the mid-1990s, he was deputy chief of missions stationed in Budapest, Hungary, encouraging that county's transition to capitalism.

Returning to the U.S. in 1997, Gadsden was named deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs, working under Marc Grossman on NATO expansion.

One evening, he rose from his office desk at the State Department to stretch, wandered to the window and looked out. To his left was the flagpole atop which fluttered the Stars and Stripes. To the right, on the other side of the Potomac River, was the Robert E. Lee mansion at Arlington. In between, he could see the Lincoln Monument and the Vietnam Memorial. In the distance, across the Tidal Basin, he glimpsed the Jefferson Memorial.

"My goodness," he thought. "There is a sweep of American history. How on Earth did a poor black kid from Charleston, South Carolina, get to stand in front of this window?"

Then someone brought in more memos and Gadsden got back to work.

The icing on the diplomatic cake came in 2002 when he received invitations from Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W. Bush to become ambassador to Iceland. "It was a great surprise, a great honor," Gadsden said.

In 2005, he joined the faculty of the National War College in Washington, D.C., designed a course on European relations and settled in as a leader of the school. In late September 2007, he retired. The school threw him a nice party. A young man approached him and asked: "What are you doing between now and Christmas? We need you in New York to twist the arms of our European friends to get a U.N. resolution passed."

He had retired on a Friday. He was hired the following Monday and found himself moving into a New York City apartment on Tuesday. After three busy months, he retired again.

His longtime friend Millicent Brown, who helped integrate the Charleston public schools in 1963 and went on to a career in academia, spoke of what she perceives as a paradox: It is right and proper to celebrate Gadsden's accomplishments, but we do so at the risk of diminishing others.

"He is exceptional," Brown said. "He is a focused, ultimate professional with just an incredible amount ... of integrity, but also great gifts and insight. The conflict for me is, as someone who has studied African-American history and U.S. history for a very long time, I think it is also dangerous if we elevate James as if he is a superman."

Yes, he is brilliant, she said, but "there are so many James Gadsdens, and potential James Gadsdens."

The diplomat is the product of several forces - talent and intelligence, community support, strong family values, a culture of achievement and more - coming together at once, Brown noted.

"He serves as such a fine example of personal initiative, but don't take the individual out of context," she said. "If we look at all the awful things that are happening in public education around the nation, I think this is a cautionary tale that we cannot afford to designate any group of people or any school as not having the same kind of potential for greatness."

She added: "He also represents all the undeveloped talent that our school systems sometimes don't recognize, or are reluctant to even believe exists. ... Exposure, that's what made James. He was individually focused, then believed in and encouraged."

Today, Gadsden is affirming his friend's sentiments. He is senior counselor for international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J., working to identify talented people from underserved communities and usher them into the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Programs. The fellowships are jointly administered by the foundation and the Department of State.

For all his life, Gadsden has been perceived as "a successful black man," his identity and his career inseparable from his race. Now he's working to change that, to introduce other minority students to the challenges and rewards of the Foreign Service, he said.

"What I hope is they will think it's nothing special," Gadsden said of a diversifying diplomatic corps. "It will have become the norm."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at aparkerwriter.