Nation e-Edition

Former envoy looks back at stint

Theodore Britton, wearing his Congressional Gold Medal, recalling some of the happiest times of his life as the first black United States Ambassador to Barbados.

By GERCINE CARTER | Sun, November 04, 2012 - 12:01 AM

In February 1975, Theodore Britton,  a 50-year-old African American from South Carolina, presented his credentials to Barbados’ Governor General Sir Winston Scott, as the first black United States Ambassador to Barbados. He served here for three years.

Last week on yet another visit to Barbados more than 30 years later, the 87-year-old retired diplomat recalled that “those were some of the happiest  days of my life”.

Hisappointment by President Gerald Ford  meant for Britton the realization of a “life dream”  to get into the United States Foreign Service,  and the chance to serve in Barbados was like  “coming full circle”. He was from South Carolina founded by Barbadians, and had several  Barbadian friends in New York and many other Barbados connections.

The island had gained its Independence only nine years before he came and Britton recalled finding “streets were not as well off; the economy was still slanted towards those who came in the early years  – the  planters; people did not get paid until noon  on Saturday and things were not as they are today”.

He threw himself headlong into the job of representing American interests here, and in the process at times found himself on a collision course with the political directorate of the day because  of stances he took on various issues.

Speaking to the SUNDAY SUN at Hilton Barbados, Britton recalled the time when “the Cubans were flying over Barbados en route to Brazil and then  to Angola, and the US government was trying  to get us to ask the government to stop it.

“Barbados was in a bind because they were  selling gasoline, food, cigarettes, clothing and a small country needs all the income it can get. But one day  in a conversation with the Prime Minister we had a meeting of minds, and he went on the air that night and told the Cubans that they could no longer land their warplanes here and that stopped it.”

Then there was the controversy surrounding  a plane the Barbados Government had acquired  to create its own airline, with the intended name Caribbean International Airways. But the acronym CIA did not sit well with the United States. Through Britton’s mediation, the name was changed  to International Caribbean Airways.

Britton’s tour of duty spanned the administrations of National Hero Errol Barrow and Tom Adams, and though admitting he enjoyed a good relationship with both, he does not forget when “my good friend Errol [Barrow] went on the air and denounced me as the ugly American interfering in the internal affairs in Barbados”. The American ambassador had again dared to publicly advance a contradictory position on a Government matter.

However, Prime Minister Barrow would later praise Britton publicly, saying he had done more for Barbados than any other United States ambassador who was sent here. Britton was responsible for the first United States Marine security guards being put in place to protect the embassy. Barrow approved that move, but with the caveat that United States Marines would not be allowed on Barbados’ streets carrying weapons.

Britton himself was at that time forced to take his government’s mandated diversionary training for United States ambassadors because of the number of diplomats who were being killed around the world.

On the issue of race in the current United States elections, the Southerner, who himself experienced racism, said while there are “some white folks who still have reservations about Blacks being in the lead, there are a lot of black folks who have reservations about Blacks being in the lead”.

“So many things have happened in which Whites have done things that were unthinkable,” he said, though he was quick to acknowledge “we are gradually getting to know each other”.

Quizzed further on President Barack Obama’s chances for re-election, Britton replied: “I get caught between seeing it and wishing. I think he stands a good chance. Normally when the economy has really been in the tank like it has been over the past four years, the incumbent has a difficult time, but he has done amazingly well.”

As for the current United States/Barbados relationship, Britton believes “it could not be better”.

“There has been such a monumental set of problems in the US, but I don’t get the impression that Barbados has been forgotten. In 1976, Secretary [of State Henry] Kissinger wanted to come and I had advised him that it was not a good move. I didn’t think that he’d be received because at the time there was such hostility and a lot of talk about destabilization of the Caribbean. Now you don’t hear that.

“Sometimes there may be little rubs or something because Barbados can always use some things and sometimes the US may seem like it has a great deal of resources and is not sharing them. But nevertheless, I think the US has the largest embassy here now.”

Britton was invited back here for the United States Embassy’s annual Marine Security Guard Ball as the honoured guest, following his receipt of the Congressional Gold Medal, the United States’ highest civilian honour. It was awarded for his service as a member of the Montford Point Marines, the country’s first black Marines who saw action in World War II.

He was 18 when he joined the Marines.

Looking back on that period of his life, he said: “For some people the Marine Corps changed their lives. True, we were segregated but it changed our lives . . . .

“They were men who grew up in the South, who were very deferential, very subservient to white men and women who came into the Marine Corps and for the first time, they were taught to stand erect, they were taught that when someone spoke to you, you looked directly in their face and when you were called to speak, you spoke enough to be heard a block away.

“Finally, they gave us a rifle, taught us how to shoot it [and] how to kill with our hands. For some people it was the first time they ever owned a full suit of clothes, or two pairs of shoes or more than one pair of underwear, and three meals plus a salary. It was a different type of black America down in the South.”

In retirement, Britton remains active, serving as honorary consul general for the Republic of Albania in the state of Georgia, as an Ambassador for Peace of the South Korean-based Universal Peace Federation, while also holding a host of positions with other institutions and organizations.

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