Then and Now: Two Diplomatic Security Special Agents in a Changing World

10 minutes read time
Special Agent William DeFossett receives an award in 1964 from SY Director Marvin Gentile
Special Agent William DeFossett receives an award in 1964 from State Department Security Director Marvin Gentile.

Then and Now: Two Diplomatic Security Special Agents in a Changing World

This is a story of two special agents—living two worlds apart in terms of the times and their experiences. Hired in the early 1960s as the first black special agent in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Security, forerunner to the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), William DeFossett faced many challenges in a segregated world. Today, DSS special agents like Alston Richardson enter their careers in a much more inclusive environment.  But, as Richardson observes, there is still room for improvement to create and sustain career and leadership opportunities through a diverse workplace.

Following are excerpts from interviews with DeFossett, conducted in October 1991, and with Richardson, conducted in January 2017. DeFossett died in 1999 after serving with the State Department’s Office of Security from 1963 to 1980. Richardson joined DSS in 2002 and currently serves as DSS Branch Chief, Criminal Investigative Liaison in the Criminal Investigations Division.

Special Agent William DeFossett (1920-1999).


The Jackie Robinson of Diplomatic Security

Then (William DeFossett):  "As the first black agent, I guess you could liken my position to being the Jackie Robinson of the State Department Security (SY). When President Kennedy took office back in 1961, he issued an executive order stating that every department should comply with his wishes to have an integrated force. Up until that time, the State Department Security team was all white, and that’s what brought about my becoming the first black special agent.

"One of the reasons I was considered was because I was a detective in the New York City Police Department [NYPD]; they handle visits of dignitaries to New York City as well as other detective functions. In 1961 or the beginning of ’62, one of my colleagues in the NYPD mentioned to me that the State Department was looking for a black agent. I applied for the job. And my overall career was studded with a lot of positive experiences. There were more plusses than minuses, I would say that. "

Now (Alston Richardson): "When I was in college I made the decision to pursue a career in federal law enforcement. I went ahead and got my commission in the Army and was an Army officer and Blackhawk pilot for about seven years. Just about the time my contract was ending as an officer, I started looking into agencies. Diplomatic Security was always at the top of my list because I wanted the opportunity to travel the world—live and work overseas. I applied to DS as well as other organizations. DS called first, but, even so, my goal was, if DS called, I’d go with Diplomatic Security.

"I can tell you, I owe a wealth of gratitude to Mr. DeFossett and leaders during the civil rights era, the foundations that they built helped us pursue these careers in a much different way than the way than how Mr. DeFossett was recruited. If you look at his history, he was recruited as the first African American agent primarily. My experience was quite different. I applied for the job, seeing myself as a qualified candidate among a large pool of equally qualified and diverse candidates. I went through the interview process, and I felt I was hired based on my merits and my experiences more than anything else. But I do not take for granted what agents such as Mr. DeFossett had to go through to get here." 

A 50-Year Span—Attitudes Change but Challenges Remain

Then (William DeFossett): "My first day coming into the State Department Security field office in New York, I was greeted by the assistant special agent in charge, whom I had known from previous assignments with the NYPD. He greeted me with open arms [as did] most of the agents there. They took me out to lunch and made me feel very welcome.

"The following week, the boss, the special agent in charge came back from vacation, and I was primed to meet him. That meeting I would say was a little different from the meeting than I had with the rest of the agents, because the first words out of the boss’s mouth were: 'You’re not here by any choice of mine. I prefer Irish Catholic agents from Fordham University, and you don’t fit that category.' From that day on, it was a contest, and he had mentioned to a lot of people, 'If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to get that n***** out of here.' And he tried.

"Well, the career was up and down until this fellow retired and then it was like a load off my back so to speak. I couldn’t help but feel relieved. Things were a lot better. We had excellent relations with his successor and all the people that followed. The office settled down into a real professional, friendly atmosphere.”

 Now (Alston Richardson): "I’ve had nothing but a wholeheartedly positive experience coming to Diplomatic Security as an African American. I’ve made friends of all stripes and demographics, and traveled the globe. I think for many of us, the most difficult part is getting hired into the organization – it’s a very competitive process. But I do see some limitations, even now, regarding progression, assignments, and opportunities to rise to the highest ranks of DSS. It has been pointed out that our senior leadership does not reflect our organization as a whole in terms of women and minorities—and one area that concerns me is the number of black female agents in the organization. But once we get into the organization, agent to agent, working alongside our colleagues, seeing opportunities to serve in different countries, diverse cultures, I see those opportunities open to every agent, including myself."

'On the Job'—Then and Now

Then: (William DeFossett): "[When working overseas, some of my counterparts in African countries] would be curious, and they would ask me whether I had the same authority as a white agent. I would say, 'Yes, we have the same badges. We have the same authority. We go under the same rules and regulations.' Then, in some countries, they would ask questions like, 'Can you arrest a white person?' I would say, 'If he violates the law, I have that authority.' They would say, 'Oh that’s wonderful,' because back in their country, it was a little different.

"[During the period of about 1963 to 1965 it was almost like having] a celebrity status. 'Here comes the one. He’s our black agent. There he is.' I never forgot my first visit to the State Department building in Washington. I needed to show no credentials because when I got off the elevator, they said, 'Oh, here he is.' I showed no credentials to anyone.  I walked around the buildings. They’d say, 'That’s DeFossett. He’s from New York. That’s our black one.' Oh, it was very funny. It was very nice. I enjoyed it. We had a lot of fun. 

"As far as being a black agent out on the street, it posed no problem whatsoever. I might mention, too, that it was a novelty for everyone when I came on a scene. In other words, if I were assigned as the advance on visits—to go in advance of the principal to make the arrangements for his arrival–well, I would go to certain clubs right in New York, which are very exclusive clubs. In other words, people like me would not be members. So when I approached a club, I got all kinds of attention because they knew I’m not a member, but down comes the secretary or treasurer, or whatnot, and he wants to know my business.  I show him my credentials. Well, that makes it a little better. Then he brings me in, and they want to give you the whole club."

Now (Alston Richardson): "As a U.S. diplomat overseas, once you present yourself as a representative of the U.S. government, we are to the point now where the respect afforded to any diplomat is afforded to you despite your color. But until that presentation is made, I think a lot of the ingrained inherent racism that we may encounter in certain places still persists. 

"My experience has been, for the most part, that we are treated equally. That may not always be the case in every country to which you go. I primarily have served on the African continent, so I think for many of my foreign counterparts look up to me with a lot of respect. They have seen the history of the United States—and for them to see an African American in my position, representing the U.S. government overseas, they are pretty amazed and are always curious about the path that got me here. 

"I know for a fact that it has opened many doors. I have had some temporary duty assignments where my color was initially a distraction; I’ve seen some apprehension—never a question as to whether my authority is different from any of my colleagues’ authorities—but certainly, some of the baggage that they bring from their countries is passed onto me. And I do my best as a professional, as an agent, and as a diplomat, to overcome that in dealing with my foreign colleagues."

Taking Action to Create Leadership Opportunities for the Future

Special Agent Alston Richardson.

 Now  (Alston Richardson): "At DSS, it is important that we have a diverse set of agents to represent the U.S. government well no matter where we are—not only for a diverse workplace but to represent us in the federal law enforcement mission we have—the security mission we have. It is equally important not only to look at the past and the present in terms of the issue of diversity; we must also look to the future—not only in DSS but frankly the Department as a whole.

"Words are words until you see action. But at the same time words do matter. Diversity is not something to talk about; it’s something to take action on. It is important that the leadership of an organization recognizes and talks forcefully about deficiencies but also talks forcefully about how to address deficiencies. And not talk about it one time a year but instead every single day. 

"Take mentorship, for example. Successful employees in an organization should take on mentorship of younger, less experienced employees of every stripe—and it has to be genuine, active mentorship. If we want to make progress with seeing new employees truly represent this organization well in the future, it’s going take mentoring them to ensure they have the tools, the experiences to become leaders in that organization. 

"If we don’t take that seriously, and if we are not aggressive about that, then 10 years from now, we will still be having the same discussions about diversity that we are having today. I think organizations should take a step away and truly look at what will make our organization better—and seeing mentorship as a personal way to invest in improving an organization. That’s something I encourage at all levels of leadership—in DSS, as well as other organizations—mentoring people and setting them up for success."

About the Author: Barbara Gleason serves as a Public Affairs Officer in Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

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