Ralph Bunche looks at the camera

A Hero of U.S. Diplomacy: Dr. Ralph J. Bunche (1904-1971)

Dr. Ralph J. Bunche was a pioneering African American diplomat who shaped some of the most remarkable moments in the twentieth century. 

Dr. Ralph Bunche as a civil rights activist

Born in the era of segregation and Jim Crow, Dr. Bunche spent his life engaged as a civil rights activist in the United States while working for peace in troubled regions around the world. Bunche was valedictorian of UCLA’s class of 1927. At Harvard, he earned a master’s in political science in 1928 and a Ph.D. in government and international relations in 1934. He taught at Howard University where he founded the Political Science Department.

Bunche Selma Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Alabama on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Undersecretary of the United Nations Ralph J. Bunche, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They are wearing leis given by a Hawaiian group.

Dr. Ralph Bunche at the United Nations and the Arab-Israeli conflict

During World War II, Bunche served in the Office of Strategic Services before transferring to the State Department, becoming the first African American Desk Officer. He was soon promoted and played a major role in the formation of the United Nations, joining its staff in 1946. In 1948, he worked to mediate the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honorable recourse in the effort to save the peace.

– Dr. Ralph J. Bunche

In 1950, Bunche became the first African American awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a cease-fire and securing peace between the new state of Israel and regional Arab nations. Bunche became UN Undersecretary-General for Special Political Affairs in 1955 and focused on decolonization and human rights issues. President Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 for his United Nations work on Middle East peace. Dr. Bunche passed away in 1971, survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren.In recognition of his diplomatic contributions, the State Department renamed its library — the oldest library in the U.S. federal government — for him in 1997.

Ralph Bunche’s donations to the National Museum of American Diplomacy

In January 2020, the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York generously donated several artifacts to the National Museum of American Diplomacy that represent the distinguished diplomatic career of Dr. Bunche.


Egyptian-Israeli General Armistice Agreement

Signature page from an armistice agreement ending the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Collection of the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Gift of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.
View the Agreement

Notably, the donation includes his personal signed copy of the 1949 Egyptian-Israeli General Armistice Agreement. This page of signatures is from one of the several armistice agreements signed after the official end of the war.

The donation also includes a United Nations (UN) beret and armband. The armband, pictured below, is one that he wore while observing peacekeeping missions during the early years of the United Nations. The institute also donated a plate commemorating the first United Nations Emergency Force, organized by Bunche in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis.


Ralph Bunche's UN Armband

United Nations armband worn by Dr. Ralph Bunche. Collection of the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Gift of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.
View the Armband
Bunche Spotlight on Diplomacy
Ralph J. Bunch Spotlight on Diplomacy at the National Museum of American Diplomacy.

Honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Bunche

To commemorate Dr. Bunche’s remarkable life and career, the museum joined with the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute in February 2020 to honor Dr. Bunche as a Hero of U.S. Diplomacy. The commemoration included a special “Spotlight Exhibit” in the museum and a panel discussion featuring the grandson of Dr. Bunche, Ralph Bunche, III. The panel was moderated by accomplished diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Watch our Panel Discussion on African American Trailblazers in Diplomacy