James A. Joseph is a lifelong educator and public policy activist who served as the first African American U.S. ambassador to post-apartheid South Africa from 1996-1999. Joseph has worked to promote leadership opportunities in both the corporate world and through the Federal government. The father of two children, he is currently married to journalist Mary Braxton Joseph.
Born in Opelousas, Louisiana in 1935, Joseph earned a B.A. in political science and social studies at Southern University in 1956. After two years in the U.S. Army, Joseph enrolled in Yale Divinity School to earn a Bachelor’s of Divinity in 1963. In the following years, he taught at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California before being hired as associate director of the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller and Cummins Engine Foundations in 1967. An ordained United Church of Christ minister and civil rights activist, Joseph found new opportunities to advocate for public humanitarianism through these Indiana-based philanthropies. By 1972, he was promoted to become vice president of the Cummins Engine Co. and president of the Cummins Engine Foundation.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Joseph to be Under Secretary of the Interior, citing Joseph’s business and philanthropic experience. In this position, he helped develop an Office of Minority Business Enterprise and urged greater attention to recreational areas located near or in urban centers, pointing out that most national parks remained out of reach of minorities in America’s inner cities.
Joseph’s public activism was recognized across traditional party lines. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Advisory Committee to the Agency for International Development while his successor, George H.W. Bush selected him to serve on the board of the Points of Light Foundation and the Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges. Under President Bill Clinton, Joseph joined the Board of Directors of the Corporation for National Service as