The Peace Corps recently awarded the 2020 Franklin H. Williams Award that honors returned Peace Corps Volunteers of color who continue the Peace Corps mission through their commitment to community service and who further support the agency’s third goal of promoting a better understanding of other peoples and the countries they served through this work. The award was named for one of the first staff of the agency, former Peace Corps regional director for Africa, and U.S. ambassador to Ghana, Franklin H. Williams.
And, what many people don’t know is that while this ceremony resides at Peace Corps HQ in Washington, D.C., the very first awards were given in 1999, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. It developed from an idea by RPCV Recruiter Leslie Jean-Pierre (Guinea 1994-96.)
Leslie was a community development and health Volunteer in Guinea and he strongly believed that something needed to be created to attract more African Americans interested in serving in the Peace Corps. He thought an award ceremony that highlighted African American RPCVs who continued to serve in their communities would foster more community involvement and might entice award recipients to become more involved in Peace Corps recruiting efforts.
In 1999, I was the manager of the New York Office and Leslie Jean-Pierre, one of the small staff of Recruiters, came to me with the suggestion of creating something special to attract more African Americans interest in the Peace Corps. He thought an award ceremony for African Americans would get more community involvement. The criteria would be for African American RPCVs who were helping out in the community and once they received the award to involve them more in Peace Corps recruiting efforts.
I suggested we name it after a prominent African American who had worked for the Peace Corps. We decided on Franklin Williams, based on his career in the very early days of the Peace Corps, and as an Ambassador, as well as his work as a civil rights lawyers, I contacted HQ to make sure there were no legal issues in naming the award after a former staff member. They said, “no problem.”
I then told Leslie to move ahead with his award planning.
“The Awards were on the 24th of February 1999 at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem,” Leslie remembers. “It was hard getting into the Schomburg until I mentioned [RPCV] Melvin P. Foote who happened to know Howard Dodson, the director of the Center. I believe Howard had also met Franklin H. Williams and was influenced by him in joining the Peace Corps. Also, if I am not mistaken, one of the recipients was a relative of Mr. Williams which we did not find out until the night of the ceremony. However, each applicant was chosen because of their commitment to living the 3rd goal and continued community service after serving in the Peace Corps.”
The first recipients of the Franklin H. Williams Awards were:
- Howard Dodson (Ecuador 1964-66) – Director of the Schomburg Center
- Melvin P. Foote (Ethiopia 1973-75)- President and CEO of the Constituency for Africa (CFA)
- Fanshen Cox (Cape Verde 1993-95)- Teacher
- Angela Pruitt (Nigeria 1964-66) – Teacher
- Ira Weston (Kenya 1979-81) – Principal of Robeson High School for Business and Technology
The awards ceremony was covered in New York City by WBLS radio station and their cable affiliates.
We suggested to Chuck Baquet (Somalia 1965-67), then acting director of the Peace Corps, who attended and made the presentations, that he take the awards nationally with the agency, and working with Tony Pinder (Ecuador 1987-89), who directed the Peace Corps Office of Minority and National Recruitment Initiatives, that is exactly what he did do.
So once again, Peace Corps HQ grew a program developed in “the field,” in this case the New York Peace Corps Office, and the program was born of an idea of a former Volunteer. It is another example of the Peace Corps following the wise advice of an RPCV to create success for the agency.
Leslie Jean-Pierre co-founded the Little Black Village Youth Passport Project which encourages youth to seek out study abroad opportunities. He is also the owner and Accounts Manager of Geeks and Company which is an IT and web hosting company. In 2011 Leslie co-founded the Southern Association of Black Peace Corps Volunteers where he remains an active board member. This Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) group has hosted many Peace Corps events. Its mission is to increase the number of African Americans in the international arena.