Listening to Black Voices

Retired U.S. Special Agent Henry Hunter on His Career at the State Department

Hunter also reflects on the impact of strong women on his life—including his sister, award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

By Heather Dunhill September 14, 2021

Charles Shepherd Henry Hunter III

Charles Shepherd Henry Hunter III

Retired U.S. Special Agent and Division Chief for Protective Intelligence Investigation Charles Shepherd Henry Hunter III—who goes by Henry—has led a life that could rival any government-based action thriller.

Hunter launched his career in 1968 with the Atlanta Police Department, where he worked major crimes, surveilled drug dealers and conducted undercover sting operations. In 1980, while undercover and passing off packages of oatmeal as drugs, he ducked into a phone booth in a rainstorm to return a call from a U.S. Department of State recruiter, who offered him a job as a special agent and diplomatic security. He went on to become one of only a few Black agents in the field for the majority of his career. He was also the first Black person to lead a Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) investigative office.

At the State Department, Hunter investigated and solved federal crimes, which included kidnappings, murders, robberies, terrorism, counter-terrorism, and bombings, which included the one at the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina building in Buenos Aires in 1994, for which he was lead investigator. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community since the Holocaust.

Hunter also assessed and monitored the internal security of the U.S. and its citizens by conducting vulnerability and security assessments. He taught protective intelligence in other countries from Palestine to Mexico and often coordinated events with the CIA, U.S. Secret Service and Department of Defense. On two occasions he was assigned to the FBI for investigations and has been honored with several awards for his service. And while serving in the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), Hunter managed the Protective Intelligence Operations, supporting the United Nations General Assembly for more than 20 years. This involved employing plain clothes operatives and coordinating all agencies providing protection for visiting foreign dignitaries. He was often asked for by name; some of the notable leaders he protected include Prince Charles, Salman Rushdie, Edén Pastora Gómez (a.k.a. "Commander Zero" of Honduras) and Haiti's former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He also served as DSS Capitol Hill representative during visits from Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Madeleine Albright, George Schultz, Lawrence Eagleburger, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Margaret Thatcher, who called Hunter into her suite to personally thank him for his service and ask for a photograph with him.

Now 71, Hunter is retired and writing his autobiography—working title: Not James Bond. Along with his wife of 41 years, Teresa Bennett Hunter, he keeps Florida ties to both Apollo Beach and Sarasota—the latter to stay close to his cherished sister, the award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

Where did you grow up and who made the strongest impression on you?

“I was born at home in a wooden house on Brown Street in Covington, Georgia. At the age of 2, my family moved to Atlanta. I was molded and formed by my mother, Althea Ruth Hunter, and my sister Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Within minutes of my birth, I was swaddled and handed to my sister. She was told, ‘This is now your responsibility'—and she has lived up to the challenge to this day.

“My maternal grandfather, Rochell Brown, was the barber in town and appeared Caucasian. His skin color allowed him to move about Covington as a white Southern gentleman. He was a part of society and looked up to by all, so he could get a lot of things done, such as speak for those who dare not speak for themselves. Being the barber in a small Southern town, rich in the Jim Crow tradition, made him a very influential man. For instance, he worked at the barbershop by day, then at night, he went to the local jail to do haircuts for the incarcerated as well as the jailers.

“Although I wasn't born with a silver spoon, I was born to the best parents that could be afforded a young Black boy in the South. My mother was extremely intelligent, tough, and earned her high school education in Chicago. My father, Rev. Charles Shepherd Henry Hunter Jr., was a prominent, big-in-stature Black preacher who enlisted in the Army during WWII where he was a chaplain, including at Fort Sam in Houston, one of the largest Army bases in the U.S. After my father retired as a colonel, he returned to his native Florida.

“Both my father and his father were African Methodist Episcopal (AME) ministers in Florida, including Tampa and the surrounding areas. My father also pastored churches in Clearwater, Sulphur Springs, and Jacksonville. My grandfather became the presiding elder for all AME churches in Palmetto, Bradenton and Sarasota. My family roots run deep here. The Florida AME elder is a powerful and influential person, not just with the congregation but throughout their communities. During the 1967 Black riots in Tampa, the first call that the mayor made was to my father. He immediately took to the streets with other influencers, and lowered the temperature of the rioters.

“When I would visit my father as a child, he would take me on his rounds. He would visit the sick and shut-ins and people on the ‘other side’ of his ministry, who he was anxious to help. Some of those stops were at gambling dens, illegal nightclubs and prostitutes' homes. My father’s boisterous manner was what kept him doing what he was doing, because he was going to be heard. I can still recall the anticipation for the hymn to start on Sunday mornings and his voice bellowing from the pulpit. It was an octave that would shake the devil.”

What is your first experience of racism?

“The most startling was also the first, which happened in Covington. We were visiting one of our affluent Black friends when I noticed the adults whispering. They quickly shuffled the kids inside the house, locked the doors and pulled the shades down.

“Being amateur detectives, my brother and I slipped out the back of the house and hid in the crawl space. We saw why the adults were so shaken: several pick-up trucks with men dressed in white hooded outfits, shotguns in hand, were patrolling the streets. It’s what’s referred to as 'Klan riding.' The KKK was establishing domination and looking for a Black person doing anything it considered wrong. I was terrified to see those hooded outfits."

How did that inform your work?

“My first term paper in college was on the origin of the Ku Klux Klan. I wanted to know where it came from and how they could hate someone because of the color of their skin. After my research, I found out that its origin was actually about fair treatment of all. For instance, if they found out a white man beat his wife or child, they would beat the hell out of him. It was almost an extension of the church; it had religion behind it. It started with the best intentions—its discipline was based on people doing the right thing—but it didn’t stay that way long.

“In my career, I also monitored white hate groups and domestic terrorists. The ill-intentioned find a group with an emotional attachment—like the gun lobby—and slowly move it in the direction of white hate. They start by innocently passing out pamphlets or otherwise, saying that they are not extreme in their beliefs, convincing you that they believe in the same thing you do and asking you to join them. One method of recruitment is fear. They convince others that the government will come in black helicopters to take your guns, or take your livelihood away, or that someone lesser than will marry your daughters and take them away. All these things are implemented through racism or sexism or anti-Semitism. It’s always been here, and when our leaders don’t denounce the behavior, such as racism, it’s the same as welcoming and condoning it.”

What it was like to bear witness to your sister bravely desegregating the University of Georgia?

“My mother tried to shelter us from racism, so the whole UGA discussion came as a shock to the family. I was 11 years old and didn’t understand it, and no one talked to me about it. All I knew was that one of the two most important women in my life was about to embark on a dangerous journey.

“One night, my mother came to me and said, ‘I’m taking you out of school for a while, I’ve already spoken with your teachers, they will get your homework to you. I think it’s important that you go with your sister.’ She wanted me to witness how Char handled herself—from on-campus meetings to the trials and events surrounding her attempt to be accepted as a student at UGA. My mother knew I would benefit from that experience, especially since my sister and I had a special bond, which still goes on today.

“My mother was really something. Everything she did had a purpose. Her self-description was, ‘I’m a little piece of leather, well put together.’”

What happened after Charlayne was accepted to UGA?

“A student riot broke out over her admission. When that passed, and she was attending classes regularly, the decision was made that she needed a car to travel from the university in Athens to our home in Atlanta. I would accompany her on that drive Fridays and Mondays, and it would be kept with Black friends who owned an off-campus restaurant called Killian’s. Several legal trial-related meetings were held in that restaurant. The legal team consisted of Donald Hollowell, Constance Motley, Horace Ward and the unforgettable Vernon Jordan.

“When I met Vernon, I immediately wanted to be him. To say he was young, gifted, and Black was not to tell the whole truth. Not only was he a thinker, he was a doer. Everything that came out of that legal team that I saw was transmitted, transported and transcribed by Vernon. He was what every young Black guy wanted to be: intelligent, educated and to have people listen to you. Throughout my career, I met with Vernon on several occasions and benefited from his experience and sage advice. He was one advisor whose advice I followed to the letter.

“Someone from Char’s legal team needed to be present when she returned to school on Monday mornings in case any events occurred. Vernon was usually the one. Every Monday we would drop her at the journalism building, which had a long set of marble steps up to its plateau. When Char reached the top, she would always look back and wave. Recalling it today, I get misty-eyed. Every week, I thought that it would be the last time I would ever see her because I knew friends were few and far between once she got out of sight. That was traumatic for me. Char never complained, she was always positive. My mother was extremely worried all the time, but she never complained, either.

“The public may be surprised to know that the pretty girl they know as Charlayne was introverted and didn’t say much before all this happened. But because the circumstances called for it, she became a different person. She had to not only talk the talk, but she also had to walk the walk.”

Was your mother a willing participant in the process?

“If my mother was not involved, her daughter would have faced the unknown without her. The discussion for Char to apply to UGA was done outside of her hearing, but required her approval. There was an organization of helpful people behind my sister’s journey to UGA, and also while she was there, but I never saw them. My mother was the intermediary for whatever system existed.

“There was no greater feeling than being around my mother and my sister. On several occasions, being a mama’s boy, I would walk to my mother’s work to ride home with her. She was the bookkeeper and administrator for a Black-owned company called Wilson Realty in Atlanta.

“Many times, our drive home would take several detours. On occasion, we would stop at one of the Jewish-owned grocery stores in Black neighborhoods. Sometimes, I would see envelopes handed to my mother along with packages of groceries and she would leave without paying. The most memorable detour was to a grocery store at Ashby and Simpson Streets. When we went in, the proprietor called to someone in the butcher area. He spoke in Yiddish and pointed for my mother to go back there. A woman came out, dressed in white, covered in blood, with a brown case in her hand. She gave the case to my mother and kissed her on the cheek.

“When we got back to the car, my mother was in tears. On the ride home, my mother explained that the woman and her husband said, ‘Every journalist needs a good typewriter and the best one is a Smith Corona.’ In the case was a Smith Corona, which was given to my sister. Inside the case was an envelope. I never knew what it contained and can only guess that it was money to help with college expenses.

Your wife, Teresa, is white. What is it like to be in a biracial marriage?

“I dated women from all backgrounds and races until the day a friend told me about a girl that I would love and probably marry, which turned out to be true. Teresa was the girl of my dreams, my soulmate, my greatest supporter, unyielding critic, mother of my son, Chase, and the person who would help to steer my course from that time on.

“There was just one problem: she was Caucasian. While we dated, we were always the subject of stares, derogatory whispers and sometimes flat-out hatred. When they say love conquers all, we know what that means.

“One example was when I was a DSS agent/criminal investigator assigned to the Protective Liaison Division. I was alerted by a colleague that two of my superiors—the chief and deputy chief—had made racist comments about my marriage to a white woman, which included a conversation about what ‘color’ our son turned out to be.”

Have strong women been a constant throughout your professional life, too?

“While I was a patrolman in Atlanta, I was assigned a beat in a high-crime area. One day at roll call, I was paired with a female wagon driver who not only transported prisoners but was also backup. I never thought about her competence and ability to help me with the more difficult arrest scenarios; however, I was teased by macho, sometimes badge-heavy, officers that I was paired with ‘my mother’ and who referred to her as matronly.

“One night, I made a stop with a vehicle that had been the subject of an armed robbery lookout. As [my backup] arrived, the two occupants ran in different directions. I went for the closest one and a scuffle ensued, but I was able to place the subject in handcuffs. When I brought him to his feet, I saw [my backup] walking in my direction, suspect in tow and in handcuffs. I was proud of her and glad I trusted her. As for the rest of the officers, she had, in one moment, proven herself competent. The teasing stopped that day—and for the rest of my time with her.

“That affection and respect for women continued throughout my career. Providing protection for Jean Kirkpatrick, and protective support for Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, gave me many opportunities to support intelligent, strong women who were tough as nails and, at the same time, compassionate. Having also provided levels of security for several secretaries of state that also included George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Al Haig, Rice and Albright are the at the top of my list.”

Hunter with Margaret Thatcher

Hunter with Margaret Thatcher in 1992

What is it like to protect a high-profile diplomat?

“In monitoring hate groups, I realized we needed to do more to keep our eye on them, especially ahead of an event with a dignitary, so the protective detail would be aware of what they might face.

“Let’s take Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for example. One of the anti-Semitic groups learned that she is Jewish, and it didn’t take lights and sirens to go off to understand that they were organizing. But it was more than anti-Semitism; the truth is that there is a group of people who don’t like a women in a position of power. This got serious when Albright was attending a town hall at Ohio State University in 1998 with the Clinton Administration’s defense secretary, William Cohen, and national security adviser Sandy Berger.

“Four days before the town hall, I took a team of agents to develop intelligence to support diplomatic protective operations—meaning the guys you see in the suits and Ray-Bans who talk into their wrists. It was a different world then, one where we could walk into the university’s student center and blend with just a soda, lunch or milkshake. We would just sit and listen to what [the groups] were planning. The night before Albright’s arrival, I briefed the detail leader and told him that, frankly, I didn’t think there was a threat to her life, but if she got to speak a full sentence, I’d be surprised. We had identified some students who might have approached her, so I set up my agents in areas that would prevent any altercations.

“Open threats on diplomatic women happened more often than those on men. I held briefings with Condoleezza Rice's staff to define the threat that comes with the n-word. My office had to vet or investigate every threat. And we did this not only for American officials but foreign as well. It happened quite a lot with the Royal Family and British officials.

“I spent two nights in Richmond, Virginia, to support Margaret Thatcher’s special branch folks and to be a liaison for local police support. Before I departed for an early morning trip to the airport, as a courtesy, I let her person in charge know that I was leaving. I was then told, ‘The lady would like to speak with you.’ When I walked in, she said, ‘I wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for me. May I have a picture with you?’ I still have that photograph framed at home.”

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

“I would like for them to be learning about the unknown of other cultures and races. Only through knowing each other will we ever make a difference living together. Take a lesson from my mother, who taught us to treat people the way we wanted to be treated. She taught us the Golden Rule, and we lived by it.”

Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill

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