Ambassador Charles Joseph Nelson was born in 1921 and raised in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was a 1942 graduate of Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania where his field of study was Public Administration and Political Science. Upon graduation, Nelson was drafted into the U.S. Army where he served in Europe during World War II, returning to the United States in 1947. Nelson received a masters degree in Public Administration from New York University in 1948. Although he completed academic studies for a Ph.D. at New York University, he did not finish his dissertation and instead took a position with the New York State Commission on Coordination of State Activities.
In 1952, Nelson traveled to Washington, D.C. to explore other avenues of employment. He was offered a job with the Mutual Security Administration (the forerunner of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)) where he worked in the Philippines as Deputy Chief of the Rural Development Division from 1952 to 1958. During this time, he went to Iran on temporary duty, serving for approximately 90 days. He then returned to the Philippines and was transferred to Iran where he served as Chief of the Community Development Division from 1958 to 1960.
In January 1961, branch chiefs of the Community Development Division of USAID were asked to draft regional papers in connection with proposals to redirect the foreign aid program. Nelson drafted a regional paper on Africa as well as a regional paper on the Community Development and the Progress of Latin American Countries which he completed on January 30, 1961.
Nelson then joined the newly created Peace Corps and was assigned to Nigeria and Ghana where he served as Social Director of Program Development and Coordination in each nation. He stayed with the Peace Corps until 1965 but then returned to USAID where he served as Director of North African Affairs in Washington, D.C. He then went back overseas in 1966 and served as Deputy Director of USAID in Ethiopia from