African Americans in Presidential Cabinets
Ever since President Johnson appointed Robert Weaver to be the Housing and Urban Development Secretary, we have been at the executive table and part of the overseeing arm of the federal government. All totaled, since 1966, there have been 22 of us. It is somewhat sad that we keep getting chosen to head up “Urban Development”, but we have had other positions as well. Secretary of State, Commerce, Agriculture, Labor and Energy, and Attorney General. The only positions we have not held are Defense, Interior and Treasury. I want to take a look at the Departments as well as the men and women who ran them, to show a bit of the power we have had in the last 60 years.
Robert Weaver was born in 1907 and was Harvard educated, including a doctorate in economics. His involvement in presidential politics dates back to the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when he was one of 45 prominent African Americans who made up the “Black Cabinet”, or Federal Council of Negro Affairs. The Black Cabinet worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to make sure that blacks got 10% of the welfare funds from “The New Deal”. The Department of Housing and Urban Development was designed by Kennedy to deal with the substandard, aged housing left in US cities after white-flight and the problems of unemployment. Some of HUDs agencies and offices include the Federal Housing Administration which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage agencies, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, the Office of Public and Indian Housing which runs Section 8, and the Office of Community Planning and Development which deals with affordable housing and homelessness. Kennedy initially started the work necessary to create HUD and Johnson finished it, appointing Weaver in 1966. The first black woman to reach a cabinet position was also Secretary of HUD. Patricia Roberts Harris was born in 1924, a Delta from Howard with a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University. In addition to a short stint as Dean of Howard’s Law School, Harris was formerly the Ambassador to Luxembourg under Johnson and on the Board of Directors for IBM, Scott Paper and Chase Manhattan Bank. Carter appointed her as HUD secretary, and later Secretary of Health and Human Services. During confirmation one senator suggested that she had too much wealth to head HUD. Her reply: I am a black woman, the daughter of a Pullman (railroad) car waiter. I am a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in parts of the District of Columbia. I didn’t start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think I have forgotten that, you are wrong.
The next HUD Secretary was Samuel Pierce, appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981. Pierce, born in 1922, was an Eagle Scout, a member of both A Phi A and Alpha Phi Omega at Cornell, part of the US Army CID during WW II, and had law degrees from Cornell and New York University. A life-long Republican, he had government positions under Eisenhower, Governor Rockefeller of New York and under Nixon. However, he also argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of MLK. Pierce permitted a fair amount of corruption to occur under his watch including political favoritism, mismanagement and abuse, involving millions of dollars. Many under him were charged and convicted of felony charges. He was not one of the Secretaries to be proud of.
Another HUD Secretary was Alphonso Jackson under George W. Bush. Born in 1945, he attended Truman State, and got his law degree from Washington University. He worked with housing issues throughout his career, including director of the US Department of Public and Assisted Housing in DC and the Housing Authority of Dallas which he drastically cleaned up from a series of discrimination lawsuits. with run-down housing buildings and unsafe conditions to a city with high standards for housing and commercial development projects. Jackson knew Bush personally, was nominated as Deputy Secretary, and then rose to Secretary in 2004. But he resigned under allegations of unethical conduct in the awarding of HUD contracts. Ben Carson has been named the most recent HUD Secretary and has served for the past year.
There have been 3 black men in the role of Secretary of Transportation. The role of the Department of Transportation is “to Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible, and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future. It includes the Federal Aviation Administration (air traffic control and satellite management), the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (2.6 million miles of pipeline transporting 1 million daily shipments of hazardous materials and 64% of US energy commodities) and an Office of Inspector General (oversight for fraud). The first black Secretary of Transportation was William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr, nominated by Gerald Ford in 1975. Born in 1920, as can be expected, Coleman faced traditional racism as a child: Coleman was suspended for cursing at a teacher after she praised his honors presentation by saying, “Someday, William, you will make a wonderful chauffeur.”[ When Coleman attempted to join the school’s swim team he was again suspended, and the team disbanded after he returned so as to avoid admitting him, only to re-form after he graduated. Coleman attended University of Pennsylvania, served in WWII and attended Harvard Law. In 1947, he was a Law Clerk for the Supreme Court. He also worked as counsel on Brown vs. Board of Education – the Supreme Court case that ended segregation nationwide in public schools. In addition to his work as a lawyer, he worked with the NAACP, the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of Kennedy, was on a delegation to the UN and served on the boards of Pepsico, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank and PanAm. As DOT Secretary, he presided over issues of pipeline safety, the supersonic Concorde jet, and use of car airbags. The next black DOT Secretary was Rodney Slater, under Bill Clinton in 1997. Born in 1955, Slater attended Eastern Michigan University and got his law degree from University of Arkansas. Slater had several positions under Clinton during Clinton’s tenure of Arkansas governor. As president, Clinton appointed Slater to run the Federal Highway Administration in 1993, and to the DOT Secretary position in 1997. During his tenure, Slater negotiated a $200 billion investment in surface transportation and laws to improve airline safety. The last DOT Secretary was Anthony Foxx under Barack Obama in 2013. Born in 1971, he attended Davidson College and New York University law school. In addition to his legal work, he served as a law clerk in Cincinnati, worked for the department of Justice and the Congressional Judiciary Committee. He served as mayor of Charlotte, NC in 2009, creating 4000 jobs and reinforcing Charlotte’s role as a critical energy industry hub. Obama picked him as DOT Secretary, resigning from his mayoral position. He won transportation moneys for 72 different projects nationwide in a single year of his tenure.
In 1979, Carter created the Department of Health and Human Services, splitting up Health, Education and Welfare into a Health Department and a Department of Education. Carter tapped Patricia Harris Roberts to leave HUD and fill the role of Secretary for the new department. HHS currently runs Medicaid and Medicare, the Centers for Disease control, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health as well as other agencies. The second black HHS secretary was Louis Wade Sullivan, appointed in 1989 by George W. Bush. Sullivan, born in 1933, was a graduate of Morehouse College and Boston School of Medicine. He went on to teach at Harvard, Seton Hall College, became co-director of hematology at Boston University then dean and later president of Morehouse School of Medicine. As HHS secretary, Sullivan oversaw creation of the FDA food label, and the public education program focused on the health dangers from tobacco use. After ending his position as Secretary of HHS, he went back to Morehouse College of Medicine and served for another 20 years.
Bill Clinton has the historical position of having had the most black cabinet members on his staff, with a total of 7, in his 8 year tenure. In his first term, he named Mike Espy as Secretary of Agriculture, Ron Brown as Secretary of Commerce, Hazel O’Leary as Secretary of Energy and Jesse Brown as Secretary of Veteran Affairs. Mike Espy, born in 1953, was educated in Howard and received his law degree from Santa Clara University. He worked in many political positions including Assistant Secretary of State in Mississippi, Assistant State Attorney General. As Secretary of Agriculture (USDA), Espy was head of the SNAP/Food Stamp program, as well as developing and executing federal laws related to farming, agriculture, forestry, and food. Unfortunately, Espy only served for one year, and was accused, but acquitted, of accepting gifts. He went back to work as a lawyer in 2008. Ron Brown, born in 1941, educated at Middlebury College, the racism Brown encountered included his membership to Sigma Phi Epsilon. The national charter of SPE at Middlebury was rescinded and the fraternity became a local known as Sigma Epsilon. Brown served in the Army in 1962 in both Korea and Europe, worked in the Urban League then got a law degree from St. Johns University. Brown worked on Edward Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and then went on to become a lobbyist. In 1989 he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, helping to secure Clinton’s presidency. Brown was subsequently made Secretary of Commerce, the arm of the government concerned with economic growth and job creation. The Department of Commerce includes some surprising offices, including the Census Bureau, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, the Patent and Trademark offices and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Several administrations, including the Obama administration have proposed eliminating and redistributing the Department. Ron Brown died in a plane crash in 1996. Hazel O’Leary was born in 1937 earned her bachelors from Fisk and her law degree at Rutgers. O’Leary had a strong legal record, as a prosecutor, as well as a history of working in Energy offices under President Carter. From 1989-1993 she was working as an executive VP to Northern States Power Company in Minnesota. It was O’Leary who oversaw reducing the department by 1/3rd, and shifting the focus from Nuclear Energy to efficient and renewable energy. She also declassified documents showing how the US had conducted radiation experiments on US citizens such as mentally disabled children, impoverished pregnant women, US soldiers and prisoners. When O’Leary left political life, she ran a consulting firm, and then became Fisk University president in 2004. Jesse Brown, born in 1944, was a Marine Corp veteran who served in Vietnam, was disabled and went to work for the DAV. In 1988, he became executive director. The Department of Veterans Affairs runs the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery Administration. While Brown was secretary, he expanded services offered to female veterans, homeless veterans and veterans exposed to chemicals during Vietnam.
. In 1997, Clinton named Alexis Herman to Secretary of Labor, Slater to Transportation and Togo West Jr. to Veteran Affairs. Alexis Herman was born in 1947 and earned her bachelors from Xavier University as a Delta. Herman spent most of her career as a labor advocate, in Mississippi, Georgia and New York. Carter appointed her to the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau in 1977 where she worked to get more minority women hired to Fortune 500 firms. Later, Herman worked on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and served as chief of staff under Ron Brown for the Democratic National Committee. In 1992, Herman was deputy director of the Presidential Transition Office, then Director of the Office of Public Liaison. Some of her major work was winning support for NAFTA. The Department of Labor is responsible for occupational safety, wage and hour standards and unemployment insurance benefits, as well as other labor related matters. Herman was responsible for two minimum wage increases and personally served as mediator for the 1997 UPS workers strike. After the end of Clinton’s term, Herman stayed involved in campaign politics with Gore, Kerry and Hillary Clinton. She has 20 honorary doctorates. Togo West Jr. followed Jesse Brown as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Born in 1942, West was an Eagle Scout and high school valedictorian, with an engineering degree and law degree from Howard, West was a member of both Alpha Phi Omega and Omega Psi Phi. West joined the army in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in 1965, practiced law briefly and then was appointed as Associate Deputy Attorney General under Ford. Before serving as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, West was Secretary of the Army from 1993-1998. West only served as Secretary of Veteran Affairs for two years, after which he returned to private practice.
Tomorrow, I will cover the remaining Secretaries.