Friday, November 24, 2017
Cabinet Members of the Past
By Yussuf J. Simmonds (Managing Editor)
Published December 10, 2009

Robert C. Weaver (HUD)                                       Patricia R. Harris (HUD, HEW, and HHS)     

Samuel Pierce (HUD) Ronald H. Brown (Commerce)

Alexis Herman (Labor)                        Rodney E. Slater (Transportation)

Michael “Mike” Espy (Agriculture)      Colin L. Powell (State)                      

Condoleezza Rice (State)

Alphonso R. Jackson (HUD)                              Roderick “Rod” Paige (Education)

Andrew J. Young (U.N.)                     Donald McHenry (U.N.)



By Yussuf J. Simmonds

“Cabinet Members of the Past”

It was almost two hundred years after the United States declared its independence that the first Black man was appointed as a member of the president’s cabinet. He was appointed to a newly created department – the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – as though it was created just to for him. This was 1966 and since then Black men and women have been appointed as cabinet members.

ROBERT C. WEAVER. He was the first Secretary of HUD and the first Black man to hold a cabinet level position in the U.S. government. The idea for the new department had originated during the previous administration, but it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who finally appointed Robert Weaver, amidst vehement opposition from Southern Republicans and Democrats alike. Weaver was born and raised in Washington and had received a doctorate from Harvard University; he was eminently qualified – except for his race. The appointment was very controversial, but ultimately, he was confirmed by the Senate and he served as until 1968. The following year, Weaver became president of Baruch College and in 1970, he was appointed professor of Urban Affairs at HunterCollege in New York where he remained until 1978. Weaver died in July 1997 at the age of 89 and in 2000, the HUD headquarters that he had dedicated in 1968 was renamed the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building. Weaver wrote a number of books including: Negro Labor: A National Problem (1946); The Negro Ghetto (1948); The Urban Complex: Human Values in Urban Life (1964); Dilemmas of Urban America (1965).

PATRICIA ROBERTS HARRIS. Not only was she the first Black woman to be appointed to the president’s cabinet – President Jimmy Carter – Patricia Roberts Harris also held three different cabinet posts in his administration: as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Health, Education and Welfare; and Health and Human Services. In addition, she was the first Black woman to enter the line of succession to the president and to be appointed to the rank of ambassador – the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. She later on became an alternate delegate to the U.N.

Born Patricia Roberts in Mattoon, Illinois, on May 1924, Harris graduated cumma sum laude from Howard University in 1945, where she met William B. Harris. They were married ten years later. After graduating from George Washington University Law Center in 1960, she worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, as an associate dean of students at Howard University and then as a full professor and dean of the University’s Law School. Harris was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1964 prior to her appointment as ambassador and her service as dean of the law school. Afterwards, she went into private practice at one of the most prestigious law firms in the nation’s capital.

Harris ran unsuccessfully to be the mayor of Washington, D.C. in 1982 and then became a full time Professor of Law at her alma mater where she remained until her death in March 1985.

SAMUEL PIERCE. He was the Secretary of HUD in the Reagan administration and the only cabinet member that served throughout both terms of the president. After earning a law degree from Cornell University Law School in 1949, Samuel Pierce also earned a Master of Laws degree from New York University School of Law in 1952. He started his legal career as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York before joining the Eisenhower administration as an assistant to the undersecretary of labor. Pierce served briefly as a judge in New York City before entering private practice in 1961 where he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the landmark first amendment case, New York Times v Sullivan.

Pierce then returned to the federal government as general counsel for the Department of the Treasury in the Nixon administration. Before joining the Reagan administration, he was the first African American to serve on the board of directors of a Fortune 500 company. During his tenure at HUD, there were gross cases of mismanagement and favoritism, without any accountability; he was referred to as “Silent Sam.” Pierce reportedly “gave away the store,” so much so, that after he left office, many of his friends and close associates were charged and convicted, though he was never charged or directly implicated in any wrongdoing. Pierce died in November 2000.

RONALD H. “RON” BROWN. Early in his professional career, Ron Brown was referred to as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Though he was born in Washington D.C., he grew up in Harlem, New York City where he attended Hunter College Elementary School and Rhodes Preparatory School. Brown enlisted in the army in 1962 after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont. After serving five years, he returned to New York went to work at the National Urban League. Then he enrolled at St. John’s University where he earned his law degree in 1970.

As a deputy campaign manager for Senator Edward Kennedy’s run for the presidential nomination, Brown got his start in politics. From there he went to work for a D.C. law firm as an attorney and a lobbyist; the latter increased his interest and connections in the political community. He was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) after serving as campaign manager for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. As DNC chairman, he was instrumental in President Bill Clinton’s election and was named Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration in 1993.

Brown was killed in April 1996 in an airplane crash while on an official trade mission in Croatia. No foul play was ever discovered as the crash was attributed to human error during a faulty landing approach. All the passengers and the flight crew were killed. In his honor, President Clinton established the Ron Brown Award for corporate leadership and responsibility and St. John’sUniversity School of Law named the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development.

ALEXIS HERMAN. As the 23rd U.S. Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman was the first African American to lead that department and the lone Black woman in the Clinton cabinet. When the president announced her appointment in December 1996, he said, “She is a leader who understands the needs of workers and understands the challenges they face as we approach the 21st century.” Prior to the appointment, Herman was assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. She was part of the transition planning team during the 2000 election recount in Florida when it appeared that Al Gore would be the 43rd president.

After graduating from college, she became actively involved in efforts to desegregate high schools in Mobile and developing employment training opportunities for young people. At 29, she began her career in government as the director of the Women’s Bureau in the Labor Department during the Carter administration. There she was instrumental in getting Delta Airlines and Coco-Cola to hire female professionals.

In 1981 after administrations changed in Washington, D.C., Herman founded the consulting firm of A.M. Herman & Associates which advised state and local governments on labor markets. She re-entered government service in the Clinton White House responsible for the administration’s relations with interest groups. Then at the beginning of President Clinton’s second administration, Herman became the Secretary of Labor where she remained until the president’s second term ended in 2001.

Since leaving government and returning to the private sector, Herman has been lecturing throughout the nation. She is a member of Washington Speakers Bureau that sets up her speaking engagements, which she uses to speak about her entrepreneurial ventures and her experiences in government service. As a super delegate, she was instrumental in settling the delegate count between candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

RODNEY E. SLATER. Named the 13th Secretary of Transportation in the department’s history in February 1997, Rodney Slater has said, “I believe that transportation is about more than concrete, asphalt, and steel. It is truly about people and providing them the opportunity to be successful and responsible individuals.” And in nominating him, President Bill Clinton said, “He has built bridges both of steel and of goodwill to bring people closer together.”

During his tenure as Secretary, Slater worked diligently to improve the nation’s infrastructure: its bridges, highways, railroads, sea and air transport, and mass transit by utilizing the maximum potential of the department’s 100,000 employees and its $40 billion plus budget. His focus was to provide an appropriate transition into the 21st century since Congress had given his department the best ratings best among all federal agencies and he, the highest level of any Secretary in history. Slater signed numerous agreements with other nation relative to air travel and increased trade with African countries.

In addition, Slater established the Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Futures Program – named in honor of Morgan, the African American who invented the gas mask and other safety devices/mechanisms – aimed at attracting unemployed and under-employed youth into transportation careers, and mentoring and tutoring them to make sure they succeed. Slater was born in Marianna, Arkansas in February 1955, earned his law degree at the University of Arkansas and held several state government positions there before becoming Secretary of Transportation.

MICHAEL “MIKE” ESPY. He was a three-term congressman from Mississippi before being appointed as the first Black Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration in 1993. Born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Mike Espy earned his law degree from the University of Santa Clara Law School, California in 1978 and began his legal career with the Central Mississippi Legal Services before becoming assistant secretary of state to Mississippi Legal Services. Espy was also the assistant secretary of state in the Public Lands Division and assistant state attorney general in Mississippi.

His tenure as Secretary of Agriculture was brief but Espy was indicted and subsequently acquitted after leaving office, on charges of allegedly receiving improper gifts. The trial seemed to be a show trial and Espy refused to plea bargain. The core of the charges was refuted by the U.S. Supreme Court in a related case ruling that the gratuities statute requires a link between a gift and an official act and went on to add that the prosecutor’s interpretation of the law was so broad that even a high school principal could be in legal trouble for giving a souvenir baseball cap to a visiting Secretary of Education. And the independent counsel – after spending over $20 million on the case – was unable to establish such a link between Espy and the donors.

Though no longer in public office, Espy remains active in Mississippi state politics, and in 2007, he crossed party lines and endorsed the Republican candidate for governor’s re-election campaign.

COLIN L. POWELL. He rose through the ranks of the U.S. military to become a four-star general and the nation’s youngest and first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the leader of the U.S. Colin Powell was then appointed by President George W. Bush as the nation’s first Black Secretary of State and its top diplomat. Powell delivered the infamous “smoking-gun” address to the United Nations – based on faulty intelligence – to justify the invasion of Iraq, ignoring massive protest rallies and public outrage throughout the world. military and its No. 1 soldier who successfully led the nation in the first Gulf War.

His parents were Jamaican immigrants and he grew up in the Bronx, New York. Just after earning a bachelor’s degree at City College of New York, Powell joined the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and later described it as one of the happiest experiences of his life, where he received a commission as a second lieutenant. He was one of the military advisors sent to South Vietnam in 1962, the same year he married Alma Johnson. From being an advisor, it evolved into a tour of duty for which he earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Since retiring Powell spends his time lecturing and motivating young people towards excellence. He has been ably assisted by Mrs. Powell has always been at his side as an equal partner in his successes and accomplishments.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE. She was the first Black woman appointed as Secretary of State in President George W. Bush’s second term in 2005, and Condoleezza Rice dutifully defended the invasion of Iraq and its current occupation. She implemented and articulated the president’s policies and skillfully changed the justification for the ill-conceived invasion each time it proved to be inconsistent with the facts – one of which was weapons of mass destruction. Five years after the invasion and subsequent occupation – up to the end of her tenure as Secretary of State – no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Rice is skilled in European and Russian affairs, and previously served as the president’s national security advisor. She was a professor of political science and provost at Stanford University before joining the administration and also served as the Soviet and East European advisor to the first President (George H.W.) Bush during the breakup of the Soviet Union and the re-joining of East and West Germany. She is also a proficient pianist.

As Secretary of State, she followed the U.S. policy of selective attempts at promoting democracy while supporting authoritarian regimes that traded with the U.S. as protecting American interests.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Rice moved to Denver, Colorado, with her family in 1967 where she attended an all-girls private school and the University of Denver. Initially a Democrat, she claimed that the reason for switching parties was the denial of her father’s right to register to vote in Alabama (That is ironic because Black people’s rights were “equally” denied by both parties). in 1952 by the Democrats.

Since leaving the state department in 2009, Rice has returned to Stanford University as a political science professor and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.

ALPHONSO R. JACKSON. After serving as deputy secretary, Alphonso Jackson was nominated by President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in March 2004 to be the 13th Secretary of HUD. He had previously served in other positions at HUD. Though born and raised in Texas, Jackson got his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the Northeast Missouri State University and his law degree from Washington University School of Law in 1973. After a brief stint at St. Louis Housing Authority and as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, he returned to Texas and was appointed by Governor G.W. Bush to the Board of Regents at Texas Southern University where he remained until he accepted the second position at HUD in Washington D.C.

At HUD, Jackson was the de facto secretary as he was managing the day-to-day operations of the department that had an annual budget of more than $30 billion. His immediate supervisor had resign to run for the U.S. Senate seat in Florida – which he eventually won – allowing Jackson to become acting Secretary, a move which facilitated being actually nominated for the job he had been doing all along, and a unanimous Senate confirmation.

The National Black Chamber of Commerce reported that while at HUD, Jackson was responsible for a dramatic increase in minority contracting and was cited as a leading federal agency in that area, in addition to women contracting. It led to him being lambasted by White males in the mainstream press and precipitated his resignation in April 2008. Thereafter he returned to private practice.

RODERICK R. “ROD” PAIGE. Coming from parents who were public school educators made Rod Paige himself an ideal candidate to becoming an educator and a natural as the Secretary of Education in the Bush administration. As a matter of fact, he was sitting with the president at an elementary school in Florida when he (the president) got the news on that dreadful day (9/11) after the planes had hit the World Trade Center towers.

Paige grew up in Mississippi and believed that education equalizes opportunity; it is the great equalizer. His professional career is the embodiment of career educator. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University, and a Master’s and doctorate degrees from Indiana University Bloomington. Paige started his career in education as a college-level athletic coach, and then went on to be a dean (for a decade) at Texas Southern University and then as school superintendent. He also served as a trustee and an officer of the Board of Education of the Houston Independent School District. Paige has very radical and innovative ideas about education and has referred to the National Education Association as a terrorist organization.

His tenure as Secretary of Education served as an extension of his life’s work and afforded him the opportunity to implement several measures as the nation’s education chief that he would have otherwise had to depend on the whims of others. After leaving the secretary’s post in 2005, he returned to the corridors of education continuing where he had left off. Paige is the chairman of the Chartwell Education Group that supports schools, districts and education boards.

THE U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS represents the nation at the U.N. and falls under the purview of the Secretary of State, and though their authority sometimes varies according to the president, they often hold the rank of a cabinet member. The two distinguished African Americans who have held that position in the past are ANDREW J. YOUNG and DONALD F. MCHENRY.

Current African American cabinet members in President Barack Obama’s administration are: ERIC H. HOLDER, JR. – Attorney General; and cabinet-rank members: SUSAN RICE – Ambassador to the U.N.; RONALD “RON” KIRK – the U.S. Trade Representative; and LISA P. JACKSON – Environmental Protection Agency Administrator.

Categories: Legends

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