July 30, 2021
African American CEOs
Thirty-Four Years of History
Roger W. Ferguson (left) and Kenneth C. Frazier (right)
2021 has brought change with the retirement of two African American CEOs of Fortune 100 companies: HistoryMaker and TIAA’s Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. and HistoryMaker and Merck & Co.’s Kenneth C. Frazier. In the history of the United States, there have only been twenty-one African Americans to hold this top spot as CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. 
Left to right: Rosalind Brewer, Thasunda Brown Duckett, Marvin Ellison, and René Jones
Currently, there are only two in the Fortune 100: Walgreens’ Rosalind Brewer and TIAA’s Thasunda Brown Duckett. When you consider Fortune 500 companies, that number doubles with Lowe’s Marvin Ellison and M&T Bank’s René Jones.  
Former TIAA-CREF building, Denver, Colorado (left) and Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., (right)
The history of African American CEOs dates back only thirty-four years when, in 1987, HistoryMaker Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., also the first African American to head a major university, was chosen to take the reins of TIAA-CREF (now TIAA). In his 2006 interview with The HistoryMakers, Wharton explained the genesis of his selection as CEO: “One of the board members here at TIAA-CREF was Andy Brimmer [HistoryMaker Andrew F. Brimmer]. Andy was on the board with me at Equitable [Equitable Life Assurance Society of America; AXA Financial]… blacks on corporate boards have been quite effective in working to see… that blacks are not prevented from moving up... Andy said there were no minorities. So he said, ‘Why don't you go take a look at Cliff Wharton?’ … [And] there were a huge number of people on the board here, all knew me. They said, ‘That's a great idea.’ …I came and I was interviewed, and bingo.”[1] As CEO, Wharton successfully doubled TIAA’s assets, increasing them to $113 billion while working to reduce TIAA’s high employee turnover rate.[2] Six years later, Wharton was tapped to serve as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Franklin D. Raines speaking at FDIC Symposium, July 31, 2002 (left) and the Fannie Mae building, Washington D.C. (right)
It would take another twelve years before another African American rose to the ranks of CEO of a Fortune 500, when HistoryMaker Franklin D. Raines, a graduate of Harvard Law School, became CEO of the Federal National Mortgage Association, commonly known as Fannie Mae, in 1999. Raines, in his 2018 interview, noted: “You're more likely to become a CEO if you've got a white CEO ahead of you than if you've got a black CEO ahead of you just because of that concern that somehow you're taking care of your own.”[3]
Left to right: A. Barry Rand, Lloyd Ward, and John W. Thompson
The same year that Raines took Fannie Mae’s top spot, there were three more that soon held the top spot. A. Barry Rand was named CEO of Avis Group Holdings, the third African American to run a Fortune 500 company. Rand was followed by Lloyd Ward, who was Maytag Corporation’s chairman and CEO until 2000. There was also HistoryMaker John W. Thompson, who left his twenty-eight career at IBM to become CEO of Symantec (now NortonLifeLock Inc.), also in 1999. As such, he was the only African American to head a major tech company. Thompson served as CEO for a decade, growing revenues from $600 million to over $6 billion, placing the company on the Fortune 500, ranking #378, by the time he left in 2014.[4] He was then appointed to succeed Bill Gates as chairman of Microsoft, where he currently serves.
American Express building, New York City (left) and Kenneth I. Chenault (right)
Two years later, HistoryMaker Kenneth I. Chenault, also a graduate of Harvard Law School, began his historic seventeen-year long, successful reign as chairman and CEO of American Express in 2001. He had joined American Express twenty years earlier, as told by Louis Gerstner, former chairman and CEO of American Express’s Travel Related Services: “I hired Ken in 1981 at American Express, into an elite corporate planning group. Ken came to me and he said, ‘I don't want to go there. I want to go this underperforming, unprofitable, unimportant unit and see if I can help turn it around.’ Ken took that on, to everyone's surprise.”[5] As CEO, “he is widely credited with having built one of the biggest loyalty programs in the world… [And] led his company out of the crisis that followed 9/11: American Express had thousands of workers in the towers next to the World Trade Center.”[6] His civic involvement has also been legendary, including his role as chairman in the founding of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Stanley O’Neal (left) and Richard D. Parsons (right) 
2002 saw the rise of Stanley O’Neal to chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, as well as HistoryMaker Richard D. Parsons as chairman and CEO of Time Warner. O’Neal, with his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, had become the first African American CEO of a Wall Street firm. But by 2007… the company had to write down $8 billion worth of assets during the subprime mortgage crisis.”[7] Parsons, also a lawyer, had served as both COO and CEO of Dime Savings Bank of New York before joining the board of directors of Time Warner in 1991, and becoming its successful CEO eleven years later at the time of a difficult merger with AOL: “The fact that the AOL business model had sort of collapsed… we lost so much value, caused everybody to think, ‘Ah, this company is a disaster.’ … [But] we had the best movie studio… best magazine company… best cable networks… So we had very strong businesses, but in traditional media… And so highlight that, fix AOL… and then transform these other businesses into both own media and online were the challenges.”[8] Parsons stepped down as CEO in 2007 and as chairman in 2008.
Clarence Otis, Jr. (left) and Aylwin B. Lewis (right)
The next decade would see another rise in the number of African American Fortune 500 Company CEOs: HistoryMaker Clarence Otis, Jr. served as CEO and chairman of Darden Restaurants, Inc., one of the largest publicly traded casual dining restaurant companies in the world, from 2004 until 2014. In his 2018 interview, Otis, like Wharton, noted the importance of a diverse board in selecting a CEO: “They [Darden Restaurants] created a diverse board… one of the board members was an African American, Odie Donald… the lead director… And so I think it helped having people of color on the board to say, ‘Well, I think this guy should be considered a candidate.’ … And ultimately they settled on me for the job."[9] The same year as Otis’ appointment, Aylwin B. Lewis was made CEO of KMart, serving until its acquisition by Sears in 2005, when he became CEO of Sears. Lewis then joined Potbelly Sandwich Works as CEO in 2008, retiring in 2017.
Ronald A. Williams (left) and Rodney O'Neal (right)
HistoryMaker Ronald A. Williams who, like John W. Thompson held an M.B.A. from MIT, joined the healthcare company Aetna, Inc. (now part of CVS Health), serving as CEO and chairman from 2006 until 2010 and 2011, respectively. In his 2019 interview, Williams mentioned two people who have helped pave the way for African American CEOs: “I have been remarkably privileged to know two giants; Earl's [HistoryMaker Earl Graves] one, [HistoryMaker] Vernon Jordan's another... Earl was always a strong advocate… you need somebody in the boardroom who's… making certain that the playing field is level, and that you're being judged by what you do, not people's perception… I've seen Vernon do the same thing in different board meetings… and I think that's a very important role… generally speaking, boards are doing a better job in creating diversity.”[10] Shortly after Williams’ appointment, Rodney O'Neal was named CEO of Delphi Automotive (now Aptiv plc) in 2007, which he restored from bankruptcy during the recession, later retiring in 2015.
Roger W. Ferguson
In 2008, HistoryMaker Roger W. Ferguson, both an economist and Harvard Law School graduate, was named TIAA’s second African American CEO after serving as vice chair of the Federal Reserve from 1999 to 2006. In his interview, he explained: “As we sit here… the end of July, 2012, we [TIAA] have the largest capital base you've ever had, last year we had record net inflows… every retiree is continuing to be paid appropriately and so this team has done a masterful job through some very, very tough economic times.”[11] Ferguson steered TIAA through the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the current pandemic, adding “nearly a million new retirement clients… The company also more than doubled its assets… to more than $1 trillion to become one of the world’s top asset managers.”[12]
Where You Are Is Not Who You Are: A Memoir, by Ursula Burns, 2021
HistoryMaker Ursula Burns made history as the first African American woman to run a Fortune 500 Company when, in 2009, she was promoted to CEO at the Xerox Corporation, having started there fresh out of school in 1980. In her 2013 interview, Burns described: “There're three things that I could be discriminated by or for. One was gender… one was race… and the third was age… there is race and gender discrimination. I am sure… [But] I did have people who literally said… ‘You’re too young. You just can't do this.’”[13] Burns left Xerox in 2017 and currently serves on numerous boards, including as a board member of Uber.
Left: Kenneth C. Frazier (front, center) as general counsel for Merck, accepting an award for the department’s pro bono program, c. 2000s
Right: Dr. Roy Vagelos
In 2011, Harvard Law School graduate and HistoryMaker Kenneth C. Frazier became the first African American to run an American pharmaceutical company when he was named chairman and CEO of Merck & Co. His relationship with the company began in the late 1980s while working for the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, with Merck as one of his clients. Then, in 1992, as Frazier described in his 2012 interview, “Dr. Roy Vagelos, who's a legendary CEO… hired me to come here and be vice president of public affairs. I didn't want to do the job, because I wanted to stay in the legal job. But he basically said, ‘You need to… understand the business… we're never gonna forget that you're a lawyer… [But] you don't need to spend any more time in the legal department, you need to get into the business.’ And… what I really got involved in was the heart and soul of the business of Merck. I was representing Merck to the outside world… [for] those five and a half years of running public affairs.”[14][15] In 2006, Frazier was promoted to executive vice president in addition to his role as general counsel, before being named president in 2010 and CEO the following year. In 2018, Frazier was named one of the World’s Greatest Leaders by Fortune magazine and, in 2019, he became the first recipient of the Forbes Lifetime Achievement Award for Healthcare. He left Merck just this month, but remains as chairman of the board.
Don Thompson (left) and Marvin Ellison (right)
During this time, there was also Don Thompson at McDonalds, who rose through the ranks and became CEO in 2012. Marvin Ellison also ran JC Penny as CEO from 2015 until 2018, before joining Lowe’s as CEO, where he currently serves. Ellison was named Lowe’s chairman last month, with the company listed #31 on the Fortune 100.  
Rosalind Brewer
In March of this year, Rosalind Brewer, former COO of Starbucks and CEO of Sam's Club, made history when she was named CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., #16 on the Fortune 500, thus making her the first African American woman to run a company on the Fortune 100. This brings the current number of Fortune 500 companies headed by an African American down to just four. Interestingly enough, the most to ever serve at one time was in 2012, with seven African American CEO’s heading some of the nation’s largest companies (Kenneth I. Chenault, Clarence Otis, Jr., Rodney O’Neal, Roger W. Ferguson, Ursula Burns, Kenneth C. Frazier, and Don Thompson). So far, there is just one Fortune 500 Company who has had two consecutive African American CEOs—TIAA—with Thasunda Brown Duckett succeeding HistoryMaker Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. The rest of the story will need to be written, and only time will tell. 
[1] Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2006.077), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 16, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 5, tape 23, story 1, Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. talks about TIAA-CREF and his recruitment as its CEO.
[2] “Wharton, Clifton R. Jr. 1926–,” Encyclopedia, accessed July 19, 2021. https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wharton-clifton-r-jr-1926
[3] Franklin D. Raines (The HistoryMakers A2018.055), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 23, 2018. The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 11. 
[4] Leena Rao. “Microsoft Adds Former Symantec CEO And IBM Exec John Thompson To Board,” Tech Crunch, February 10, 2012, accessed July 19, 2021. https://techcrunch.com/2012/02/20/microsoft-adds-former-symantec-ceo-and-ibm-exec-john-thompson-to-board/
[5] An Evening with Ken Chenault, directed by The HistoryMakers, November 3, 2018.
[6] Phil Wahba. “Only 19: The lack of Black CEOs in the history of the Fortune 500,” Fortune, February 1, 2021, accessed July 19, 2021. https://fortune.com/longform/fortune-500-black-ceos-business-history/
[7] Ibid.
[8] Richard Parsons (The HistoryMakers A2008.146), interviewed by Soledad O'Brien, November 15, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 3, tape 5, story 23, Richard Parsons talks about his goals for Time Warner Inc. and being a role model.
[9] Clarence Otis (The HistoryMakers A2018.147), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 17, 2018, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 9.
[10] Ron A. Williams (The HistoryMakers A2013.036), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 14, 2019, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6.
[11] Roger Ferguson (The HistoryMakers A2012.118), interviewed by Deborah Lathen, July 30, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 5, Roger Ferguson recalls serving as the president and CEO of TIAA-CREFF.
[12] “Roger Ferguson to Retire as President and CEO of TIAA,” TIAA, November 17. 2020, accessed July 19, 2021. https://www.tiaa.org/public/about-tiaa/news-press/press-releases/pressrelease799.html
[13] Ursula Burns (The HistoryMakers A2013.289), interviewed by Gwen Ifill, April 13, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 17, Ursula Burns reflects upon the role of gender, race, and age in her career at Xerox.
[14] Kenneth C. Frazier (The HistoryMakers A2012.124), interviewed by Deborah Lathen, August 2, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Kenneth C. Frazier talks about his role as general counsel for a joint pharmaceutical venture.
[15] Kenneth C. Frazier (The HistoryMakers A2012.124), interviewed by Deborah Lathen, August 2, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 5, Kenneth C. Frazier remembers becoming the CEO of Merck and Co., Inc.