April 30, 2021
Opening the Cabinet Door
African American Cabinet Members
Left to right, top: Kamala Harris, Lloyd Austin, and Marcia Fudge
Bottom: Michael Regan, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and Dr. Cecilia Rouse
The Biden Administration has, to date, appointed six African Americans to its Cabinet: Vice President Kamala Harris; Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Marcia Fudge; Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Michael Regan; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield; and Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors Dr. Cecilia Rouse. This is the largest number second only to Bill Clinton’s seven appointees. 
“Frederick Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln” by William Edouard Scott, 1943.
African American advisors to U.S. presidents dates back over a century when African American leaders like Frederick Douglass regularly corresponded with President Abraham Lincoln on issues concerning African Americans during the Civil War. Douglass “dedicated himself to recruiting African-American soldiers and encouraging equal pay and treatment for the enlisted… Douglass decided to pay the president a visit at the White House on August 10, 1863… One year later, Douglass was invited back to the White House to discuss Lincoln’s emancipation efforts… After President Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865, Douglass met with him for the last time.”[1] Douglass would go on to serve in several official government positions as U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia during Rutherford B. Hayes' administration, District of Columbia Recorder of Deeds under James Garfield, U.S. minister to Haiti in Benjamin Harrison’s administration, and as secretary of the commission of Santo Domingo, appointed by Ulysses S. Grant. In 1874, Douglass was also made president of the federally chartered Freedman’s Savings Bank prior to its failure.
President Teddy Roosevelt speaking to the National Negro Business League with Booker T. Washington directly to the right, New York, 1910.
Also, Tuskegee Institute’s Founder Booker T. Washington worked closely with President Theodore Roosevelt:  “In 1898, President William McKinley visited Tuskegee. McKinley said the institute was ‘progressive’ and declared Washington to be ‘one of the great leaders of his race.’ Then in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt became president after McKinley's assassination, Roosevelt invited Washington to dine with him at the White House… it was the first time a president had ever invited a black man to a White House dinner… From there, Washington became an advisor to Roosevelt on race politics and Southern politics in general. While Theodore Roosevelt did appoint a few offices to black politicians, he did not feel that many blacks would make competent politicians.”[2]
W.E.B. Du Bois, 1907.
President Woodrow Wilson
W.E.B. Du Bois, advised President Woodrow Wilson, whose election he supported in 1912. In Du Bois’ 1939 essay My Impressions of Woodrow Wilson, he expressed his regret: “I said in an open letter to Wilson… ‘not a single word of yours since election has given anyone reason to infer that you have the slightest interest in the colored people or desire to alleviate their intolerable position. A dozen worthy Negro officials have been removed from office, and you have nominated but one black man.”[3]
Left: Mary McLeod Bethune, as head of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration, worked closely with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to organize the ‘Black Cabinet.’
Right: Clarence Mitchell, Jr. participating in the United Nations Special Assembly, undated.
Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, there emerged an unofficial ‘Black Cabinet.’ Mary McLeod Bethune and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt led a group that advised the president on public policy pertaining to the black community and Clarence Mitchell, Jr., for example, helped oversee enforcement of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, enacted in 1941 to bar racial discrimination in the government and defense industries. Mitchell would go on to advise other presidents. His son HistoryMaker Clarence Mitchell, III (1939 - 2012), former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, recalled that his father “was known as the 101st U.S. senator… that was an honorary title that was placed upon him by a bipartisan group of United States senators… who passed a resolution saying that he, more than any other person, had been able to influence the deliberations of the U.S. Congress in a way that most members could not.”[4]
Left: Truman K. Gibson, Jr., 1945.
Right: E. Frederic Morrow and President Dwight Eisenhower, 1955.
HistoryMaker Truman K. Gibson, Jr., out of Chicago, Illinois would play played a critical advisory role in the administration of Harry Truman on issues of the segregated U.S. military and “eliminating discrimination [and segregation] in the armed services; [However, it] took two presidential commissions to enforce it.”[5] Other influential advisors over the years included Asa Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, Pauli Murray, Walter White, Dorothy Height, Cora M. Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., Louis Martin and E. Frederic Morrow, who was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 and became the first African American to hold an executive position in the White House as Administrative Officer for Special Projects.
President Lyndon B. Johnson shaking hands with Robert C. Weaver after signing the Housing and Urban Development bill, The White House, September 9, 1965.
But then eleven years later in 1966, Robert C. Weaver made history as the first African American cabinet member as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. National Archives historian and archivist Walter Hill, Jr. (1949 - 2008), commented in his interview: “I hate to use the term ‘ahead of his time’ but he really was. He was a federal bureaucrat… who took up the interests and needs of African American people. When he comes to Washington [D.C.] in [1933]--and this is a guy who's a black Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University… And he comes to work in the… Department of Interior [under President Franklin Roosevelt]… which was dealing with a lot of the housing issues at that time… If you go down to HUD now, Robert Clifton Weaver is on that building.”[6] Andrew F. Brimmer (1926 - 2012), who became the first African American vice president of the Federal Reserve that same year, added: “He [President Lyndon Baines Johnson] told me two fascinating stories. One is how he got Bob [Robert C.] Weaver appointed Secretary [of Housing and Urban Development, in 1966]. He said [President John F.] Kennedy sent up a bill to appoint Weaver, to create a Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, and... when asked… by a reporter, ‘Mr. President, will you appoint Dr. Weaver to be secretary of the new department?’ Kennedy said, ‘Of course, he's absolutely qualified… he will be my appointment.’ …the bill was stillborn when it got to the Hill… [Senator] Richard Russell killed it. Johnson told me… he saw Russell and told him he would like to create this department for Urban Development… And Russell said, ‘Lyndon, are you going to appoint that colored man secretary?’ And he said, ‘What colored--you mean Dr. Weaver? He is highly qualified… but Senator, I haven't devoted one moment to who will be the secretary.’ …Russell leaned over to him and said, ‘Lyndon, are you lying to me?’ And he said, ‘Senator, would I lie to you?’ That was it. Russell agreed not to sponsor it, but not to fight it.”[7]
Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman meeting with President Gerald R. Ford in the Oval Office, April 16, 1975.
HistoryMaker William T. Coleman, Jr. (1920 - 2017), a Harvard-trained lawyer came next when President Gerald Ford appointed him Secretary of Transportation in 1975. In his interview, Coleman noted: “I didn't realize they had a department of transportation. So… lawyers can never say, ‘I don't know what you're talking about, sir.’ So, I said, ‘Gee, I better… think about that.’ And, so, when I went home… my daughter [Lovida Hardin Coleman] was home that day from Yale Law School and said, ‘You should take it,’ because at that time probably less than 150 Americans had ever been in the cabinet. And, it was good just for that reason… plus the fact the country needed some people who hadn't been in politics. So, I then called Rumsfeld [Donald Rumsfeld] who was chief of staff and said, ‘Well, if the president still wants me, I'll do it.’ …[And] I enjoyed doing it once I got it.[8]
President Jimmy Carter watching as Patricia Roberts Harris is made chairman of the Democratic National Convention, June 27, 1972.
Legendary was also the appointment of Patricia Roberts Harris as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter, becoming the first African American woman and the third African American to hold this position. Upon Carter’s re-election, she was then appointed in 1980 as the first African American Secretary of Health and Human Services. Nonprofit chief executive Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, in her interview, spoke of Harris: “I thought Patricia Roberts Harris was just one of the most brilliant people I had ever met. She was extremely gifted… she had steel-trapped mind. She was very able in administration… Joe Califano [former Secretary of Health and Human Services] tried to take her whole department from her, and talk about a fight… the position he took was that public housing really ought to be under the aegis of Health and Human Services because housing was one of the welfare benefits of government and welfare benefits ought to be handled by Health and Human Services. He didn't have a clue what he had started. And, of course, he lost that fight. She was just marvelous to watch… She was tough, uncompromising about things that she really believed in, knew who she was, knew that her experiences had been unique, did not take umbrage at the intention of most men to act as though she didn't know what she was doing.”[9] Entertainment lawyer Amy Goldson, whose mother was friends with Harris, added: “One thing that she [Harris] said that always struck me is… that black people as a group or one of the few groups that… feel that they have to apologize for doing well… I think that what we need to do is not apologize for it and use that as an example for the generations to come.”[10]
Alexis Herman’s portrait in the Hall of Secretaries, by Simmie Knox.
The presidential election of 1992 brought President Bill Clinton and the most diverse cabinet to date. His second term included HistoryMaker Alexis Herman as the first African American Secretary of Labor. In her 2003 interview she reflected on her legacy and time at the White House: “Whether it was serving as… the first African American at the labor department, running a presidential transition… I recognize that there are still far too few of us who have these kinds of opportunities, that we have a responsibility to pass it on in some way so that others can benefit from that knowledge, from that experience.”[11]
General Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, former Secretaries of State.
The Republican presidency of George W. Bush would then bring two Secretaries of State—the second highest ranking cabinet position—HistoryMaker General Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama.
Of the others who have served in a president’s cabinet, these early pioneers paved the way for other African Americans appointments. The first black president, HistoryMaker Barack Obama, appointed the first African American Attorney General HistoryMaker Eric Holder, succeeded by Loretta Lynch in 2015, as well as Anthony Foxx as Secretary of Transportation, HistoryMaker Jeh Johnson as Secretary of Homeland Security, and John King, Jr. as Secretary of Education. And now we have the highest ever ranking member, Vice President Kamala Harris.
[1] Sarah Fling. “Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” The White House Historical Association, accessed April 13, 2021. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/frederick-douglass-and-abraham-lincoln
[2] “Booker T. Washington,” National Park Service, last updated April 25, 2012, accessed April 13, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/thri/bookertwashington.htm
[3] Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963. My impressions of Woodrow Wilson, ca. May 19, 1939. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. https://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b088-i264
[4] The Honorable Clarence Mitchell, III (The HistoryMakers A2004.071), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 6, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 7, story 1, The Honorable Clarence Mitchell, III reflects on the legacy of his father's political career.
[5] Truman K. Gibson, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.079), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 20, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, Truman K. Gibson talks about desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces and Judge William H. Hastie.
[6] Walter Hill, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.254), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 11, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 6, Walter Hill explains the connection of World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.
[7] Andrew F. Brimmer (The HistoryMakers A2003.090), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 24, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 3, Andrew Brimmer recalls Johnson's appointing him and other blacks to high-level positions.
[8] William T. Coleman, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2006.132), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, November 7, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 6, Mr. William T. Coleman, Jr. describes his appointment to the Department of Transportation.
[9]  Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich (The HistoryMakers A2003.175), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 20, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 7, story 3, Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich remembers Patricia Roberts Harris, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter.
[10] Amy Robertson Goldson (The HistoryMakers A2004.128), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 17, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Amy Robertson Goldson remembers a saying from Patricia Roberts Harris.
[11] The Honorable Alexis Herman (The HistoryMakers A2003.087), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 15, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 3, tape 13, story 5, Alexis Herman reflects upon her legacy.