Before Kamala: Black Women in Presidential Administrations

Today’s post was written by Billy R. Glasco, Jr., archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

From the liberating poetry of Phyllis Wheatley to the heroism of Shirley Chisholm. From the fortitude of Ida B. Wells to the tenacity of Fannie Lou Hamer, Stacey Abrams, and other Black women who have fought on the frontlines against the disenfranchisement of Black people. The Black woman is the cornerstone of African American politics. As Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) embarks on her momentous journey to make history as the first woman, the first African American, and the first Asian American Vice President of the United States, the National Archives celebrates the political excellence of African American women in presidential administrations for almost 90 years.

Portrait of Mary McLeaod Bethune (NAID 559194)

By 1933, Mary McLeod Bethune had established herself as a leader in the plight of African Americans. Bethune was president of Bethune-Cookman College and one of the most powerful African American political figures in the United States. Knowing this, newly elected President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt found it beneficial to make Bethune a presidential advisor of African American affairs. Bethune’s position within the Roosevelt administration would leverage her with the power to form the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which would become known as The Black Cabinet.

[Mary McLeod Bethune], "Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and others at the opening of Midway Hall, one of two residence halls built by the Public Buildings Administration of FWA for Negro government girls...
Mary McLeod Bethune with Eleanor Roosevelt, 1943 (NAID 533032)

The Black Cabinet was instrumental in creating jobs for African Americans in federal executive departments and New Deal agencies. Bethune’s influence within the Roosevelt administration would also allow her to direct funds created by the New Deal program to Black people. Programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and National Youth Administration (NYA) were successful in employing over 300,000 African Americans during the Great Depression. Bethune became Director of Negro Affairs with the National Youth Administration where she advocated for fair salary and job opportunities for Blacks in the agency. Bethune also served as the only African American woman who was officially a part of the United State’s delegation that created the United Nations charter. She was also the only African American woman to hold a leadership position in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.  

While Mary McLeod Bethune was cementing her influence in presidential politics, a Howard University undergraduate with a dedication to public service and social justice was paving the way for herself to become a historical influence in Washington.  

oil painting of former Secretary Harris in full length, wearing a brown/red pants suit
Official Portrait of Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris (NAID 7316017)

Patricia Roberts Harris, a native of Mattoon, Illinois was a gifted scholar who graduated from Howard University with honors in 1945. After earning her law degree from George Washington University Law School, Harris became an attorney in the criminal division of the Department of Justice in 1960. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed Harris co-chairman of the National Women’s Committee of Civil Rights.  

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Harris as Ambassador to Luxembourg. By accepting this appointment, Harris was the first African American woman to serve the United States as an ambassador. Harris would continue to be a force in the Democratic Party serving as chairman of the credentials committee in 1972 and a member-at-large of the Democratic National Committee in 1973. Her due diligence and commitment to social justice and civil rights would catch the attention of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Secretary of H.U.D. Patricia Harris, Jimmy Carter and New York Mayor Abraham Beame tour the South Bronx, 1977 (NAID 176392)

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Harris as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, which made her the first African American to serve in the United States Cabinet, and the first African American woman to enter the line of succession to the presidency. At Harris’ confirmation hearing, she was asked would her background prevent her from effectively serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban and Development. Harris responded: 

“I am one of them.  You do not seem to understand who I am.  I am a Black woman, the daughter of a Pullman 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.”

After serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in 1979 Harris became Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, the largest cabinet agency in President Carter’s administration.

Clinton at the center surrounded by African American members of his cabinet, all standing at a table
President William J. Clinton posing with members of his administration at the Congressional Black Caucus Dinner at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. Pictured from left to right: Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, and U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, 1993 (NAID 3598926)

A daughter of two physicians, Hazel R. O’Leary earned her bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1959 and her law degree from Rutgers Law School. During President Carter’s administration, O’Leary was appointed assistant administrator of the Federal Energy Administration, general counsel of the Community Services administration, and administrator of the Economic Regulatory Administration at the Department of Energy.

After serving in the Carter Administration, O’Leary established a consulting firm named O’Leary and Associates where she served as vice president and general counsel. In 1989, O’Leary served as an executive vice president of Northern States Power Company in Minnesota.

President Clinton and Secretary O'Leary embrace in front of a podium
President Clinton greeting Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, 1993 (NAID 2253902)

On January 20, 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated O’Leary to become Secretary of Energy and the Senate confirmed her unanimously the next day. By accepting the nomination, O’Leary conquered two historic feats by becoming the first woman and first African American serve as Secretary of Energy. O’Leary also became the first Secretary of Energy to have been employed at an energy company.

While serving as Secretary of Energy, O’Leary was praised for declassifying past Department of Energy records including Cold War era records revealing that U.S. citizens had been unknowingly used in radiation testing. O’Leary’s efforts led to President Clinton issuing Executive Order 12891, which created the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE). O’Leary also announced a $4.6 million settlement to the families of all the victims of past radiation experiments.

Secretary Herman holding a swaddled baby in her arms
Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman in El Paso, Texas, 1997 (NAID 39005751)

Alexis Herman, an Alabama native with the passion to better the employment conditions of Black laborers and women, would also leave her historical imprint in the Clinton administration by becoming the twenty-third Secretary of Labor.

Herman, a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana, worked as a social worker on the Mississippi Gulf Coast advocating for shipyards in the region to offer training to unskilled Black workers. Herman later became director of the Southern Region’s Council Black Women’s Employment Program, an organization created to promote women of color into professional and paraprofessional positions.

After Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, Herman was appointed director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau. Herman became the youngest person to ever hold the position. As Director, Herman worked with corporations such as Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and General Motors to encourage the hiring of more women of color.

After serving in the Carter administration, Herman managed Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 bids to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Herman’s work in making Jackson a viable candidate during his campaigns led to her becoming chief of staff to Democratic National Committee Chair Ron Brown, and later vice chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1992.

Secretary Herman standing in front of a wall talking and gesturing with her hand
Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman (NAID 39011491)

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Herman deputy director of the Presidential Transition Office, then later she was appointed director of the White House Office of the Public Liaison. As director of the Office of the Public Liaison, Herman began to build strong relationships with organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Herman’s political position helped her in gaining congressional support for Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement. 

On May 9, 1997, Herman was sworn in as Secretary of Labor. Herman became the first African American and the fifth woman to hold the position. During her tenure, Herman was successful in mediating between the Teamsters Union and the United Parcel Service to resolve issues that sparked the 1997 United Parcel Service Workers’ Strike. Herman was also adamant in her support to increase the minimum wage by $.50 to $5.15 (USD) an hour arguing that the increase in wages would increase buying power for workers.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Swears in Dr. Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State, 2005 (NAID 171487271)

Inspired by her parents and the civil injustices towards Black Americans in the South, Alabama native Condoleezza Rice earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver, masters in political science from Notre Dame University, and her PhD from The University of Denver School of International Studies.  

Rice’s political career began when she worked as special assistant to the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1986. From 1989 to 1991, Rice served as director of Soviet and East Europe affairs in the National Security Council in the President George H.W. Bush administration. Rice continued to flourish in the Bush administration as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.  

Dr. Condoleezza Rice is seen through a window Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001, talking on the telephone in the Outer Oval Office of the White House. Photo by Tina Hager, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library (NAID 5997327)

In 2000, George W. Bush named Rice National Security Advisor, the first woman to ever serve in this position. While serving in this position, Rice was a key player in the Bush administration in regards to the War on Terror. In 2003, Rice received the U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official. In 2010, Rice received the U.S. Air Force Academy’s 2009 Thomas D. White National Defense Award for contributions to the defense and security of the United States.

In 2005, the Senate confirmed Rice’s nomination as Secretary of State making history as the first African American to hold the position. Until the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Rice was the highest-ranking African American in the history of the federal government. As Secretary of State Rice was instrumental in implementing the Transformational Diplomacy policy which was created to expand the ideology of democracy and establish democratic governments around the world.

Lynch and Obama in conversation while sitting in two different chairs
President Barack Obama meets with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office, April 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (NAID 183898198)

Loretta Lynch is the daughter of a school librarian and a Baptist preacher from Greensboro, North Carolina. Her fascination with law came from watching hours of court proceedings with her father and hearing stories of how her grandfather helped people move North to escape the Jim Crow South. These inspirations led Lynch to graduate from Shaw University and later Harvard Law School. From 1998 to 1999 Lynch served as chief assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York where she managed the Brooklyn office.  

In 1999 President Bill Clinton nominated Lynch to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. During her tenure in this position Lynch oversaw prosecution of New York police officers in the case of Abner Louima. Lynch also met with the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was murdered due to being held in a prohibited chokehold, to discuss prosecution of the police officer suspected of Garner’s death.  

Lynch speaking at a podium in front of a seated crowd of people at the White House
Loretta E. Lynch speaks after President Barack Obama announced that she is his nominee to succeed Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., left, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (NAID 176552638)

In 2014, President Barack Obama nominated Lynch for the position of U.S. Attorney General. In 2015, Lynch’s nomination was confirmed by the Senate making Lynch the first African American woman to hold the position. During her tenure as Attorney General, Lynch announced Dylan Roof, the assailant in the mass shooting at Charleston’s historic Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, would be charged with a hate crime. Lynch also stated that the Department of Justice would seek the death penalty for Roof. Lynch also started an investigation within the Chicago Police Department to see if civil rights were violated in the death of LaQuan McDonald.

These trailblazing giants have left an indelible imprint on the landscape of American politics.  Their legacy is a testament to future generations of young Black women to be ambitious, bold, empowered, and aspire to achieve whatever they want.

4 thoughts on “Before Kamala: Black Women in Presidential Administrations

  1. Mary McLeod Bethune also currently has the honor of the only Official Personnel Folder digitized in the Catalog at NAID 158329664. What a great write up of those she stands among!

  2. This was a fascinating and informative article. So may young Black females and women of colour need to see and read this article. They need to know that role of Black women greatly surpasses the entertainment and sports industries. This is easily being overlooked in public education and glossed over during February. Thanks!

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