Thursday, February 25, 2010

Black History Month--How far have we come? Part 3--Presidential Cabinet Members

Today we honor the legacy and memory of Patricia Roberts Harris, the first African American female to hold a United States Presidential Cabinet position. In 1977, she was appointed to serve as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by President Jimmy Carter. She also served as the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and, following a reorganization, she led the Department of Health and Human Services. All of these positions were in the Carter Administration.

Ms. Harris, born in Mattoon, Illinois on May 31, 1924, was a summa cum laude graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C. She did postgraduate work at the University of Chicago and American University. In 1960, she received her law degree from George Washington National Law Center graduating number one out of a class of 94. Her work experience included a brief stint at the Department of Justice before becoming the Associate Dean and later Dean of Howard University Law School. She was the first African American woman to be named Dean of a law school. She also was appointed the Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965 by President Johnson. In addition to her civil service, she was also the first national executive of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

When asked, during her Senate Confirmation Hearings for the Carter Administration position, whether she could identify with the poor and disadvantaged, she remarked, "I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I'm a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. … I am a black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia. … If my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts may end up being part of the system."

After an illustrious career in education, public and civil service, Patricia Harris died in 1985 from breast cancer. She was married to William Beasley Harris. The United States Postal Service honored Harris in January 2000 with a commemorative stamp in the Black Heritage Series.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which banned discrimination, made the appointment of African Americans to U.S. Presidential Cabinet positions possible.  Click here for a list of other African American Cabinet leaders.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Black History Month Salute: Althea Gibson

This is a tribute to Althea Gibson. The sample spot was originally created for radio several years ago to be part of a Black History Month campaign by Howard University alum Darryl Claggett and myself. There is no connection to the company or internet site represented by "".

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Black History Month: How far have we come? Part 2--United States Senate

The Honorable Hiram Rhodes Revels has the honor of being the first African American to serve in the United States Congress as a Senator from Mississippi.  Mr. Revels was elected during Reconstruction in 1870 as a Republican. Prior to joining the Senate, he worked as a barber, educator, and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  He was also a veteran of the Civil War.  The story goes that Rev. Revels presented a remarkable opening prayer in the state legislature of Mississippi in 1870 that was one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the Mississippi Senate Chamber.  That prayer, it is said, made him a United States Senator.  Now that's pray your way into office. 

In 1874, Mississippi elected its second African American to the U.S. Senate.  The Honorable Blanche Kelso Bruce served from 1875 to 1881.  He also was a Republican and the first African American to serve a full term in the Senate.  Although born into slavery in Prince Edward County, Virginia on March 1, 1841, he received his early education from a tutor that had been hired to educate his master's son.  At the beginning of the Civil War, he tried to enlist in the Union Army but was rejected because of his color.  So, he worked as a steamboat porter, established a school for blacks and attended two years of college at Oberlin in Ohio.  He moved to Mississippi in 1869 and to become a cotton planter. During Reconstruction, he became a wealthy landowner and was appointed to several local positions.  As a Senator, Mr. Bruce supported "civil rights" for African Americans and Native Americans, and the desegregation of the U.S. Army. 

The Honorable Edward Brooke was elected by popular vote in Massachusetts in 1967 and served two terms in the Senate.  An alumnus of Howard University and Boston University, Mr. Brooke was also a commissioned officer in the U. S. Army during World War II.  He is the last African American Republican and the last Republican from Massachusetts to be elected to the Senate until Mr. Scott Brown's election in January 2010.  A tireless advocate against discrimination, he, along with Senator Walter Mondale, co-authored the 1968 Fair Housing Act which President Johnson signed into law on April 11, one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  For his service, the former Senator was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. 

The Honorable Carol Moseley Braun, of Illinois, is the first and only African American woman to be elected to the Senate to date and the first African American Senator to be elected as a Democrat.  Before coming to the Senate, Ms. Braun held several public service positions in Illinois including Assistant United States Attorney and Assistant Majority Leader of the Illinois House of Representatives.  As a Senator from 1993 to 1999, she championed many causes including education and gun control issues.  After leaving the Senate, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton Ambassador to New Zealand. 

The Honorable Barack Hussein Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2004 in state of Illinois.  A graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, Mr. Obama worked as a civil rights attorney and law professor before coming to Washington, D.C.  In February 2007, Senator Obama announced his candidacy for the Democractic Presidential nomination.  In a historic election that culminated in November 2008, he was elected the 44th President of the United States. 

Mr. Roland W. Burris, Democrat, was appointed in December 2008 to serve the remainder of the term left vacant by former Senator Barack Obama.  This graduate of Southern Illinois University and Howard University Law School has more than 30 years of experience working in the public and private sector.  Most notably, he led a successful effort to create a Comptroller position for the U.S. Government.  He currently serves on the Armed Services Committee, the Veterans Affairs Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Black History Month: How Far Have We Come? Part 1--U.S. Congress

The other day, I had the opportunity to attend a number of hearings on Capitol Hill.  It's only after I left that I began to reflect on what I had witnessed.  It was really historic. January 2010 marks the beginning of the second session of the 111th Congress and three of the committees in the House of Representatives holding hearings that day, Homeland Security, Judiciary, and Oversight and Government Reform are led by African American men.  They are:

Representative Benny Thomspson (D-MS), Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee

Representative John Conyers (D-MI), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee

Representative Edolphus Towns (D-NY), Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee 

That day, the committees were investigating pretty weighty issues like a December 2009 attempt to blow up an American commercial airplane en route to Detroit that was narrowly averted and the historic $180 billion bailout of the American International Group, Inc.  (For a brief summary of the AIG bailout, click here.)  The issues discussed ranged from preventing terrorist attacks to avoiding the collapse of one of America's largest financial institutions.   

Later in the week, I began to think again about the pioneers who made those moments on Capitol Hill  possible.  Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi who was appointed to the United States Senate in 1870 has the honor of being the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress.  His appointment took place after the Civil War.  The year 1870  is also important because it  is the year that the first African American was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  South Carolina elected Joseph Hayne Rainey to serve in the Forty-First Congress.
Hiram Rhodes Revel                Joseph Hayne Rainey

Now it took almost 100 years for an African American woman to reach the Congress, but in 1968 Shirley Chisholm was elected in New York and served seven terms from 1968 to 1983.  Mrs. Chisholm also has the distinct honor of being the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.  

 Last but not least is Representative James E. Clyburn (D-SC), the House Majority Whip and the highest ranking African American in the United States House of Representative.  Mr. Clyburn began his Congressional career in 1993.

Since 1870, a total of 123 African Americans have served in the U. S. Congress.  Only six African Americans have served in the United States Senate.  Part two of this blog will profile the African Americans senators, but right now I want to laud the accomplishments of the trailblazers whose efforts the United States and the World owes a great debt of gratitude.