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Do You Know Robert Weaver, the Nation’s First Black Cabinet Secretary?

Despite a stellar career that started in the Roosevelt administration, Weaver’s appointment to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1966 didn’t come easy.

Robert C. Weaver was appointed secretary of housing and urban development by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. (HUD)
Every February, the United States celebrates both Presidents Day and Black History Month. At first glance, the juxtaposition of these two observances might seem counterproductive. Most of the early presidents owned enslaved people and many presidents advocated outright racist policies long into the 20th century. In many ways, the presidency was built on the forced subjugation of Black Americans — from the wealth that powered political careers and campaigns to the literal construction of the president’s residence. But as these examples demonstrate, Black history and the history of the presidency are intimately intertwined.

Robert Weaver exemplifies this complicated story and is a name that should be studied this February. Weaver was born on Dec. 29, 1907, to a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. He received multiple degrees from Harvard University, including the first Ph.D. in economics conferred on a person of color. Weaver’s expertise focused on housing, and he used his elite economic credentials to demonstrate how discrimination statistically affected the Black community.

In 1934, at just 27 years old, he joined the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, originally serving as an aide to Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes. As a member of President Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, Weaver pushed the administration to include Black communities in the New Deal relief programs. He was instrumental in creating the U.S. Housing Administration, where he funneled $50 million into federal housing projects and ensured that all building contracts included a fair employment clause. Not only did he ensure more federal housing was available to Black Americans, but that they would receive equal employment building those sites.

After the outbreak of the war, Weaver joined the National Defense Advisory Commission and the War Manpower Commission and later became the director of the Negro Manpower Service. He held a series of important local and state government positions in both Chicago and New York before returning to the federal government under President John F. Kennedy, whom he had met at Harvard. Weaver served as the administrator of the U.S. Housing Agency while Kennedy worked to obtain congressional approval for a new executive department called the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Robert C. Weaver became the nation's first black Cabinet member when President Johnson appointed him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1966.
(Associated Press)
In 1965, Congress finally created HUD, but the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was initially reluctant to appoint Weaver as Kennedy had promised. LBJ worried that congressmen from the South, where Black voters were still largely disenfranchised, would refuse to work with Weaver. Nor did many of LBJ’s advisers recommend Weaver for the position as they had little experience working with Black professionals.

After months of stalling, Johnson finally appointed Weaver as the first Black Cabinet secretary on Jan. 13, 1966. Weaver’s credentials were unparalleled and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 promised to reduce the obstacles posed by the Solid South. Civil rights leaders and the Black press celebrated the monumental step. The New York Amsterdam News wrote, “Weaver’s appointment is the boldest strike toward the recognition of the Negro ever taken by an occupant of the White House.”

As the head of the U.S. Housing Agency and HUD, Weaver fought to increase the availability of affordable housing, end segregation in housing projects and revitalize the social and living spaces in America’s cities. His lengthy public service career, from President Roosevelt to President Johnson, demonstrated both the limitations and the potential of the presidency to improve the lives of all Americans. Weaver’s dedicated pursuit of better living conditions and equal employment opportunities shaped the lives of millions of people. Yet, his influence was routinely diminished by political forces in the South that resented the power of a Black man in the federal government.

Weaver’s career reveals both the incredible promise of the presidency and the challenges that remain. Weaver was the great-grandson of an enslaved man and reached the highest levels of the executive branch. Yet his appointment as the first Black Cabinet secretary didn’t occur until 1966, 175 years after the first Cabinet meeting. Weaver’s legacy is a powerful one and reminds us that as we commemorate both Black History Month and Presidents Day, that we cannot celebrate one without the other.

Recommended reading to learn more about Robert Weaver and the Black Cabinet:

Jill Watts. The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt (2020).

Wendell E. Pritchett. Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer (2008).

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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