As we celebrate Black History Month, it is very appropriate to look at the influence and involvement of African Americans within the field of public administration. This is no easy task, considering that American public administration is relatively modern with most of the academic development occurring during the 20th century. Public administration in the U.S. is usually traced back to 1887 with Woodrow Wilson’s publication of “The Study of Administration.” African American involvement is not comprehensively documented and therefore difficult to trace. Consequently, this account is incomplete, and only comprises a few persons and events, which I believe encompass significant milestones for African Americans in the field.
The first person I wish to highlight is Alexander Twilight (1795-1857), who holds the distinction of being the first African American to earn a degree from an American college or university (Middlebury College, 1823). Though not directly involved with the field of public administration, Twilight was a minister, educator / headmaster, and was also the first African American elected to public office (1836), serving as a state legislator in the Vermont General Assembly.
Within the federal government, William Cooper Nell (1816-1874) became the first African American to serve in the United States Civil Service in 1861. Nell was installed as a postal clerk in Boston, MA. Equally notable was Robert C. Weaver (1907-1997), who was the first African American to be a U.S. Cabinet Secretary. Weaver was appointed the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.
With regard to municipal or urban affairs, it should be noted that Robert C. Henry (1921-1981) was the first African American mayor of any American city, being appointed by the city commission of Springfield, OH in 1966. Subsequently, Carl B. Stokes (1927-1996) was the first African American elected mayor of a large city, serving as the Mayor of Cleveland, OH, from 1968-1971. Another mayor of note was Doris A. Davis who became the first African American female to serve as the chief executive of a metropolitan city. Davis was the mayor of Compton, CA from 1973-1977.
Specifically related to city management, I was not able to find the first African American to hold such a position, but a person who should be noted is Robert C. Bobb, who was the longest serving African American city manager in the U.S., and a previous president of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. Bobb has served as a city manager for Kalamazoo, MI, Santa Ana, CA, Richmond, VA, Oakland, CA and served as City Administrator in Washington, D.C. Most recently, he was elected president of the District of Columbia Board of Education, and currently serves as the emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public School System.
On the academic front, it is appropriate to highlight two public administration educators, who rose to become a university president. The first is Adam W. Herbert, Jr., who was the first African American president of Indiana University serving from 2003-2007. Herbert, was previously chancellor of the State University System of Florida, and taught political science at Howard University. His credentials include a B.A. in political science and a M.P.A. from the University of Southern California, as well as a Ph.D. in urban affairs and public administration from the University of Pittsburgh. Additionally, another academic to note would be Walter D. Broadnax, who currently serves as the distinguished professor of public administration at the Maxwell School (Syracuse University). Broadnax was previously the first African American Dean at the American University (School of Public Affairs), and served as the second president of Clark Atlanta University (2002-2008). His education included a B.A. from Washburn University, an M.P.A. from the University of Kansas, and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University.
I am sure there are others who could be listed in this company. African Americans have reached significant milestones in the area of public administration serving as civil servants, city managers, elected officials, and academics. I am fully aware that other “firsts” have not been included in this list; however, my goal was to highlight a few of the lesser known individuals who have made contributions to the discipline. My hope is that you have become more aware of our professional history, and inspired to continue serving in your various capacities. As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, I hope that you will come to learn more about these individuals, and even discover other African Americans who have dedicated their lives to advancing the field of public administration.
By Marlon I. Brown, M.P.A.