Today is the anniversary of the appointment of the late Dr. Robert Clifton Weaver as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1966. President Lyndon Johnson’s choice of the Harvard trained economist as head of the new federal agency made Weaver the first African-American to serve on a presidential cabinet. It was one of the high water marks of that era and the significance of Weaver’s appointment deserves its proper place in history. His name is not well known or recalled by the masses of African-Americans, and that is a tragedy.
Prior to Weaver, New Jersey native E. Frederic Morrow had been the highest-ranking African-American serving in a presidential administration, serving President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a special assistant in the office of the President. Morrow was frustrated during his tenure, serving at a time when Jim Crow was the law in the South and the Eisenhower administration was cautious in taking on white southerners. Weaver came to the table with having already had an impact on hiring in a presidential administration. Having earned the distinction of being only the second African-American to earn a doctorate in economics from Harvard, a young Robert Weaver caught the attention of the Roosevelt administration, namely Eleanor Roosevelt, and became part of FDR’s “Black Cabinet” that advised the President on issues specific to the Black community. Weaver collaborated with the likes of Mary McLeod Bethune and helped usher dozens of Blacks into the administration, a first in the nation’s history.
Weaver was prominent in public policy circles and made history early in his career when he was appointed to the cabinet of New York Governor Averell Harriman, a first in the Empire State. President John F. Kennedy appointed him Administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Administration, an agency that served as the precursor to HUD. In an administration laden with Harvard connections, Weaver held the most Harvard degrees – three – of anyone in the administration. President Johnson followed up on Kennedy’s promise to create a new cabinet level agency focused on housing, and Weaver was the obvious choice. However, LBJ did have reservations about Weaver’s ability to handle Washington politics and the opposition of southern Democrats. Still, despite those reservations, LBJ realized Weaver was the best choice for the position. Dr. Weaver redefined “public housing” during his era and in his own way, used his presence inside the administration to advance the interests of African-Americans. Following his tenure in the Johnson administration, Weaver was appointed president of Hunter College in New York City.
NorthStar News Executive Editor Walter Fields had the opportunity to know Robert Weaver as a friend and mentor when Fields was a graduate student. “He was an incredibly intelligent and insightful man with a wonderful sense of humor,” noted Fields, “My mentor – the late Dr. Walter Stafford – was a protégé of Weaver, knew of my admiration of Dr. Weaver and introduced us. I cherish the many conversations we had in his home and fortunate to have led an effort to honor him at NYU.” It was one of many honors the groundbreaking economist received to mark his many contributions, including having the HUD headquarters in the nation’s capital renamed the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building. A street in his hometown of Washington, D.C. was named “Robert Weaver Way” in his honor. Weaver was also the recipient of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Dr. Weaver once served as chairperson of the Board of the NAACP. He wrote several books that are considered seminal works in urban housing.
Dr. Weaver passed away in 1997 at age 89. His memorial service at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was a gathering of a who’s who of pivotal figures in public policy. The outpouring was a reflection of the tremendous respect held for Dr. Weaver and the recognition of a body of work that advanced not only the interest of African-Americans but the nation’s conscience on the issue of the right to decent and affordable housing as well.