Monday, March 12, 2012

Lois Lippman, the First African-American Secretary in The White House

In January 1953 Lois Lippman, 28, became the first African-American secretary in the White House when her boss, Charles F. Willis, Jr. of Citizens for Eisenhower in New York City, was appointed assistant to Chief-of-Staff Sherman Adams.

Lippman and her husband, attorney Romeyn Lippman, discussed the move, then concluded that it would be a big step in race relations.

“There has never before been a colored girl in the White House,” she told The Washington Post.

“We decided that when the barrier has been broken down once, it is difficult to build it up again.”

In an article published on June 4, 1953 in Jet magazine Lippman explained that, in addition to handling confidential mail and scheduling appointments with "high government brass," she supervised an all-white clerical staff of five. "Office relations are excellent," she said. "We all seem to be at ease with each other.”

The article continued: "Away from the White House, however, Mrs. Lippman discovered soon after arrival that in Washington, unlike Boston and New York, Jim Crow restricted her movements. But she says she has made an adjustment in this fashion: 'I go to the places where I’m supposed to go and stay away from the places where I’m not supposed to go.'

"Ask how she determined which places were not Jim Crow, she explains, 'I clipped a list from a Negro newspaper. It shows the restaurants and movies where Negroes are permitted to go.'

"Mrs. Lippman points out, however, that she has only one major problem in her job at the White House: 'Convincing people – especially small children – that I cannot get them an appointment with the President.'”

After giving birth to her first child the following year, Lippman returned to work until 1959 when her husband, who was with the Internal Revenue Service, was transferred to New York City.

Few people (including me until researching this story) are aware of the fact that after defeating the Nazis in Europe, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, who is credited with taking action to desegregate the nation's capital. In addition to Lois Lippman, more than 400 other African-Americans were named to key jobs in his administration including Assistant Secretary of Labor J. Ernest Wilkins who became the first African-American to sit in on a cabinet meeting.

Upon Eisenhower's death on March 28, 1969, Simeon Booker, Jet Washington Bureau Chief, honored him in an article titled, "Eisenhower’s Untold Civil Rights Record: Broke Barriers for D.C. Blacks."

He wrote: "When Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell wrote in a national magazine that Eisenhower had accomplished more in civil rights than all of the other presidents put together, pro-Democratic forces plotted the defeat of the Harlem lawmaker in 1956. With Powell campaigning across the country for Eisenhower’s re-election, Democratic presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson [1952 & 1956 elections] showed where he stood on racial progress. Asked if he would use the Army, Navy and FBI to enforce in the South the Supreme Court’s integration edict he said:'I think that would be a great mistake. That is exactly what brought on the Civil War. We must proceed gradually, not upsetting habits or traditions that are older than the Republic.'”

After his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy continued the work started by President Eisenhower by further expanding opportunities for African-Americans at the highest levels of politics and government in the nation's capital.