Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Robert C. Weaver
Robert Clifton Weaver was the first secretary of the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department as well as the first Black person to serve in a cabinet-level position inside the United States government. Trained as an economist, Weaver understood the economics of federal housing policy, but he also understood the desperate need among people of color for affordable places to live. Owing to his background, Weaver was ideally situated to take the helm of HUD in its early days as a federal agency. I discuss Weaver’s life and career in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”
He was born on December 29, 1907, in Washington. D.C. His father, Mortimer G. Weaver, worked in the United States Postal Service, allowing his family to enjoy a middle-class standard of living. His parents were fierce proponents of acquiring a high-quality education. Weaver’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, was the first Black dentist to graduate from Harvard University. Young Robert Weaver set his sights on that institution, although he did not pursue a career in dentistry.
He came of age in the Jim Crow era. Accordingly, he did not enjoy the educational opportunities afforded to gifted whites. Weaver and his family availed themselves of the resources available to people of color. He attended M Street High School, later known as Dunbar High School, a Washington, D.C.-based educational institution renowned for providing gifted Black students with opportunities otherwise denied them.
Following graduation from M Street, Weaver enrolled at Harvard. He earned his Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts, and doctorate from that institution, completing his studies in 1934. Economics was his chosen field.
Shortly after he earned his doctorate, Weaver traveled to Washington, D.C., to become an aide to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was Weaver’s first post inside Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but hardly his last. In 1938, he became a special assistant to the United States Housing Authority. Four years later, he moved on to the National Defense Advisory Commission, an agency that oversaw industrial production, raw materials, employment, farm products, transportation, price stabilization, and consumer protection. In 1941, the Office for Emergency Management assumed those duties. Weaver also served on the War Manpower Commission and was the director of the Negro Manpower Service.
FDR’s record of appointing people of color to important government positions has been the subject of much debate. Detractors insist that he could have done much more, but he refused to expend the political capital necessary to ensure that significant gains were made. His apologists argue that the president was cautious because he required the assistance of powerful southern Democrats in Congress who would have withdrawn their support for the New Deal if he had moved too far left on civil rights. Whatever the merits of each position, it was true that Roosevelt looked to a group of 45 accomplished Blacks to undertake sensitive, crucial jobs within the administration. Robert C. Weaver was one of those men.
Weaver developed an unparalleled knowledge of housing policy. Owing to this background, he took a lead role in developing the administration’s housing program. The program was designed to finance state and local housing programs through federal subsidies.
One provision was supposed to assist poor Blacks in paying their rent during the Great Depression. Weaver recognized that the program did not extend far enough. Black citizens were stuck in inferior, segregated housing. The subsidy cut their rent payments, but not enough to alleviate a developing housing crisis. Black workers earned far less than white workers; accordingly, their housing needs were more severe than the needs of most white renters.
By 1944, Weaver had moved to Chicago to become director of the Commission on Race Relations in the Office of the Mayor. This position led to a series of positions involving race throughout the 1940s and 1950s. By 1955, he became New York State Rent Commissioner in the administration of New York Governor W. Averell Harriman. As the commissioner, Weaver was the first Black cabinet member in New York history.
By the time that John F. Kennedy was elected president in November 1960, Dr. Weaver was one of the most prominent housing experts in the country. The president was determined to recruit a housing expert for his administration. Since the end of World War II, the suburbs had grown tremendously, creating housing shortages as former soldiers and their families sought to rent or buy new homes. In the meantime, the infrastructure in many large cities was crumbling as poor residents struggled to find affordable, quality housing, often in high-crime areas. These trends convinced the incoming president that a coordinated federal response was needed. Kennedy believed that a new cabinet-level department dedicated to solving the burgeoning housing crisis was needed, but he faced stiff opposition in Congress.
A coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats argued vehemently that a new cabinet agency was unnecessary. To circumvent this obstacle, President Kennedy resolved to use his executive authority to create a new agency, exactly as his predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, had done in creating the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953. This time, however, Congress enacted legislation to prevent the president from creating a cabinet agency on his own authority.
Stymied by congressional opposition, Kennedy nonetheless asked Weaver to join his administration. The president appointed Weaver the administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, which had coordinated federal housing policy since the 1940s. It wasn’t the cabinet-level position that Weaver had sought, but he accepted the offer with hopes that the agency eventually would be elevated to cabinet-level status in the future.
Aside from his race and his decades of experience in the housing field, Dr. Weaver’s educational background made him an attractive public servant in the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy and many of his advisers were Harvard graduates. Robert Weaver’s three Harvard degrees—more than anyone else in the administration’s upper echelon—made him one of the most sought-after figures within the federal government.
Weaver contributed to many of the administration’s admittedly modest domestic successes, including a 1961 housing bill as well as the Senior Citizens Housing Act of 1962. The Kennedy administration pushed for more expansive legislation, but congressional opposition remained intense. It was only after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 that much of the housing legislation stalled in Congress won approval.
The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), was widely regarded as one of the most accomplished legislators of the twentieth century. He ingeniously used the good will engendered by Kennedy’s assassination to shepherd numerous bills through an otherwise recalcitrant Congress, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Also in 1965, the Johnson administration successfully created a new cabinet agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
HUD consolidated five federal agencies that dealt with housing issues under one umbrella. Three of the agencies were New Deal creations. The Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934 to increase home ownership for first-time buyers, became part of the new department, as did the Public Housing Administration, established in 1937 to oversee the country’s first public housing, and the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), an agency established in 1934 to provide a secondary market for home mortgages. In addition, HUD included the Urban Renewal Administration, an agency created in 1949 to oversee slum clearance in close to 800 communities across the nation, and the Community Facilities Administration, an agency developed to coordinate community development programs, including city planning grants, student and employee housing aid for hospitals and colleges, and mass transit grants.
President Kennedy had promised Weaver that he would be appointed a cabinet secretary if the administration created a new housing department, but Johnson was not obligated to follow through with the appointment. LBJ believed that Weaver was not as politically astute as other potential secretaries. Moreover, southern Democrats represented a powerful voting bloc in Congress, and Johnson feared that their inherent racism would alienate potential supporters if a Black man headed the new agency. The president seriously considered other candidates before eventually tapping Weaver for the position. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and presidential aide Bill Moyers were instrumental in promoting Weaver’s candidacy.
As the new HUD secretary, Weaver became the first Black person to serve in a president’s cabinet. The secretary was aware of the groundbreaking nature of his appointment, to say nothing of the potential pitfalls in his position. “I was the first Black to head either HHFA or HUD,” he recalled during an interview years later. “Initially the home builders were most unhappy to have me in HHF A. However, from the start, there was a small coterie of support, so the situation was not overbearing. But I had to be sure that I was able to get legislation through up on the Hill. And this was one of the first things or challenges that I had because if I had not been able to get the legislative package through, it would have been ascribed, I’m sure, primarily to my race and it would not only have been a reflection on me, but it would have been a reflection on any other Black who was in a similar position.”
Weaver struggled mightily to forge mutually beneficial relationships with influential members of Congress. Not surprisingly, some southern legislators refused to work with him, but Weaver persevered. His initial support came from liberal Democrats, but he slowly expanded his base of support on legislation important to key members of Congress and their constituents. Weaver observed that “as time went on, my contacts up on the Hill involving mainly liberal Congressmen from the North and West, got to be very good and extended to people like the Congressman from Texas who was the great Populist, Wright Patman. We got along famously; he used to have me for catfish breakfast up on the Hill. Initially this presented a very great psychological problem for me, but the catfish turned out to be good.”
Passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was Weaver’s most lasting accomplishment. The law, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibited discrimination in the sales, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex (as amended), handicap, or family status. It was the first step in the federal initiative to destroy decades of racial discrimination in the rental and housing markets.
In 1969, as Lyndon Johnson vacated the White House and the Nixon administration came into power, Weaver left government service. He briefly served as president of Baruch College before accepting a position as a distinguished professor of Urban Affairs at Hunter College in New York. He remained there until 1978.
Throughout the rest of a career that lasted for almost three decades, Dr. Weaver served on various boards and as an advisor to many organizations, including the Controller General of the United States, the New York City Conciliation and Appeals Board, the Harvard University School of Design, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He died on July 17, 1997, at age 89.
Much of Weaver’s success as a leader came from his acknowledged expertise in housing as well as economics. His educational background and many years of experience in housing policy made him the leading expert, Black or white, on the salient issues.